Congo: Time to Send in the Clowns?

GN1“Sarcasm, sarcasm, the Devil’s weapon.” ~~ Jane Trahey

Less than 24 hours after the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing concern about the safety of three female Congolese journalists covering women’s issues in Bukavu, south of Goma, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) issued a press release about “Clowns Without Borders” entertaining children in the IDP camps near Goma. What about Reporters Without Borders? An even more novel idea would be Doctors Without Borders. Frankly, I am not sure how to write about this amazing disconnect. Do we laugh or cry about the search for truth?

Congolese president Joseph Kabila paved the way for a troupe of Spanish Clowns, while thugs and militia rule the Kivus and truth-seeking journalist are threatened. Sending in the clowns will not end this war or the oppression of women and children. Hillary’s idea of 3,000 armed women seems the way to go, but there has been no news about whether or not it will happen. Armed clowns protecting journalists? Now that might work.

The three reporters, Delphie Namuto and Caddy Adzuba of U.N.-sponsored broadcasting network Radio Okapi and Jolly Kamuntu of local station Radio Maendeleo are members of the South Kivu’s Association of Women Journalists (AFEM), which has trained female journalists and presents radio programs spotlighting women’s issues, especially in rural areas. “Just three weeks ago, a radio journalist was murdered in Bukavu, the third reporter killed in the city since 2007, and local investigations have not been thorough and transparent in solving the motives and circumstances of the murders, ” CPJ told Clinton.

Namuto, Adzuba, and Kamuntu were named in an anonymous text message sent on September 8 to Namuto:

You have a bad habit of interfering in what does not concern you to show that you are untouchable. Now, some of you will die so that you shut up. We’ve just been authorized to start with Kadi, then Kamuntu, then Namuto: a bullet to the head.

You might say that the journalists choose their occupation and have to endure the consequences. Rare is the journalist who has not been detained in DRC on trumped-up charges, but death threats are another matter. So are the children who are raped, abused, and forgotten.

Clowns in the IDP camps will help the children “forget their experiences of flight and violence,” the UNHCR release says. Attacking the clowns seems almost too easy, but having been in these camps I cannot help but wonder if the time and energy and money was well-spent. I am certain the clowns were entertaining, if not frightening (my bias here), but the children are so deprived in these camps that my tattoos provided hours of fun for them to explore and touch, not to mention blond Muzunga hair under a baseball cap. Is this kind of exercise really of any value? Give the clowns a job. Perhaps digging latrines and cleaning up the mounds of garbage and filth. Laughter only goes so far before it morphs into tears.

Adding to the black comedy of horrors, UNHCR issued another press release within hours of the clown notification which indicated that a questionnaire sent to all the residents of the IDP camps indicated that they “wanted to go home.”

The IDP families, much of which comes from the territories of Masisi and Rutshuru, had informed the provincial authorities and the humanitarian community in their desire to return to their villages. Although spontaneous return movements have been observed continuously since January 2009, these movements in greater numbers only began in September after questionnaires about the intentions of returning IDPs have found that the majority of residents in the camps wanted to go home. (Translated from French)

GN2Given the choice of living in a plastic hut, with your baby sleeping on lava, the stench of garbage everywhere and disease stalking the camps like a leopard looking for its prey, I doubt that a questionnaire was needed to indicate people just want to go home to plant their crops. We observed pitiful plots of squash and tomatoes planted in the crevices of lava while at Mugunga II in January.

IDPs themselves filled in forms indicating a possible date of return and a special area of return. UNHCR and its partners continue to provide certificates of voluntary return of all IDPs wishing to return home. These certificates will also facilitate the reintegration assistance in the areas of return. Several UN agencies jointly provide partners with assistance packages to return, UNHCR distributed and not with a ration of food for 3 months provided by WFP and a kit of non-food items (placemats, plastic sheeting for temporary shelter, sleeping mattress, blankets, buckets, soap, etc..) (Translated from French)

I know UNHCR is trying, but the situation in DRC remains such a mess that it is difficult to resist sarcasm. There is also the real concern, and reports from the ground in Goma support this, that the displaced are in some instances being forced to “go home.”

