In Somalia And Congo: Ceasefire, Public Execution

Yesterday, rebels called a ceasefire in the ongoing conflict in the Congo. Also, a 23-year-old woman was recently stoned to death in front of spectators at a soccer field in Somalia. Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa Bureau chief gives an update on news from Somalia and the Congo.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, AIDS in India. Some of India's best-known writers take on a health crisis that many would prefer remain underground.

But first, we begin our international briefing today in East Africa. In Somalia, a disturbing execution spotlights the ongoing power of Islamic fundamentalists in that country. Elsewhere in the region, civilians are fleeing their homes in Eastern Congo as rebel forces battle that nation's army and overwhelmed UN peacekeepers. Observers say they fear a new humanitarian crisis could be developing.

To find out more, we've called on New York Times East Africa Bureau Chief Jeffrey Gettleman. Jeffrey, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. JEFFREY GETTLEMAN (East Africa Bureau Chief, New York Times): Glad to help.

MARTIN: We wanted to begin with a story that you reported out of Somalia on Monday. A 23-year-old woman was stoned to death in front of spectators. What happened? Why was she killed?

GETTLEMAN: What we know is this. There was a 23-year-old woman who had been accused of adultery. Now, when I looked into this a little further, I found out, actually, that she had been raped. But that didn't seem to matter to Islamic authorities. They put this woman through an Islamic trial, and then they decided that she should be put to death. They called together thousands of people, then told them to stone her. They buried this woman up to her neck in sand, and then people in the crowd lined up with fist-sized rocks and pounded her until she died.

MARTIN: Your reporting suggests that - first of all, there are a lot of people who are very angry about this, that her family is very angry. Human rights officials have raised a protest. Is this outcry making any difference, as far as you can tell?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: I don't think it is. Somalia right now is totally lawless, out of control, a humanitarian disaster, a place that few foreigners can work in. I was there a couple of weeks ago, and it was incredibly dangerous. I have to have 10 guards with me wherever I went. So it's a country that a lot of people want to do something about but it's very difficult to do anything there.

Right now, the dynamic we're seeing is a resurgence of Islamic groups that are slowly but steadily taking over parts of the country. The transitional government has been powerless to stop them. And basically, the international community is watching this happen. And I think this execution was supposed to be a display that they are in control and they are going to do things in their way.

MARTIN: Jeffrey, we want to turn to the Congo, which is where you are now. Over the last few days, fighting in the eastern part of the country seems to have escalated between the army and a rebel group. Can you just tell us what the situation is there now?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: What's been happening in Congo is there's a rebellion underway in Eastern Congo near the city of Goma, where I am right now. The rebellion is lead by a warlord named Laurent Nkunda. He's an ethnic Tutsi, and he says he's fighting to protect the Tutsi people of Eastern Congo. These troops are better armed, better disciplined and more cohesive than the government forces of the Congolese government. So Mr. Nkunda has had no problem pushing back the government and gobbling up territory, and that's what's been happening for the past week or so.

This has caused a massive exodus of people. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee their homes to get out of the way of the fighting. Last night it reached a crescendo with Mr. Nkunda's forces ringing(ph) town of Goma, which is seen as the strategic city that has never fallen into his hands. And suddenly, though, there was a ceasefire late last night, and it seems to be holding. Today people began to come out of their homes, shops began to open, the Congolese government troops returned to the streets. And so far, the ceasefire has been holding, I haven't heard any gunfire or any artillery, and last night and yesterday it was constant.

MARTIN: It's been reported that essentially the Congolese Army fled. Is that true, so far as you can see?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: Yeah, exactly. I came here yesterday, and there were no Congolese troops anywhere to be seen. As Mr. Nkunda's level forces were approaching the town, they took off. And in taking off, they rampaged and pillaged. They commandeered vehicles, some journalists, and it was totally out of control. There was no authority in Goma last night, and as a result, a number of people were killed.

