Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dying for Change

Human Rights Watch, one of the few NGOs doing good work in Guinea (though I can't comment on the controversy over their reporting in Israel), published their report on Guinea's recent riots a few weeks ago, interviewing more than 115 eyewitnesses to the country-wide riots.

The incredible eyewitness tesitimonies from those chaotic days in late-January and early-February make the report a must read.

For those who don't know all the background behind the strike, jilted union leaders galvanized in January to launch an unlimited general strike to absolutely paralyze all activity in the country (after having launched two smaller scale strikes last year). A good summary of the events leading up to the strike can be found here.

The goal of this strike was to see that government promises of wage increases and price controls on basic commodities (rice, kerosene for lamps, and gas for transportation) be met so that Guineans could continue to work and feed their families. The strike launched peacefully on January 10th, but the government made it clear early on that it was unwilling to make concessions; strike leaders decided to make the strike political for the first time in recent years, demanding sweeping government reforms, demanding that President Lansana Conté and his entire Congress step down from power.

The government's unwillingness to meet the strike leaders' demands is not hard to understand: Guinea is bankrupt, the result of decadent and systematic corruption over recent years that has earned it the reputation as the second most corrupt country in the world: Those who own posts of power steal money destined to fund projects and development to buy themselves mansions and Mercedes. In short, the country languishes in poverty and fails to provide basic services, such as electricity and running water, in its capital and major cities (the vast majority of the country has never been electrified and is without running water).

On January 22nd, tens of thousands of ordinary Guineans spontaneously took to the streets, carrying banners such as "We are ready to die for change." President Conté obliged them, ordering the army to open fire on protesters on the crowds. More than 60 people died that day.

I'm posting a segment detailing the bloodiest day of protests on January 22nd only as encouragement to read the entire 66-page report:
According to the government’s own figures, the brutal crackdown resulted in at least 129 dead and over 1700 wounded, hundreds of them by gunshot.
The massacre traces its origin to an economic collapse, and rampant corruption such as the president Lansana Conté securing the release of two of his rich friends who had been arrested on charges of embezzlement in which he
"...traveled to Conakry’s central prison with his motorcade and personally secured the release of two close allies charged with embezzlement from Guinea’s Central Bank, reportedly telling his entourage, 'Je suis la justice' ('I am the law)."
This story, which was to be widely circulated around the country in the following weeks, would prove to be "the final straw" for trade unions who were utterly exhausted with Contés promises. Of the massacre, we now have extensive eyewitness reports, including testimony from the vicitms themselves:
The day I was shot, I was going out to try to find some rice to eat. ...I saw a group of youths protesting on the street. Some of them were throwing rocks at a large group of nearby policemen, who immediately started shooting at us. I felt a sharp pain and looked down and saw blood flowing from my leg and I fell down. I couldn’t walk. ...The police came up and I heard one of them say they should kill me. Then one of them kicked me in the face and I felt the blood start to run. The police left me there...
On January 22nd, one of the largest protests ever seen in Guinea—a veritable "human tide"—took to the streets. In the words of one of the protestors: “When we came out on Monday, we were determined to change the system in place. It’s been 48 years since independence, and we have nothing.”