Real investigative reporters disguised as clowns? The State Department might want to consider that option. (Forgive me, Secretary Clinton.)

In fairness to UNHCR, spokesperson Francesca Fontanini has been very willing to directly answer questions about the movement of the internally displaced. She has a job that cannot be rightfully criticized by sarcastic journalists. I hope she does not take me off her mailing list.

The current return of IDPs from the camps in and around Goma to their home is voluntary (80% out of 65,000 opted for voluntary return). This is an IDP-driven process, in that the IDPs themselves have informed the Government (GNK) and humanitarian agencies of their intention to return. Some of the factors influencing the return at this particular time include: (i) the fact that the cultivating season is approaching and (ii) that school will soon begin. It is important to note that there has already been significant return movement from the camps in Goma. The camp population in Goma has decreased from some 140,000 individuals in November 2008 to 65,000 individuals in mid-August 2009.

GN3Refugees International has a different take on the situation, suggesting that the situation in both North and South Kivu Provinces remains insecure.

The Kimia II operations continue to cause new displacements in parts of North Kivu, including isolated and inaccessible areas such as western Masisi and Walikale territories. Meanwhile, a lull in the fighting in areas such as Rutshuru territory has also led to an increase in the number of people returning home, as they can access their lands for farming. However, not all return areas are fully secure and many return communities include newly displaced people, the majority of whom live with host families.
While people are slowly returning to certain areas, this can not be taken as an indication of lasting peace in the region, particularly given the fact that many people have been displaced at least two or three times previously. The cycles of violence in eastern Congo have continued relentlessly for more than a decade, and the Kimia II operations are still creating insecurity in North Kivu. For many displaced people, the armed group that forced them to flee in the first place has been replaced by another armed group which is causing new displacements and preventing returns.

If reprisal attacks by the FDLR in North Kivu are to be any guide, in South Kivu, where the FDLR are even more integrated into the local population, the Kimia II operation has the potential to create widespread human rights abuses and displacements.

A woman displaced from Ziralo in Kalehe territory told RI that she fled after her husband and two young grandchildren were killed by the FDLR in July and all the houses in her village were burned down. Other people displaced from Ziralo said women were raped by the FDLR as they fled their homes. As a local official in Uvira territory said, “It’s ironic that the army has come to chase the FDLR, and it’s the population who flees.”

The international community sanctioned the failed intervention of Rwanda in this region earlier this year, and violence increased exponentially.

Don’t tempt me with the armed clown analogy.


Georgianne Nienabe

Resources: UN EXCEL summary of IDP movement since January 2009

North Kivu is a province bordering Lake Kivu in the eastern DRC. Its provincial capital is Goma. South Kivu’s provincial capital is Bukavu.

Republished with author’s permission from Huffington Post.

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  1. says

    Dear Nicolas, thank you for your in deep comment about how these psicotherapy can help the children suffering post-traumatic strees.

    Dear Georgianne Nienaber,

    you want to have last word in this discussion? Why? Discussions are for this: discuss with respect, as we do. So, you didn’t answer: did you see the children in DR Congo with the Clowns at least once? I saw them, 20 days, 22 performances, more than 20.000 people. There is freedom of speech and you can say as you want, and me too. But in the matter of the CWB, at least I talk about what I have seen. And look, check your infos before, please: waste money? Do you have any idea of who pay it? No? Ask the artists. Did you talk with the people after the performances? No? Me, as a photojournalist and Graduate in Social Education and with experience in different war zones and conflict areas working in programs with children in Lebanon, Palestine, Haiti, Mozambique, Morocco, RD Congo and Colombia I can say that the work of this tiny intl. NGO is powerfull. Your point of view about the work of the clowns is demagogic and is because you never had been in a performance in war or postwar areas of these VOLUNTEERS professional artists.

    Did you visit a circus when you was a child? And did you enjoy it? Who are you to deny the right to see a performance for those people?

