Fighting In Congo Forces Women To Trek For Days Or Watch Children Starve

Families look on in the Kanyaruchinya camp
Families look on in the Kanyaruchinya camp
Alain Wandimoyi and Vincent de Paul Rushago

GOMA - They look tired and drawn, weeks of suffering written across their faces. "We haven't had any assistance since we arrived: nothing to eat, no toilets, no medical treatment," says Mandevu Amani, a church minister who has fled the Kimumba camp.

Since July 7, thousands of families have come to settle in the Kanyaruchinya camp near the eastern Congolese city of Goma. They have walked up to 50 kilometers to flee the fighting between the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) and the March 23 Movement (M23) rebels.

This is the latest human toll from the fighting that broke out this spring in the eastern region of North Kivu over disputes around the implementation of a 2009 peace agreement that integrated National Congress Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels into the national army. The United Nations esimates that the violence has displaced nearly half a million people since April.

Musekura Théo, president of displaced persons in the camp, says 13,835 families have been registered by the North Kivu Civil Protection. Five people have already died, including two children suffering from diarrhea and dehydration, and another who starved to death. "There are so many problems that we just don't know how to manage," Théo said.

The civil protection has constructed a few basic shelters but victims are still waiting for sufficient humanitarian assistance: "We are asking the government to do everything they can to stop the war, because we can't stay here any longer," says Théo. "We need to return to our villages to deal with our crops, our livelihood."

Now that they have fled, their only chance of surviving is to stock up on supplies back home. "We left our homes in Kibumba in the Nyiragongo territory after the M23 attacks against the FARDC. We've been here for three weeks now without receiving assistance," says refugee Paul Nzabanita. "So we have to send our wives into the villages to find supplies and look after the fields. We're dying of hunger here and the M23 will only let us pass if we give them some of our harvest."

Women are being sent because they arouse less suspicion from the M23 rebels, with men facing the risk of being accused of working for the FARDC or of being spies. "It's no longer possible for us to go home," explains Laurent Bandoraho, from the Rugari group. "It's too difficult for us to go back in the fields, now that they're controlled by the rebels. They're forcibly recruiting men and children."

The women have to cross dozens of kilometers - sometimes more than three days of walking - to get supplies and come back. "I'm alone here with my two children," explains Ingabire Murekumbanze. "Fearing that they may die, I decided to return home to bring back something to eat."

The return trip was made even more difficult because of harrassment and extortion from both the M23 and the FARDC forces. "They insulted me," Murekumbanze said. "I had to give some of my supplies so they would let me pass."

Inevitably, the few supplies that the women bring back do not last long, and they soon have to leave in search of food outside the camp. "Our children are dying," pleads Désiré Ahorinyuze, who is also from Kibumba. "The authorities have to do something so that we can go back home."

The urgency to return is even greater for a population used to living off the land: they know that harvest time is just around the corner.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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