The scene came to a head that morning near central Conakry. Testimony from one of the eyewitnesses:
During the march on January 22, I was one of the stewards. Our role was to keep marchers from throwing rocks and engaging in acts of vandalism. We wanted to improve upon the marches of January 17, where some youths had thrown rocks and wanted to insult the it was important to calm things down. Those playing this role were just organized informally, and were older guys from the neighborhood who the youth respected. We didn’t get orders from on high.
Nonetheless, security forces did not respect the non-violent nature of the march. Another eyewitness account from the 22nd:
When we arrived in Hamdallaye, there were lots of police and gendarmes and there was lots of firing in the air and lots of tear gas. But it wasn’t frightening people, so they fired straight into the crowd. There was no stone throwing at Hamdallaye. Nothing. Two died there that I saw. One was hit in the forehead, and the other in the chest. I don’t know if it was a policeman or gendarme who fired those particular shots. We took the bodies and put them on a piece of corrugated tin and carried them on our heads. The security agents backed off as we approached with the bodies and we passed forward towards Bellevue.
The scene came to a head at Le pont de 8 novembre ("The Bridge of November 8th"). Another protestor's testimony:
As we neared the bridge, we were chanting, “We don’t want Conté anymore.” We also had a Guinean flag. We had no stones, no arms of any kind. Our only weapons were little tree branches that we were waving above our heads. Around 2 p.m., we arrived at the bridge. There were police, gendarmes, and Red Berets there. The police were there in strong numbers. There were fewer Red Berets, but I tried to stay closer to the police because the Red Berets were firing more. I saw the Red Berets firing straight into the crowds and several people fall on the ground. We panicked and tried to flee. As my friend was trying to climb a wall into a nearby cemetery to get away, someone fired and hit him in the shoulder. He fell town and tried to climb again, and they shot him again in the lower back side. I knew if I tried to climb the wall they’d shoot me too, so I ran towards the police because they weren’t firing as much and they captured me. They struck me with their rifle butts on the back and arrested me.
A foreign diplomat on hand to view the carnage corroborates this accounts:
From what I saw of the march of the 22nd, security forces were firing on an absolutely peaceful march. The protestors had no stones or arms of any kind. At first, security forces did use tear gas to try to push people back. But then the first wave of protestors that was advancing toward the bridge got closer and closer. One protestor was carrying a Guinean flag. A group of protestors got down on their knees in a non-threatening position in front of the soldiers. But the soldiers fired at the one in the first row holding the Guinean flag, as he stood there on his knees. They literally fired directly into the crowd. The Red Berets were firing, but so were the police and gendarmes. Several were wounded at the bridge, hit in the stomach, so they couldn’t have been firing in the air. I saw police kick those who were already lying prostrate wounded on the ground, so the security forces were clearly over-excited. Groups of protestors would disperse in all directions only to come back again. I don’t know why the demonstrators kept advancing. Maybe they thought because they weren’t armed, they wouldn’t be hurt.
For much more, including descriptions from doctors at the local hospitals, families whose homes were sacked by marauding soldiers, and accounts from the strike leaders themselves (who report having been threatened with murder by the president himself), see the report.

If you're still wondering why you should care, even if you've never visited or even heard of Guinea, Guinea visits you every day. The country is the world's second-largest producer of raw aluminum (bauxite); so the spoon you use to eat your cereal or the car you drive to work have been, in a sense, carved from its red rocks. As citizens of the world, we owe it to the people of Guinea to inform ourselves about this tragedy that has unfolded in the country over the last few months. Their loss is our own.


bantara said...

As a bit of an addendum:

I have since spoken about this report with some of my Guinean friends here in Rennes. Instead of appreciating the shedding light on the massacre, they questioned Human Rights Watch's motives for the report.

The Guineans also took to task those responsible for HRW, saying they're controlled by special interests that publish documents that only serve their own agenda that's not in the interest of Guinea or its people.

It's true that HRW has been involved in its fair share of controversies on the accuracy of its reports (I link to the controversy of their reporting in Israel at the beginning of the article), something that's worth keeping in mind as you read their account of the tragedy.

mr. skol said...

While the motives, interests, and agenda of HRW may be suspect (I personally do not know, and consider them to be a pretty damn good organization for bringing to light abuses), I fail to see how anyone could be less than overjoyed about their work in Guinea.

There were, and continue to be, human rights abuses in Guinea. Guinean goverment, at all levels, is also astoundingly corrupt. I think this needs emphasized - Guinea is not only the most corrupt country in Africa, it is the second most corrupt goverment worldwide. Out of some 160 countries, only one country (Haiti) is more corrupt. HRW, through interviews with Guinean people, government officials, and foreign diplomats, has exposed the grave abuses of the armed forces against the civilians. I fail to see how speaking out about these abuses and calling for an independent investigation into these abuses and those of June 2006 is anything but in the interest of the Guinean people. HRW's agenda is to expose human rights abuses worldwide and to work for the humane treatment of all persons. I personally find that an honorable agenda, something that all humans (including Guineans) would support. How does the goal of exposing human rights abuses and the report on Guinea serve against the Guinean people? Would they rather the abuses continue? Would they rather that Guinea remain the second most corrupt country in the world? To me, anything that serves to expose this fact and the devastating consequences on the Guinean people is a great thing.

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