Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

International Rescue Committee (IRC) Refugee, Staff & Volunteer Blog

Archive for April, 2008

“Too Much Suffering” in Nepal’s Remotest Area

Posted by Peter Biro on 30 April, 2008

The police station near the Mugu airstrip, destroyed by the Maoists in 2005.
The police station near the Mugu airstrip, destroyed by the Maoists in 2005. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC
The IRC’s Peter Biro is reporting from Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries. Despite a 2006 peace accord that ended a decade of civil war, and recent elections that will help determine the country’s future, life is a daily struggle for most people in the Himalayan nation. Read all of Peter’s posts from Nepal here.

From the window of a small cargo plane filled with rice sacks and jerry cans, I get a close-up look at the magnificent Himalayan Mountains. The snow-capped peaks rise well above our cruising altitude and winds from the valleys below rock the aircraft with violent bumps of turbulence.
 
We have taken off from the town of Birendranagar in mid-western Nepal and are heading for Mugu district in the Karnali zone, the most remote region of Nepal. Hunkered down in the plane’s rear next to me, my colleague Mohan Acharya says that this area was also among the hardest-hit during the country’s long civil war between the Maoists and the Nepalese army.
 
“It is a very poor part of the country,” he says as we continue to bounce around in the turbulent Himalayan air. “Economic growth has taken place almost exclusively in urban areas. The rural economy has been more or less stagnant, especially here in the mountainous regions.”
 
There is a serious shortage of health services, clean water and nutritious food in Nepal’s western mountain communities. As a result, life expectancy in Mugu district is below 40 years, compared to 70 in the capital Kathmandu. Although the Maoist insurgency found fertile ground in these poor communities, the communist cadres drove tens of thousands of people from their homes in a campaign of terror.
 
“Both the Maoists and the Nepalese army were engaged in torture and abuses of civilians, and many people fled this area,” explains Mohan who works as an assistant protection manager for the International Rescue Committee in Birendranagar. “The Maoists demanded loyalty from people and those who disagreed with their politics were driven out. And there was also the risk of getting caught in the crossfire. Some people fled to Nepalgunj in the southern plains, others as far away as Kathmandu. Hundreds of people are still missing and are presumably dead.”
 
After the peace deal in late 2006, people gradually started to return after years of displacement. The International Rescue Committee came here to help people restart their lives by providing seeds, agricultural tools, livestock, essential household items and clothing.

One of the most isolated and impoverished areas of Nepal, life expectancy in Mugu district is below 40 years, compared to 70 in the capital Kathmandu.
One of the most isolated and impoverished areas of Nepal, life expectancy in Mugu district is
below 40 years, compared to 70 in the capital Kathmandu. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.
 
Engines roaring, the aircraft suddenly banks while making a rapid descent. Looking out through the window I cannot for the life of me work out where the pilot is putting us down. Then, barely visible in the rocky landscape, I see a short and narrow gravel strip carved into the side of a mountain. Seconds later, the pilot slams on the brakes and gives full reverse thrust. The plane comes to an abrupt halt nerve-wrackingly close to the precipice.
 
The only way to get to the villages in the Karnali area is to walk and Mohan estimates that our journey will require four days of hard trekking with few breaks. As we make our way uphill from the airstrip, we pass the ruins of a police station. The posts, often the only bastions of state authority in the countryside, were frequently targeted by the Maoist guerrillas during the ten-year conflict.
 
Struggling uphill, my eyes scan the trail for rocks and gravel that my boots could to cling to. Sweat pours down my back and I soon begin to feel the effects of the thin air, panting for breath with every step.
Her husband killed by the Maoists, Banchu Rokaya (second from left) is one of thousands who fled the Karnali area during the Nepalese civil war.
Her husband killed by the Maoists, Banchu Rokaya (second from left) is one of thousands who
fled the Karnali area during the Nepalese civil war. “This is not an uncommon story,” says
the IRC’s Mohan Acharya (right). Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.

