Erin Byrnes is a journalist from Montreal. She is currently filming a documentary about  post-conflict media and women's rights in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For updates about the film you can follow her at @mariebyrnes.

Erin Byrnes is a journalist from Montreal. She is currently filming a documentary about  post-conflict media and women's rights in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For updates about the film you can follow her at @mariebyrnes.

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A voice for the voiceless in DRC

Seraphine Mapendo interviews a woman in Walungu, South Kivu.

Photo by Erin Byrnes.

Séraphine Mapendo picks out a long red, black and white tunic with a square collar and matches it with a cap and a pair of capris. She is reporting on a story outside the city.

‘You must wear pants because you never know if you could be ambushed and need to run fast,’ she says. ‘And if you’re in a pagne, (traditional skirt or dress) you could fall. You look for ways to adapt.’

While reporters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may adjust to their circumstances, some refuse to accept limits to what they can report on. Journalists here have lost their lives because they would not stay silent about injustice and corruption. This prompted Reporters Without Borders to release a damning report in 2009 condemning the capital of South Kivu, Bukavu, as ‘Murder City.’

Determined rather than dissuaded, in December of the next year, a small group of reporters from South Kivu formed Journalists for Promoting Democracy and Human Rights (JPDDH). Their rights-focused approach highlights the disconnect between human rights laws and the abuses that broach them.

Some male journalists said they'd not reported the case of a woman raped by six men as the survivor shouldn’t have been talking about it

‘Impunity in Congo is a fact of daily life,’ says JPDDH Coordinator Prince Murhula, listing the names of assassinated journalists and deploring the lack of due process in their cases. ‘Often, justice is not neutral or impartial, in the sense that people peddle their influence and politicians interfere in the legal process.’

JPDDH covers stories that many other news outlets overlook or, because of their religious or political affiliation, decide not to tell. They work against entrenched discriminatory attitudes, speaking up for marginalized groups such as the indigenous Pygmy people and broaching sensitive social issues like marriage between people of different faiths. The reports and radio programs they produce are published on their website and broadcast by radio stations in South Kivu.

They have received accolades from the United Nations and Journalists for Human Rights, a Canadian NGO that recognized Prince for his story about the rights of children conceived through rape.

Meagre resources

Despite these endorsements, independent journalism remains relatively unprofitable and this grassroots organization struggles to survive. Last month, they pooled their personal savings to keep the office up and running. The journalists meet around a small wooden table to discuss story ideas and run practical training for interns. A person facing the small desk must stand up behind the closed door to allow someone else to enter.

There is no postal service, power cuts are regular, the internet is slow and, because users pay by the minute, very expensive. Travel is often limited to hitching rides with NGOs and a couple of quick local calls can easily cost a euro in phone credit. This is significant as full-time journalists holding coveted positions may only earn 20 to 40 euro ($25 to $50) a week.

Prince Murhula and colleague Justin Akenge of JPDDH.

Photo by Erin Byrnes.

As the President of JPDDH, Séraphine Mapendo works with a tight group of colleagues and friends who recognize her talent and ability. At her last job her employer asked her to get her husband’s permission to leave the office to conduct interviews.

On a recent overnight trip to Walungu in South Kivu, she produced three stories related to health, gender-based violence and women’s rights. Some male journalists who were also in town laughed as they told her that they had not reported the case of a woman who was raped by six men. They said the survivor shouldn’t have been talking about it.

‘In society, the problems of women are considered as just their problem, not as real social problems,’ Séraphine says. In many communities, women aren’t supposed to meet a man’s eyes and women who speak their minds are seen as indecent.

Staying neutral

In 2011 – a year that saw a contested election leave at least one newsroom in flames, Radio France Internationale suspended from the airwaves and texting outlawed – Journalists in Danger (JED) reported 160 attacks on press freedom, ranging from censorship to murder.

In a country devastated by conflicts between local and foreign militias, it's hard to keep perspective

Prince says many journalists lost their objectivity during the disputed elections in November. In a country devastated by war and localized conflicts that continue to rage between local and foreign militias, it is hard to keep perspective. ‘The big challenge is trying to separate emotion, passion and profession,’ he says.

In an open letter to editors and media directors, Prince called on his fellow journalists to maintain their professional standards in an effort to stem the angry broadcasts that threatened to escalate the violence.

When Prince or Séraphine approaches a stranger on the street, bonds are quickly formed. ‘From the radio!’ interviewees exclaim upon hearing their names, suddenly reassured and willing to speak.

Their integrity and professionalism has earned them respect on all sides of a province marked by deep divisions and conflict.