    Finally, yes, I read your article and is an interesting article, but you made it very poor targeting the CWB. It seems you are angry because children and adults in Kivu region had some hours of music, dancing and laughing.

    The comparison you do about “your tatoo…” is really a poor argument. And you say it in your comment:

    “Attacking the clowns seems almost too easy (…)”

    I thin that simple, the CWB are not the point, so… why attack the job of this people?

    All my best,

    Samuel Rodríguez

  2. Georgianne Nienaber says


    I was not going to comment anymore, but I have been driven to it by these clown rants. Please read the article again. It is not really about clowns. It is about wasted money and a PR campaign by Joseph Kabila and the UN which obfuscates the horrors of DRC. By promoting these “clown” arguments, you are doing exactly what Joseph Kabila is hoping you would do, and the innocents are paying the price.

    As for clowns. You asked for it. Many studies have shown children to be terrified of clowns.

    Please write about what is really happening in DRC, and stop making clowns the centerpiece of your argument.

    I repeat…and this is all I will have to say on the matter.

    “And where are the clowns?
    There ought to be clowns.
    Well, maybe next year.”

  3. NICOLAS says

    Thanks Samuel for your very positive contribution to the debate.
    I would like to reinforce your point of view. With maybe a different angle of vision. I’ve been working with Doctors Without Borders for 17 years, and thus also in DRC. Witnessed many desperate situations. Faced very tough dilemnas. Went out publicly loudly and strongly when no other option was left. But there is one thing which I often regretted deeply: Humanitarian world does not make always go well with “human”ity. Humanitarians refer to victims. And victims are often seen just as a collective entity with no real indivual face or soul. A victim is a body. A physical body which needs food and medical care. Many humanitarian workers when facing tough work conditions tend to try somewhat to protect themselves behind their medical role. This is probably needed. No time to speak (anyway, we do not speak the same language, don’t we?) or to play. But is the fact that you are a victim deprives you from the right to be a child?
    Anybody who has already visited a therapeutic feeding center will understand what I mean. While malnourished children are being taken care of, no much time to look after the mothers, and the brothers and sisters who usually come along. Life and death is an omnipresent reality. But any specific attention you bring to any of those kids has – I really believe it- a real important added value. Clowns have nothing to sell but themselves. And I can tell you that they really put themselves at risk. Because here you can not cheat. And precisely because those kids are missing everything, they give everything. Whatever the price.
    So Pleaaaaaaaase. Let victims have a human face and soul.
    The clowns are bringing back humanity into to the humanitarain sphere. They of course can not be used as an subsitution to “classic” humanitarian assistance but they are probably the only ones to look at every kid of the world with the same eye, the eye of just another kid.
    Miss Nienaber should probably try to let speak a bit more the kid sleeping in her.

  4. Samuel says

    That’s true you never met the CWB! What a pitty.

    I was there as a freelance photojournalist when the first trip of CWB arrived to North Kivu in march 2009. CWB they don’t delivery food, no medicines, they deliver laughs against post traumatic stress in a conlfict and war situation. After 16 years of CWB working around the world, no one of the people who received their presence was upset. I think, really, before to talk you must learn, and see with your eyes. How many wars did you visit? A lot? Can you imagine if your a living as an IDP in DR Congo, where your daughter and you had been raped, where your children must work and where your husband or children was forced to fight? And, if your are living in Mugunga, Kibati, Masisi or Kitchanga and sudenly a group of people, volunteers, coming from Europe, start to dance with your children, with you, keeping you out for some hours from the hard daily live? You will say to your children: “don’t dance with the clowns, you must be sad and cry, because we are refugees.”? It seems that for the journalists as you, who thinks that because is white can go to solve the problems in Africa and say if the people from Kivu has right or not to received the clowns, the IDP and refugee must be down all they day waiting for their last day. Remember R. Kapuscinky? He told: “Cinics are not able for this job (journalism)” and you made cinism because you talk without knowledge. If they don’t want to receive us, don’t worry, they will tell us, don’t need you as a spokesman, they are more free that you want them to be.

