Thursday, February 21, 2013

Trapped in Refuge and Human Rights

            Armindo, Ramos’s best friend and cousin arrived from the states today with his wife Gina. They are close family friends and we spend just about every holiday together with their family. They were only staying for a week, so their schedule is packed with activities. Fortunately for me, I get to tag along.
            The first day was very political. First, we stopped by the PAIGC office, which is something I’ve been meaning to do since I’ve gotten here. The PAIGC is a  political organization created by Amilcar Cabral that governed Guinea Bissau from independence up until the late 1990's. Here I met generals who had fought in the War for Independence, one of them being Theodora ( I forget her last name). She is one of the 5 women who played a major role in the revolution, another being Francisca Perreria, who is Armindo’s counsin.
            Armindo’s brother is, or was, the Minister of Fisheries in Guinea Bissau. Somehow, someway, his car was found amongst others during the unsuccessful counter coup, so the military and government officials in power now think he is against them. To remove him as a threat to their power his life was threatened and he has taken refugee at the European Union. He has been there since October, which is about 5 months now. We made our way to Quelele where all the Embassy’s are to visit him and 2 other men who are also refugees at the EU.
            But before we went in, we stopped at the UN office because Armindo had written a letter to the UN head of Human Rights in Bissau and wanted to present it. Due to the nature of the conflict here, I’m not at liberty to give details about whom exactly we spoke with, but I walked away from the conversation with a whole new perspective about the situation in Bissau. One thing became clear: there needs to be more value to a human life, which is most often the collateral damage to the political instability.
            Bissau’s history after they won their independence has been shrouded in military coups and civil wars. I still don’t even know the complete history, but this current military coup has left many people dead and those who are alive are living in fear. Citizens can’t do anything to counter the situation because, as I mentioned, life is not given the same value and you just might get yourself killed. Journalists can’t speak about what’s really happening because of this same fear. So on the surface, Bissau seems calm, but on the ground there are numerous human rights offences occurring every day.
            The US has no interest in dealing with or helping the situation in Bissau for  two reasons that was said explicitly to Armindo by US government official. The US has no economic interest here in Bissau and the drug trafficking that is happening doesn’t directly affect the US. Other countries are also benefiting from Guinea Bissau’s political instability and don’t want anything to change either. As such, investors can come in and rape the land of its resources while displacing thousands of people and negatively impacting the environment. The environmental issue is key here because the Sahara desert is expanding due to global warming .  If environmental precautions aren't taken, the lushness of Bissau could easily become a desert, mirroring its neighboring countries Senegal and Guinea Conakry.
            Bissau has a population of 1.5 million.  It is a very small country, but in relation to the size of guinea, the amount of human rights offences could parallel Afgahanistan or other big countries experiencing human rights abuses on a large scale. Human rights offences here aren’t 50 people getting blown up on a bus. If that was the case, then maybe Bissau would receive some international attention. Human rights abuses here are genital mutilation, violence, gender discrimination and lack of access to basic human needs like education and food and proper health care. Infant and mother mortality rates are the highest here then in other countries in West Africa.  
            There are horror stories that happen here that go untold to the national and international community that reflect the reality of the political situation. One story I heard was about the tragedy of pregnant women. She was in labor at a church in one of the villages when she started experiencing major complications. This was April 16th, four days after the military coup of 2012. Because of the coup, tensions in the country were high due to the recent violence and political shift. The resources at the church were not enough to support the women, so they volunteered their church ambulance to rush the women to the nearest hospital. The hospital in the capital, Bissau, was too far away and they didn’t think the women would last the drive, So the amblance took her to Zigishour in Senegal. When she arrived at the Guinea- Senegal border the military wouldn’t let her cross for fear that the ambulance was carrying politicians trying to escape the country.  With no other option, the ambulance was forced to return to the church. When it arrived, the mother and child were found dead in the back of the ambulance.
            If something like this happened in the US there would be mass uproars, but here similar situations come and go with the wind.
            Walking away from this conversation I was awe struck. I had been totally blinded from  the human rights abuses that were happening. I was given the 2010-2012 UN Human Rights Summary for Bissau and in thumbing through it came across many things I didn’t know where going on.  In reflecting on my past experiences with human rights in mind, a lot of things I had encountered suddenly made more sense.
            As if that conversation weren’t enough to dwell on, next we spoke with Thomas Barbosa and the 2 other men who are in refugee at the EU office. This conversation was in creole, so I understood a lot less of it, but most of it was just Armindo catching up with him and making sure he was ok.  He is a free man but cant leave, which is exactly where the Guinean Government want him.  Five months is along time to spend in the same place and more then anything else, it is mentally trying. Its the same thing every day, he can't see his family, and he can't leave the compound. They are just sitting and waiting for things to blow over.
            While at the EU office we had the opportunity to speak with the Ambassador of the European Union to the Republic of Guinea Bissau, Joaquin Gonzalez-Ducay. The ambassador is a Spaniard and that speaks fluent English. He explained further Armindo's brother's situation and ensured that they would be welcome to stay at the EU as long as need be. They are waiting for diplomacy from the Guinean government and a written document ensuring the safey of their lives if they were to leave the EU compound. Until then, they are trapped in refuge. 
            Armindo and his wife wrote a letter pleading for the US ambassador in Senegal to take some interest in the situation here in Bissau. The US does not have an Embassy in Bissau and so Senegal acts as Bissau's embassy. The Ambasssador offered to forward the letter directly to the US Embassy in hopes that he might be interested in focusing on some of the issues here. 
            Armindo here and Armindo in the US seemed to me to be 2 different men. I wondered where all this activism was coming from. But I realized the situation here is more then political for him, its also personal. Many of his family members are or were in politics or government. His older sister, in addition to his younger brother Thomas who I just mentioned, is also a political refugee. Nucha Barbosa is or was Guinea Bissau's equivilant of the head of FBI and was probably the biggest political agent against the drug trafficking. The military are essentially the ones conducting the trafficking and the recent coup put a military puppet in power. After the coup she was put on a hit list and her house was bombed. She fled the country and is waiting, like her brother, for the ok to return.


  1. Hi Aliesha,

    Are you currently still in Guinea Bissau? I'm an American student also and am very interested in the country. I'm currently working in Dakar.

    -K. Benjamin

    1. Hi!

      I am still in Bissau. Are you thinking of heading this way? What's your interest in Bissau? And what kind of work are you doing in Dakar?


  2. Hey Aliesha,

    I work for ISS here in Dakar, we are an Africa based analysis center that analyzes humanitarian and security risks in sub-saharan Africa. ( Yes, I am really interested to come to Bissau. If you're willing, can we chat via email or gchat sometime: I return back to NY in August.