 
After hours of walking, we stop for a break at a small shack made from mud and stones next to the mountain trail. Banchu Rokaya, a 45-year-old woman with a wool blanket thrown over her shoulders, is serving tea with hints of ginger and black pepper. One of the thousands of people who recently retuned to this area, the woman and her family were helped by the International Rescue Committee with clothes, household items and tools so that she could repair her broken house.
 
Banchu says that her life was shattered three years ago when a group of men showed up in front of the house.
 
“It was the Maoists from this area,” she says, pouring us a second cup of tea. “They accused my husband of being an informer for the army. They tied him up and took him away. After three months I found out that they had shot him and dumped his body in the Karnali River. I was afraid for the safety of my children so we decided to run away from here.”
 
A year after the peace deal that ended the war between the Maoists and the government – and after almost three years in a camp for internally displaced in the southern city of Nepalgunj – Banchu finally decided to return.
 
“We couldn’t make any money in the camp,” she explains. “At least here I have a house and some land. But I had to start all over again; when we came back here, the house was damaged and everything looted.”
 
Banchu Rokaya grows some vegetables and makes a living by offering shelter and food for people traveling on this desolate mountain path. It’s barely enough to feed her family, she says. But her biggest worry is her two sons, aged 10 and 9, who were left behind in Nepalgunj.
 
“A man came to the camp one day and told me that he would take care of my boys and help them go to school. Now I know that they are working in someone’s house without pay. I can’t have them back until I pay 20,000 rupees ($310). I don’t know anyone who could lend me the money.”
 
Mohan, who is taking notes as the woman speaks, shakes his head.
 
“We can help this woman file a complaint with the authorities,” he says as we prepare to leave for a nearby hut where we plan to spend the night. “This is not an uncommon story in this area. So many people disappeared during the conflict. And so many people struggle to get by. There is too much suffering here.”

Posted in Asia | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

A Global IRC [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 29 April, 2008

Cuban refugees in Miami
Newly arrived Cuban refugees wait in Miami for assignment to the care of American individuals and groups providing aid. Photo: The IRC
As the International Rescue Committee observes our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from IRC’s rich history each month (you can find all of his posts here):

The IRC’s founders responded to the rise of Nazi terror with swift, independent action. Thanks to the daring work of Varian Fry and others, thousands of refugees were able to escape from Nazi-occupied France. More than that, however, the IRC stayed with the suffering refugees of Europe long after the guns of World War II had fallen silent. We helped Europe’s displaced to return to their homes, and we aided the brave Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956.

By 1960, the IRC faced a crossroads. The IRC had begun as a temporary committee, arising from a crisis in Europe. The question that now arose went to the core of the IRC’s mission and was to determine its course into the 21st century. Did the IRC’s mandate extend to aiding the many thousands of refugees being driven from their homes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America?

The IRC’s leadership decided that to limit its mission to the borders of Europe would betray the impulse on which it was founded. Instead, the IRC determined that the organization had a global mission and responsibility. From 1960 to 1967, the IRC helped people fleeing Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Angola, Uganda, and Nigeria.

During those same years, the IRC began a long-term relationship with people fleeing Cuba. In 1959, rebel forces in Cuba overthrew its unpopular dictator, Fulgencio Batista. A young revolutionary by the name of Fidel Castro took control of the government. By year’s end he had drawn closer to the Soviet Union and committed a series of political executions and expulsions.

So began a new flow of refugees, one that would profoundly shape the IRC’s emerging international role.

Within a month of Castro’s rise to power, the IRC was on the scene gathering information and soon become one of the principal agencies helping Cubans to reach America, resettling more than 62,000 during the 1960s and 70s. As more and more refugees arrived in Florida, the IRC opened an office in Miami, its first resettlement office outside New York. IRC caseworkers focused on helping to find jobs, a place to live, and warm clothes for the refugees. Today, the IRC’s 25 U.S. resettlement offices carry out much the same work.