    You ask how it cost… Those artists where VOLUNTEERS and was no money from UN, don’t worry. So, please, as a journalist, try to larn before write, talk to the people in the camps, to the artists, watch the videos, look at the pictures… and, please, go the clowns working if you want to talk about their mission.

    You want to see the pics? Just ask for them.

    Waw waw waw… As Emily Troutman says in a comment, is not a matter of “food” or “laughs” they need everything AND laugh. AS YOUR CHILDREN.



  5. says

    A gentle friend on Facebook suggested this and I kind of like it:

    I’m sure like most organizations Clowns Without Borders have their hearts in the right place but as you say a lot of other things need fixing first.When the kids are fed and secure, the time might be better to send in The Clowns………….

    “And where are the clowns?
    There ought to be clowns.
    Well, maybe next year.”

    Oh, and yes, I have dug latrines..not an easy job.

  6. Bartolo Peres says

    Ohhh please!!! I think that you are who are doing really nothing mixing problems and trying to distort the reality displacing the responsability from criminals to a simple group of voluntary clowns who are going to Kivu to make laugh kids. Don’t you have a better target? Your idea about reality is amazing, you are in the pleistocene times of humanitarian aid when people was thinking that population who was suffering the consequences of a war just need infraestructure like animals (food, shelter, medecines). Meanwhile you know perfectly that if the physical conditions of displaced population are not improving, or are bad, is not because the clowns are coming to Kivu, is because certain states doesn’t want to expend too much money on it. How much it costs a tour of clowns 25 days/ 40 shows? 15000 usd? Please don’t be ridicule? This is not money when we talk about humanitarian aid. Let the children enjoy the clowns, and try to focus on real problems, in Kivu is easy to do that. Ah! Something else; did you never dig a latrine?

  7. says


    From the tone of your response I get the sense that you do not realize how both the Kabila Government and the UN are using this visit to put a positive spin on Dante’s Inferno. I stand by everything I said, and you would be doing a service to work on infrastructure instead of creating momentary laughter which fades with the gunshots and rapes and hunger and abuse and abandonment. Your organization is doing nothing to alleviate the real suffering. Sorry, but it is true and you should face up to that. How much money was spent on this trip?

    Congo is no laughing matter.

  8. says

    AS the founder of Clowns Without Borders in the US, your sarcasm hurts deeply. YOu should realize that humor at the expense of others is not a very positive thing. It is a pity that you were not able to witness the work that CWB does, to realize that refugees love the clowns coming in and stirring things up in their dismal situations. They do not go in to entertain, as the UN press release states, but to bring laughter. They do not have any notion that they are going to help anyone forget the trauma the refugees has suffered, but only seek to release a bit of the tension.
    It sounds from your reporting that the refugee situation is far worse than in most refugee camps. CWB generally only goes into crisis situations where primary needs ARE being met, however the crisis in the Congo is so extreme and extensive that PSF (the Spanish group who went to Goma) felt the need to address it. This is the 3rd trip to the region. The clowns would not be going back if the refugee populations did not welcome their presence. They did 2-3 shows a day for 10 days straight Your comments about digging latrines stink.

  9. says


    Your comment is prescient, since all of the players are in New York for the UN meetings his week. Howard Wolpe, the new special envoy, is there also. Time for all of us who care about Congo to put some pressure on. In remarks last night, Secretary Clinton once again promised to do something for women and children there. Whether Obama will get behind her is anyone’s guess, since he has consistently marginalized the Secretary.


  10. Tony Carleton says

    Dear Georgianne,

    Your article about clowns in Kivu was interesting. I would like to make another proposal: How about ” Morons without borders” ? This, unlike your suggestions would have the advantage that they could be recruited internally from the ranks of the UN, no need to employ outsiders. In the unlikely event that the UN ran out of morons then recrutement could continue from the State department where the number of morons would appear to be almost unlimited.

    Kind regards,

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