Monday, June 29, 2015

Caught in the crossfire

The stories of human sufferings in an unjust world are often subsumed in dominant political-economy discourses that focus on resource extraction as a means of so-called human development. 

Charlie Hebdo killings may have moved the world but continuing massacre in Congo has largely gone unnoticed. The decade-old conflict between the government forces and the rebels, which some observers call ‘Africa’s World War’, has consumed millions of lives. Despite the presence of a transitional government in recent years, people in many parts of the country remain in fear of continuing death, rape or displacement.

Dealing with the crises of survival amidst the horror of bloody war in Congo, human rights activist Lisa Shannon, author of the much acclaimed 'A Thousand Sisters', has pieced together stories of survivors in Mama Koko & The Hundred Gunmen.  Far from being silenced by the whirlwind of tragic history, the survivors offer compelling testimony to the strength of human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity. Risking her own life, the author has documented her subjects’ unending ordeal that may serve as a call for global action to end human carnage in central Africa.

The story is set in Dungu, a town located at the confluence of the Dungu and Kibali rivers, which has been a war-zone ever since Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) relocated from Sudan and set itself up in Garamba National Park in 2008. LRA ranks may have dwindled in recent years but the spiral of violence has killed more than two thousand people and displaced half a million population. The collapse of local government and failure of international peace efforts has made locals vulnerable to attacks and distrusting of their own leaders and army.

Caught in this crossfire is Mama Koko’s large family, their lives paralyzed by some hundred gunmen camped at the edge of the town. With death stalking the family members, they nonetheless gather courage to narrate their horrifying tales to Shannon and contribute to her human rights campaign for protecting the women in Congo. Interrupted by sounds of gunshots and disrupted by news of encounters, Shannon learns that ‘the choices under pressure are the only true measure of character’. The harshness and beauty of humanity co-exist in this war-torn region, offering portraits of the indomitable human spirit.

Mama Koko’s son Nico may not have perished had he not been wearing the fancy wrist watch gifted by his sister Francisca. But that was not to be as the Congolese army officers wanted it after one amongst them had spotted the precious watch on Nico’s wrist while he was out in the Bangadi market. With little support from its own army, the family had no time to grieve as the marauding rebels were not too far to annihilate them. Striking a balance between personal tragedies and impersonal forces, Shannon has held herself back from direct engagement while reporting the gruesome events unfolding before her.

It’s never easy for a writer to negotiate the bloody shakeup of history. Far from being silenced or rendered speechless by the complicated political transformation, Shannon chose to narrate the compelling stories as vital testimonies to reflect on the role each one of us can play. On purpose, the author stayed away from the complex history of the ongoing system of violence in Congo. Through the personal story of Mama Koko and her family, discerning readers are encouraged to deepen their understanding of Congo and Joseph Kony’s endurance as a self-proclaimed prophet, rendering Joseph Conrad’s Heart-of-Darkness, published in 1899, a contemporary meaning.

Shannon’s emphasis in Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen is on extraordinary tale of a marginal family, caught amidst the crossfire for power and control. The cruel irony is that the story is set in a country that is one of the most mineral-rich regions on the planet. Ever since the repressive regime of King Leopold of Belgium took control of Congo in the nineteenth century, the Congolese men and women have been the victims of unending wars for ownership of their country’s future. Shannon must be credited for bringing to life the stories of human sufferings in an unjust world, which are often subsumed in dominant political-economy discourses that focus on resource extraction as a means of so-called human development.

Mama Koko & the Hundred Gunmen
by Lisa J. Shannon
Public Affairs, New York
Extent: 213, Price: $24.99

This review was first published in Deccan Herald on June 28, 2015

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