In 1969, two young Cubans hid in a wheel compartment on a jetliner bound for Madrid. One of the refugees dropped into the sea; but the other, a 17-year-old, miraculously survived the nine-hour flight. With the IRC’s sponsorship, he found a home in the United States. Then IRC president William J. vanden Heuvel reported that when asked why the young man had taken such an incredible risk, the new refugee replied, “I was looking for a better world and a new future.”

Posted in history, refugees, UnitedStates | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“We Are Listening” [How to Help]

Posted by Tim Lash - IRC on 28 April, 2008

Kevin Sites
Photo: DR Congo, courtesy Kevin Sites hotzone.yahoo.com
Karin Wachter, who serves as IRC’s Gender-Based Violence Technical Advisor, testified about sexual violence against women and girls recently before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. Here is an excerpt of Karin’s moving testimony on Capitol Hill:

I wish I could share with you the voices, concerns and hopes of the tens of thousands of women and girls who come forward for help, having been assaulted, tortured, humiliated and disabled simply for having been born female and getting caught in the cross-fire of war.

I started working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in eastern Congo, where, already back in 2002, women were talking about not the one time they were brutally sexually assaulted, but about the third or fourth time… In the past six years, I have seen firsthand the sexual and physical violence against women and girls in 10 different conflict-affected African countries. We would not be exaggerating to call this violence a global human rights, public health and security crisis. The perpetration of sexual violence is both a tactic of warfare, and an opportunistic consequence of conflict and displacement…

Addressing violence against women in conflict is smart foreign policy and the American people care more about this issue than we may think. When the IRC launched a web-based petition to help garner support for the IVAWA bill, a surprisingly high number of the 50,000 Americans who signed the petition also wrote a personal note, expressing their sincere concern about violence against women and girls in conflict. This unexpected outpouring of concern led us to launch a modest e-advocacy campaign, in which the general public was invited to write words of encouragement to Congolese women and the local activists and organizations working to assist them. Within 10 days of launching the campaign, we had 2,779 people who wrote messages of support in response to the crisis in DRC.

Please permit me to share two examples of what people wrote:

A woman from New York wrote: “There are few words that can express the nature of the horrible wrongs which you face every day. We all have the right to safety and respect. Continue to speak out of the injustices and the violations of your souls. We are listening…”

A man from Virginia wrote: “We are writing our leaders and sending funds to help. I have also included your story in my blog. I hope that we can make a difference. I am remembering you when I vote and write Congress. I hope that the U.S. can become a force to help you in the Congo.”

The full text and audio of Karin’s testimony is available on the Senate Web site. Please urge your Senators to support the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) by taking action now. You can also send a message to Congolese women who have survived sexual violence.

Posted in Africa, howtohelp, war, women | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Poorest of Nepal’s Poor

Posted by Peter Biro on 23 April, 2008

Kamaiya, Nepal
Despite a government ban on bonded labour in 2000, life for the former bonded labourers, or Kamaiya, has hardly improved. Chediya’s simple clay dwellings are built on infertile and unattractive land, temporarily given to the Kamayia by the government. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC
The IRC’s Peter Biro is reporting from Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries. Despite a 2006 peace accord that ended a decade of civil war, and elections that will help determine the country’s future, life is a daily struggle for most people in the Himalayan nation. Read all of Peter’s posts from Nepal here.

The sun has barely risen over the arid fields of Chediya, a village inhabited by one of the poorest and most neglected groups in Nepal. Known as Kamaiya, the people here are former bonded labourers. For generations, the Kamaiya had to work under slave-like conditions on plantations to repay debts that had been passed from one generation to another.Most of them remained illiterate and were never certain when, or if, their debt had been paid off. As a result, they remained in perpetual servitude. The system is deeply rooted in the complex caste system in Nepal which discriminates against groups identified as “untouchable” by higher castes.As we walk around the dirt track that runs through the village, flanked by simple clay dwellings, Virendra Singh Thaguna, programme manager with the International Rescue Committee, says that despite a government ban on bonded labour in 2000, life for the Kamaiya has hardly improved.

