Archive for September, 2015

What happened to the Congolese doctor who dared report brutal rapes by government soldiers?

September 13, 2015

Another story of courage as posted by me originally at http://secondchancesla.weebly.com/ Some details are graphic.

I am Matadi Mayo and I want to tell my story because it’s not only about what happened to me but to many women in my country. Congo. Democratic Republic of Congo. DRC.

Being a doctor was always my dream. When I was little, every single individual in my street was calling me when they have a problem or some injury. They were calling me “doctor” when I was the age of six or seven or eight. I was even writing on all my books Doctor Doctor and people are telling me I’m débile–weak in the head. Crazy. They did not know that the dream can come true. End of story: I became a doctor.

A doctor's hands

A doctor’s hands


I did my residency and then I have to tell you that people from all over Congo and even other countries in Africa would come to my hospital for the good medical care. In the hospital we always speak in the language of the patient. It’s very important in Africa to know how to communicate in different languages–the official language, French, but also our other local languages.

So I always talked to the patient. I was always interested in their history. One lady came, she was about 20. She came with a fracture of humerus left upper arm. She had a fracture and she had a lot of abrasions, wounds and injuries, bruises, on her body and I ask why does she have this. She said she was raped. The soldiers they came–four or five government soldiers–and they rape and also introduce bottles in the vagina.

She was one I remember but many times we received women from the east part of the country where the war was in Goma, Kivu, next to Rwanda, and they were raped. The soldiers think they are above the law and also they were using things like certain instruments, wood, iron to rape. Sometimes I see fistula so bad urine and stools mix together and they can go out through the vagina. From germs and bacteria this brings a lot of complications like infections and if we don’t act quickly the patient will die.

Some of the patients they are rejected by their family. Go far from here! because they think she has been raped so she has AIDS. The oldest woman I saw who was raped, she was 75 years old and her family rejected her. I gave her the HIV test and it was negative.

It was really sad, really really sad. The women lose heart. They need psychological help to gain some confidence again. They feel they are useless. They are not important now to society. And for the soldiers, no punishment, nothing. These are soldiers and people in high-up position and so they do it and know nobody is going to follow up the situation. It’s not a secret. You can go today and Google and find all the things that I’m saying.

But I have responsibility for my patients. I was putting myself in their shoes and so I have to do something good for them. I’m just a little person. Maybe my voice can’t be listened to but if not me, who is going to do it? So I spoke out.

That was when the secret police sent me a summons.

The secret police, they know all about you even though you do not know them. They have the people they give money so they could tell about you. They have the communications. They are watching you. They follow you, knowing your life, how everything is going, they know your family.

They ask me, Why you want to spoil the image of the country? I could not contain myself. I tell them This is not how you want for your mother, your sister. How would you feel? One of them beat me so bad, my face was all swollen, and they put me in the jail. I’m telling you: Do not go to jail in Africa! In the place was too dark and they have feces all over and they make me pick them up with my hands, can you imagine that?

When they release me, I go to my parents and I have to tell them what is going on. They say, Your presence here is the risk for us so I went to hide. Also I went to work at a different hospital and change my appearance so they could not recognize me.

Communication with my parents was difficult and careful because the secret police might listen. They can tell where calls come from and who calls. So I was taking SIM card and changing it and changing my voice so people cannot understand this is me.

But I wanted to see my family. One day I started to go there and a group of people come to me. With knives in their hand and they say, You are destroying the image of the country. They took me and they told me to put off my clothes. They have a hammer and they beat me and they say, When we beat you, you will say ‘I will not spoil the image of my country.’ So I have to say the same thing, over and over while they was beating me. I will not spoil the image of my country. I will not spoil the image of my country.

Look, you can see on my legs. These ones. And here more scars. And on back. And they beat me with chains. They was beating me all the time and then I wasn’t able to repeat what they want because I was crying. The last thing was they tortured me with electricity. After that, I don’t know what happened. I found myself in the hospital.

How I get away, it’s a long story, but I have a family member, someone I didn’t know well. He lives here, Los Angeles, and he accepted me to live with him. But I’m telling you it’s not easy. Everything I have to buy I have to ask like a baby from him. I can’t contribute and we are four people in the room so it’s hard.

I want to reach out my hand to give, not to take. But it is so sad to not practice my profession. I feel very sad that I can’t help people with the knowledge that I have.