This morning I went out and there were families that were putting on display dead relatives who had been shot by fleeing soldiers who had ransacked their homes on their way out of town. Now it seems to be a lot calmer, and things are very volatile here, and this region of Africa has been plagued by violence almost - constantly, on and off, on and off for the past 10 to 15 years.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that civilians have also directed hostility toward foreign aid groups and the United Nations. Why is that?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: There is an enormous amount of frustration pent up by the Congolese people. They had one of the worst dictatorships in Africa under Mabutu Seseko for more than three years. After that, the country was torn apart by rebel groups. In the past few years there's been this enormous effort lead by the United Nations to put Congo back together again, but for whatever reasons, it hasn't been able to stop the ceaseless conflicts. So people here are very frustrated, and they've been venting that toward the United Nations and toward the Western humanitarian workers because they feel that these people have not protected the Congolese the way they should.

MARTIN: You said earlier that Mr. Nkunda says that his advance is in part motivated by the fact that the government hasn't protected the Tutsi minority from Hutu militia. Is that a credible claim, in your view? I know the situation is so chaotic, but as near as you can determine, do you think that's a credible claim or is there another motivation for this advance?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: Yes. The Hutu has killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda, and then they were pushed out by a Tutsi-lead army and they fled into Congo. So Congo became a home for a lot of Hutu people, some of them who had participated in this genocide. Rwanda was concerned about that, and relations between Rwanda and Congo have been horrible ever since then.

Now what's happening with Mr. Nkunda is he's accusing the Congolese Army of working with the troops and militias to persecute Tutsi civilians. I think there is some evidence that there is collusion between the Congolese Army and some of these Hutu militias, to what extent it's not clear. But on the other side, there's also evidence that there's collusion between Mr. Nkunda and Rwanda and that Rwanda may be using Mr. Nkunda, or at least benefiting from him, to create a kind of buffer zone between Congo and Rwanda, where a lot of Congo's troubles can play out on the Congolese side of the border without effecting the stability of Rwanda.

MARTIN: Is there are any entity right now that seems to be working to restore stability to the region? I understand you said the ceasefire seems to be holding right now as we are speaking, but there's been a request for more troops to support the UN peacekeepers. I understand that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, his representatives have asked for diplomatic efforts to get the groups together to discuss a sort of more lasting ceasefire. Is there any evidence that any of these efforts are actually being made?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, that's what's happening right now. UN officials are working intensely to bring these two sides together. They tried to solidify the peace treaty or the ceasefire that's going on right now. They want some type of agreement should be made so Mr. Nkunda will stop advancing on Goma, and maybe the government will give him some concessions like taking his soldiers into the government army.

There's a lot of UN activity in Congo. It's home to the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world. It's just a huge challenge. It's one of the biggest countries in Africa, the size of Western Europe. It has something like three or 400 miles of roads, that's it. It's totally in tatters because of years of neglect and abuse, so it's a real project trying to get this country back on its feet, and what we're seeing right now is evidence of that struggle.

MARTIN: And finally, you reported that thousands of people are fleeing the fighting. Where are they going? And are they getting any food, any other support, any other help?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: They're not. And that's a huge problem. They're not getting any food. They're not getting any shelter. They - a lot of these people have sick children with them that need medical attention now if they're going to survive. It's the rainy season. It's wet, it's muddy, it's cold at night, so these people are in a very desperate situation.

Humanitarian workers want to help them but because of all the fighting recently, they've been blocked from getting to these areas where these people are fleeing from, but because it's such a multi-sided fluid situation with not very clear frontline, it's dangerous for aid workers to venture into that. On top of that, as we talked about the food, there's a lot of hostility toward Western aid workers right now. I think things are easing up today, and there's more hope that aid missions will resume to help these displaced people in the next few days.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Gettleman is East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. He joins us from the city of Goma in the democratic Republic of Congo. Jeffrey, thank you so much, and do take care of yourself.

Mr. GETTLEMAN: Thank you. Glad to help.

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