“Like here in Chediya, they have been given temporary land by the government,” he says. “But the houses are very bad and the land is infertile and unattractive.”

The bank of the Karnali River is just a stone’s throw away and every year the 4,000 people here are forced by seasonal flooding to leave their houses and sleep out in the open in a nearby forest. Poverty is rampant and many of the villagers see no other option but to go back and work for their former landlords for a pittance.

“The government freed these people without a back-up plan, Virendra sighs. “They have very few options now.”

The IRC has tried to make life easier for the villagers by setting up small-scale vegetable gardens and distributing household articles and livestock, such as goats.
 
Ramkrishni Tharu, a woman in her late 40s who lives in a mud hut with a straw roof, was released from her landlord only three years ago. During her years in servitude, she received small rations of food and rudimentary shelter in return for backbreaking work in her employer’s fields.

“We were often beaten by our landlord,” Ramkrishni tells me. “When we were finally freed I moved to this place. I cut bamboo and collected mud and the men helped me construct this house. I have very little money but at least I can decide over my own life.”

Ramkrishni makes less than two dollars per day, mainly by transporting heavy loads on her back for the local farmers. She grows a small vegetable garden outside her house and an IRC-donated goat is grazing in the shrubs. The villagers will breed the animals and share them with the community, Virendra explains. 

Although desperately poor, the community has seen many things change for the better. A large communal vegetable garden is providing much-needed additional food for the most needy.

The IRC has helped Chediya’s inhabitants organize themselves in a village council, which is debating and organizing the development of the community.

The IRC has helped Chediya’s inhabitants organize themselves in a village council, which is
debating and organizing the development of the community. “This is very important for us,” says the
council chairman, Raju Choudri. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC

And with the assistance of the IRC, Chediya’s inhabitants are now organised in a village council, which is debating and organising the development of the community. Virendra tells me that its members, who have been elected by the people of Chediya, have just gone through an IRC training programme where they were taught bookkeeping and how to write formal proposals for funding, which will be submitted to the local government and aid groups.

“This is very important for us,” says the council chairman, Raju Choudri. “We have never asked for aid before, because we didn’t know the process.”

The council has just submitted a proposal to the local authorities. It is to fund a dam project that will prevent the banks of the river from overflowing, Raju says.

“We are just too tired of moving.”

Posted in Asia, photos | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

IRC in NY Times: “The U.S. must lead and it is failing”

Posted by The IRC on 23 April, 2008

Iraqis in Jordan
Photo: Melissa Winkler/The IRC
In an opinion piece in yesterday’s New York Times, the International Rescue Committee says Iraqi refugees are living in deplorable and declining conditions in Syria and Jordan.

“They are clustered not in camps but in overcrowded urban neighborhoods, crammed into dark, squalid apartments,” say the four co-authors, all of whom took part in a recent IRC delegation to the Middle East. “Many have been traumatized by extreme violence. Their savings are dwindling; many cannot afford to pay for rent, heat and food; few have proper medical care.””There is no denying that the United States has a special responsibility to help,” the co-authors say. “The sectarian violence these Iraqi refugees fled is a byproduct of the invasion and its chaotic aftermath.”

The op-ed outlines critical steps the United States and the international community should take to address the humanitarian emergency. Please read this urgent call for action in the New York Times and send it to family and friends.

ALSO IN THE NEWS

A cover article in yesterday’s USA Today spotlights the small number of Iraqi refugees being granted refuge in the United States. The story is set in Boise, Idaho, one of nearly 20 U.S. locations where the IRC is helping newly arrived Iraqi refugees:

HOW TO HELP

Millions of Iraqis have had to flee horrific violence. You can speak out for the innocent bystanders of the Iraq conflict. Please add your name to our pledge to aid desperate and uprooted Iraqis and spread the word about their plight.

Thank you for making a difference in the lives of vulnerable Iraqi families.

Posted in howtohelp, MiddleEast, news, refugees, war | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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