In my country I work with international health organizations and I had all the credentials, but how to be licensed to practice in the United States, this I don’t know. Everybody tell me it’s a long process. At Kaplan University in Pasadena they told me I have to pay $18,000 to be in the training and if I pass the test, that is Step One only. I don’t know how to get this money. I am looking for other people who have this experience so they can share with me what they have done. Is there some other way, without $18,000? So where to go? Where to knock? Who will help me to open the doors? If only somebody would know the good way, who could say Knock here.

A lot of people, even friends, they discourage you. They say you can forget about what you did before. Here you become somebody else.

But I will do it. I know I can.

What keep me focused–two things. The speech of our president, where he spoke “Hope is what led me here today.” Yes, I call Obama my president because I am living here and I am included. He said, “There is hope in ordinary people to do extraordinary things.” And I know I’m ordinary people.

Second thing, the Bible. So, Hope and Faith.

But sometimes, I feel useless.

I think about my family and it’s hard. When I was there, with the money I was making, I was helping my mother. I was providing. Now not very often I am able to talk to her. International calling cost some money, so it’s hard. She says, We need to see you. That’s the heart of a mother and I miss her too much. She’s crying while she talks to me.

Now she is selling firewood. Imagine that. Mother of a doctor selling firewood.

Trafficking Fiction: US Novelists on Mexico and Colombia

September 9, 2015

My piece in today’s LA Progressive.

The writer and activist KJ Noh recently sent me a link to a new program launched by DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Narrative Networks, in the words of our Defense warriors, purports to discover “how narratives influence human cognition and behavior and apply those findings in international security contexts.”

As a writer of fiction as well as a sometime journalist, I don’t need a research project to validate my belief that a well-told story engages both heart and mind, affects attitudes, and embeds itself in memory the way, I regret, journalism too often does not. As for advocacy journalism, we’re often addressing people who already agree with us, but a good novel can reach and influence readers who have never before stopped to think about the issues we try so hard to bring to public awareness.

Consider this Amazon review of Don Winslow’s 2005 bestseller, The Power of the Dog. “This is not a subject of much interest to me, but… [h]is characters are fully believable and spring off the page with great force and achieve a totally convincing documentary-like reality that grips you from start to finish. Believe me it’s tough to put down for a moment the characters are so mesmerizing.”

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Winslow’s subject is our misbegotten War on Drugs and the damage it’s done in Mexico and Colombia (where aerial spraying to get rid of coca instead kills food crops and poisons people and livestock), about corruption and deception on both sides of the border, about CIA (and Reagan and the first Bush president) complicity in drug trafficking and the rise of the brutally violent cartels.

I’ve written articles on the subject year after year and I can yak your head off about US policy–and all my well-intentioned talk will bore you half to death. Winslow offers the same disturbing information but in a form that makes your pulse race.

So rather than write one more article about Mexico or Colombia, I want to talk about three works of fiction, The Power of the Dog; Winslow’s new follow-up novel, The Cartel; and Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel, Juventud, (available for preorder now; officially published on Oct 13), in which a privileged young woman comes of age during Colombia’s seemingly endless civil war.

At the center of both exhaustively researched Winslow novels is DEA agent Art Keller, trying to make amends for inadvertently facilitating the rise of the ruthless Barrera family, causing a massacre, and bringing about the abduction, horrific torture and murder of Ernie Hidalgo, a fellow DEA agent. Keller has had blood on his hands before. Serving in Vietnam, in Operation Phoenix, he put names on lists knowing that the people he named would be assassinated. In Mexico, he will have to decide if he’s willing to become, himself, an assassin.

In The Power of the Dog, I was particularly gripped by Ernie Hidalgo’s fate at the hands of traffickers (with the complicity of representatives of the Mexican and, apparently, US governments), a fictionalized version of the killing of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985.

Years ago, I briefly crossed paths with Camarena’s widow. She wanted his true story told, outraged by the Mexican government cover up. The whole story has yet to be revealed but in the last few years former agents and at least one cocaine pilot have come forward to claim that the US government and CIA were complicit in Camarena’s horrific death. Why? To discover a leak in the trafficking organization and to find out how much Camarena knew about the Reagan White House scheme by which the CIA trafficked drugs to finance the provision of arms to the rightwing Contras in Nicaragua.