‘This is a job with a lot of risks,’ says Séraphine. But, for her and the other journalists at JPDDH, their work is worth the pain and sacrifice. It provides a voice for the voiceless, raises awareness of overlooked issues, teaches people their rights and encourages a culture of peace and accountability.

Then there is the undeniable drive to chase down stories

‘I do it because I love it,’ says Séraphine.

Is the UN doing enough to keep peace in the Congo?

MONUSCO peacekeepers on patrol in DRC.

Photo by UN/Sylvain Liechti.

The little girl is staring at the foreigners with great interest – their serious expressions, bright bayonets clasped at their sides, synchronized steps as they march past their South Kivu headquarters.

‘Blow kisses to MONUSCO,’ the girl’s mother says with a shade of sarcasm as the Pakistani peacekeepers pass their taxi on the gravel road. The wide-eyed toddler continues to smile and stare out the car window, oblivious to the tension between the casques bleus (blue helmets) and the people they are there to protect.

On 27 June, the UN Security Council unanimously renewed the mandate of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), affirming that the world’s second-largest peacekeeping mission would be spending another year in the country.

But despite having a budget of almost $1.5 billion a year and almost 20,000 uniformed staff, the force that replaced MONUC in 2010 continues to attract international criticism for being toothless. In the Congo, the strained relationship between troops and civilians has culminated in violent confrontations where people on both sides have been injured or killed.


Before dawn on 13 May, rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) attacked a sleeping village in Kamananga, South Kivu. They indiscriminately killed adults and children in reprisal for an attack perpetuated by the Raïa Mutomboki, a local militia formed as a self-defence group. The UN base wasn’t far away and the next day outraged citizens attacked the peacekeepers with stones and the Raïa Mutomboki opened fire. Eleven peacekeepers were injured.

Here in Bukavu, people say that when the peacekeepers are witnessing a massacre they don’t pick up arms, they pick up the phone to call their headquarters.

‘The population of Bunyakiri was massacred in view of MONUSCO,’ says Adolphine Muley, who works with indigenous Pygmy communities and was on her way to Bunyakiri when she heard the news. She, like many others, argues that it makes little sense for peacekeepers to remain in the DR Congo to monitor violence if they don’t intervene to prevent it.

In 2004, when rebels occupied the city of Bukavu, South Kivu, the peacekeepers took no military action to stop the killings. According to news reports, they only fired their guns at civilians who were protesting against MONUSCO inaction, killing three people. Here in Bukavu, people say that when the peacekeepers are witnessing a massacre they don’t pick up arms, they pick up the phone to call their headquarters in Kinshasa.

While working on a documentary about peacekeeping operations, Jolly Kamuntu, Director of Radio Maendeleo in South Kivu, encountered many people who were angry with a mission they felt had lost credibility by failing to protect vulnerable people from violence. ‘It’s true,’ she says of the lack of protection, but is quick to point out that intervening in certain situations would require them to violate their mandate. ‘MONUSCO is not there to replace the Congolese State.’

Lost credibility

Kamuntu believes that the peacekeepers have done positive things for the country, including securing the country’s first democratic election and protecting journalists like herself who faced death threats on a regular basis. ‘If people are accustomed to the electoral process, it is because of MONUSCO,’ she says.

But while the UN may have facilitated the transition to democracy, they also lost credibility by facilitating the November election where incumbent President Joseph Kabila garnered another term in office at the expense of heading a credible democracy.

Children from Congo's east, living in fear of Rwandan FDLR militia attacks.

Photo by Julien Harneis under a CC Licence.

Roger Kamanyula, a UN translator from South Kivu who works with a Pakistani military brigade, is at a critical intersection between the peacekeepers and Congolese citizens. He says that the mission has a good relationship with civilians but many people simply don’t understand their mandate.

‘Many think that MONUSCO is there to take the gun and try to run after armed groups whether they are internal or foreign armed groups,’ he says, clarifying that peacekeepers are in a support role to the Congolese army (FARDC) and police.

Killing in silence

In North Kivu, the M23 movement – a rebel group largely composed of army mutineers led by indicted war criminal Bosco Ntaganda – is gaining ground on the provincial capital of Goma. Since April, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the violence. As soldiers from the Congolese army desert their posts en masse, MONUSCO may begin to take a more aggressive stance against the M23.

The revised mandate condemns the mutiny and ‘all outside support to all armed groups’ but it stops short of mentioning UN and Human Rights Watch findings about the support from Rwanda. The first priority remains the protection of civilians, with the stipulation that security sector reform is at the forefront of the stabilization and peace consolidation mandate.