The Cartel picks up where The Power of the Dog left off but offers no further revelations about “Hidalgo’s” death. Winslow goes off in another direction. He stopped my heart starting with the two dedication pages, name after name in small print. I counted them. 131 in all. Followed by this note:

Journalists murdered or “disappeared” in Mexico during the period
covered in this novel. There were others.

Journalists are among the most vivid characters of the book.

The Cartel isn’t as fast-paced and easy to follow as The Power of the Dog, and it certainly is not for the squeamish, but it may do better than any news report to explain what fueled the bloodshed and what this meant to cities, towns, and the vast majority of Mexican people. From Juárez to Tamaulipas to Veracruz and Michoacán, rival crime organizations battle for control of territory, border crossings and shipping routes while making and breaking alliances with each other and with police, military, and two government agencies at the highest levels in both Mexico and the US including the White House and Los Pinos, its Mexican counterpart.

In both novels, Winslow underscores US responsibility: Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking wouldn’t have developed without the insatiable demand in the US for the product; NAFTA eased the passage of cocaine; weapons and training provided by the US under the Mérida Initiative are easily transferred from corrupt institutions to the cartels. Winslow writes about the Zetas, psychopathic cartel killers and the Kaibiles, perpetrators of Guatemala’s genocide against the Maya, both elite fighting forces originally trained and equipped by–you guessed it–the US.

The climactic event occurs with a US-sponsored (through a private contractor) attack on the traffickers’ drug stronghold in the Petén rainforest of Guatemala. In the novel, the traffickers have taken over the village of Dos Erres. But Dos Erres is where, in 1982, Guatemalan military forces carried out an infamous massacre of the indigenous population. At first I thought this was another of the novels’ regrettable errors–like referring to martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero as a Guatemalan rather than Salvadorean, or citing the old name of Ciudad Juárez as Paseo–when it should be Paso–del Norte. (Where was the copyeditor?!?!) Turns out Winslow knew all about Dos Erres and chose it for his fictional raid in order to work the history of the massacre into his novel.

Where this sprawling, often horribly brutal work of fiction stands out for me is in its portrayal of the people of Ciudad Juárez and the Juárez Valley. Even before the drug war massacres, beheadings, and mutilations, to North Americans the city across the river from El Paso was synonymous with debauchery and sin. When US states tried to limit divorce, Americans got “quickie divorces” across the border. When divorce laws in the US were liberalized, Juárez was still the place to go for bars and brothels. When the maquiladora factories set up on the Mexican side of the border with jobs attracting thousands of young women, “Juárez” became synonymous with the femicidio–the abduction and killing of young women.

But Winslow writes about the city and surrounding rural areas not just with respect, but with love. The war for the soul of Juárez is horrific not just because of the daily atrocities but because as seen through the eyes of Winslow’s characters, the city is worth living for and dying for: a place of beautiful plazas, a lively cultural and intellectual life, civilians of almost unfathomable courage. These women of Juárez may risk their lives and may die but they never die as the anonymous victims of the femicidio: 19-year-old Erika becomes the police chief (and sole cop) in Valverde after the men have been killed or have fled; Dr. Marisol, Art Keller’s lover, continues to treat her patients and becomes Valverde’s mayor when there’s no one else willing to fill the seat. There’s Jimena, the baker and community leader, and Ana, the journalist whose unshakeable integrity shames her colleague Pablo Mora. He broods over his moral exhaustion:

You start by being idealistic, morally strong if you will, but then the rock of your moral strength is eroded,
bit by bit, until you’re well, exhausted, and you do things that you never thought you would. Or you do things
that you always feared you would…

The novels excel not only in twists and turns and betrayals and corruption, but also in moral ambiguity. In The Power of the Dog, the elite hooker Nora becomes Adán Barrera’s mistress but truly loves (platonically) a cartel-compromised priest, and I found myself rooting for the Irish American hit man from New York’s Hells Kitchen. In The Cartel, Chuy is a depraved killer, but we also get to know him as a victimized child who was taken in by the Zetas and forced to commit unimaginable acts from the age of eleven. Crazy Eddie Ruiz (who prefers to be known as Narco Polo) thinks of himself as the good trafficker as he alone refuses to kill women and children.

If the spine of The Cartel is the enmity between Keller and his former close friend Adán Barrera–Keller comes out of retirement to hunt Barrera down while at the same time Barrera has put a multimillion-dollar bounty on Keller’s head–it’s the portrayals of dozens of characters in the supporting cast that make the novel so memorable.

There’s plenty of moral ambiguity in Juventud (Youth) as well, but Vanessa Blakeslee’s focus is on the experiences of her narrator, Mercedes Martínez, rather than in exposing and criticizing policy. From the opening pages, rich in detail and suspense, her novel is vivid and full of life.

Juventud+Front+2

Mercedes, mysteriously abandoned by her North American Jewish mother, grows up with her adored father, Diego, amid thousands of acres of sugar cane, coffee on the steep hillsides, alpacas and horses on the warm valley slopes and hacienda workers who call her princesa. She expects this life to go on forever and takes for granted the armed bodyguard/driver who escorts her every day from the countryside to school in the city of Cali.

At age 15, Mercedes is exposed to bus hijackings and the desperation of men, women and children driven from their land by violence, but her main preoccupation is finding a boyfriend. She has the perspective you’d expect of someone of her social class who would also get her views from the conservative mainstream media. Realistically, she assumes that all the atrocities she hears about are the work of the guerrillas from the FARC and the ELN. (Similarly, later, when she tries to connect with her mother in Israel, her perspective is again partial, informed by her fear of terrorism and her affair with a special operations officer in the IDF.)

The retrospective narration allows Blakeslee to acknowledge the violence wreaked by the government and the Army’s allies in the rightwing paramilitaries forces. And the man Mercedes thinks of as Uncle Charlie, her father’s associate, is none other than the real life Carlos Castaño, founder of the AUC, the rightwing paramilitary organization which was financed in part by drug trafficking and notorious for brutal murders and the massacres of thousands of civilians.

A more conventional author would have had Mercedes fall in love with a charismatic guerrilla. Instead, she becomes involved with a Catholic youth group that advocates and demonstrates in favor of peace and negotiations. Her friend Ana, a youth group member, prays for everyone. “Even the drug traffickers, the paras, the guerrillas?” Mercedes asks. Ana answers, “God lives in everyone, even the worst.” (Or, one might suggest, even the best make deals with the Devil.)

Through Ana and the youth group, Mercedes meets and falls for Manuel, a guitar-playing carpenter, six years her senior. The lovers meet secretly. But is Manuel interested in her only to uncover the dirt about her father’s past as a drug trafficker and his links to rightwing violence? Does her father’s disapproval put Manuel in danger?

As the novel goes on, with revelation following questionable revelation, nothing and no one can be trusted.

If Juventud does have an agenda it must be this: As Colombia seeks peace–as in any other conflict zone on this earth–Blakeslee’s novel makes us ask how a person forgives and moves on when the truth remains veiled, when you can’t even be sure who or what is to blame and therefore who you must choose or refuse to forgive.

So what is the agenda of Narrative Networks? According to the DARPA website,

The program aims to address the factors that contribute to radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency, and
terrorism among foreign populations, and to support conflict prevention and resolution, effective communication and innovative
PTSD treatments.

Conflict resolution? Treatment for PTSD? Sounds good, but only, I guess, if you still believe Defense means defense. That bit about “effective communication”? Surely the Pentagon isn’t interested the way the novelists are in complexity and ambiguity. The Pentagon wants narratives that get results. The project, Noh believes, is aimed at learning how to weaponize stories.

But fiction writers were there first. The fictional world can reflect our own experiences back to us but most important, it encourages us to identify and empathize with characters different from ourselves, living through circumstances we ourselves have not had to face. What we read can change us.

Stories as weapons. My thanks go to Don Winslow and Vanessa Blakeslee for taking up arms.

And to poets like Ruth Goring. An American who grew up in Colombia, Goring has returned again and again to stand with villagers threatened by paramilitary forces. Her new collection, Soap Is Political, explores the experience of adjusting to a new environment, a new language, but also makes us see the displaced, the disappeared, the dead as individuals.

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In one poem, women circle a jail, calling out names, planting them like seeds.

In another we meet Deiner, age eleven, his father and his stepmother as they clear brush around the cacao trees. Armed men emerge from the trees and Goring warns the reader:

Now you may need to turn the page.

For if you stay, and travel with the search party,
at the river you will find three
entangled bodies, boy’s head tossed
to one side, flesh gouged by vultures.

On the days when, even as activists, we find ourselves tuning out the news, novels and poems can still compel our attention and hold it and stop us from turning away.