Mulay has a hard time believing that nobody heard the sound of 42 people being murdered while their village burned. ‘People don’t die in silence, they try to defend themselves’

After the massacre and attack, Kamanyula went to Bunyakiri with the UN troops to translate meetings between the peacekeepers and the local population. While he says that the presence of peacekeepers can deter violence he also suspects that rebel groups may seek out UN bases.

‘The perpetrators massacred near MONUSCO base,’ he says. ‘They want to create conflict between the locals and MONUSCO.’

He says that the peacekeepers would have intervened but because the killing happened more than a kilometre away from the UN base and the FDLR killed people with knives and machetes, instead of firearms, the peacekeepers didn’t know what was happening.

Adolphine Muley has a hard time believing that nobody heard the sound of, by her account, 42 people being murdered while their village burned. ‘People don’t die in silence, they try to defend themselves,’ she says.

Whether or not people in the Congo will see concrete changes to peacekeeping operations in the next year, Muley has no choice but to focus on the here and now. The community around Bunyakiri was struggling before the massacre and now some of the children who survived don’t have parents to raise them.

These concerns are compounded by the fact that real peace is still a distant hope.

‘You can say that the war in Congo is over,’ she says with a wry smile. ‘But nowhere in the east is calm.’

The shoe-sellers of Bukavu

At the cacophonous intersection of Marche Feu Rouge and Avenue Lumumba in Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the asphalt fades into packed earth, which is covered with a blanket of brightly colored women’s shoes.

About twenty women have set up shop here to earn a living and cater to a fashion-conscious city, where people aspire to move out of the shadow of conflict and into better times.

Each pair of shoes on display is different from the next: black leather ankle booties, neon orange stilettos, classic pumps and sandals adorned with delicate bows. They line the sides of the avenue, extending in rows ten pairs deep and carrying the brands of well-known upscale retailers and discount stores. They look new, aside from a few scuff marks on the soles.

The women selling the shoes rest on stools behind their displays, laughing, talking, plucking heels from the wall behind them and chucking them to customers. When there are no customers, they remain seated, sandals kicked off. The evenings are cool during the dry season and the women are bundled up in sweaters and wrapped in yards of colorful fabric.

Antonne Chikwanine has spent half her life working here. She prefers the stability of Feu Rouge intersection to her previous work, when she would pace the city trying to sell what she could carry, with a single exemplar shoe balanced on her head.  

She enjoys selling shoes and speaking with customers in what she calls her ‘office’. Even if, sometimes, after weeks spent traveling to Uganda – where she selects and buys these colourful treasures – she makes just a fraction more than she paid for them. People in Bukavu, well versed in this precarious existence, refer to this daily scraping by as ‘le taux du jour’.

Another vendor, Clarysse Kungiwa (pictured right) has been coming to Feu Rouge six days a week for the last 12 years. Before setting off for work each day, she has already said her morning prayers, fed and dressed her four school-age children, completed her housework and prepared dinner for their return.

About five or six times a year, she makes the journey to the Ugandan capital Kampala to buy second-hand shoes with a group of women. They make the 16-hour trip along the legendarily eroded tropical roads, with all the money they have savedup to buy the next load of merchandise.

The women will spend up to a week scouring the markets of Kampala for quality shoes that will appeal to the women of Bukavu, sleeping six to a room. Clarysse’s only complaint is that it is tiring work.

The women do their best trade during the dry summer months. This is party season, when people come looking for footwear to match their clothing and accessories, en route to weddings and other events. Vendors keep a selection of brightly coloured shoes as hopeful matches for the traditional pangas that women often wear to work and church.

High-school student Francine Mushingo (pictured below) doesn’t have a special occasion in mind for the shoes she’s clutching. She leans in to discuss the price with the seller, in hushed tones. Sporting zebra print earrings, black harem pants and three colours of neon stripes through her curly hair, Mushingo pleads for a lower price. ‘I love the shoes here!’ she says, before walking away smiling with a pair of silver platformed wedges, with hot-pink straps.

On a bad day, a vendor won’t sell a single pair of shoes. But Clarysse says that there are also days when she can sell five or more.

She picks up a low-heeled sandal and states her preference for flatter shoes over the many stilettos on her stall. ‘They hurt,’ she says. With first a shy glance and then a loud laugh, Clarysse reveals the number of pairs of shoes that she owns herself: TEN.

All photographs by Erin Byrnes. Captions in order of appearance: Feu Rouge vendors,  shoe-seller Clarysse Kungiwa and shoe shopper Francine Mushingo.

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