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The path of recovery from a violent past

Tue, 2014-12-09 02:00

Rachel stands behind a row of metal buffet trays full of pasta and fried fish, lined up on a table skirted in white fabric. She is demur and quiet. She, unlike many of the men in the room, exhibits no desire to be in the spotlight or consume the oxygen in the room.

Her past, much like this region's, is complex and fraught. In 1996, Rachel was 16. Neighboring Rwanda's genocidal ethnic war had been spilling into Congo for several years, bringing economic, political, and personal chaos to millions of people. Rachel was one of those people.

"My family had left, they fled when the soldiers were coming," she remembers. "But I had gone back to the house, I was trying to hide."

"They came into the house, five or six soldiers. They raped me," she says.

Tragically, Rachel was just one of the millions of women who had to endure sexual violence during Congo's long and vicious wars. 

Rachel stayed with an elderly neighbor for a few months, but decided to leave. "I felt like I had no value in my neighborhood anymore," she says. "So I decided to become a soldier myself. I wanted people to fear me, to respect me."

She joined the Mai Mai rebel group, one of many dozens rampaging through Eastern Congo in the late 90's and early 2000's (and to some extent still today) as the social fabric and infrastructure of the region became unmoored. 

30,000 children were serving as soldiers in 2003 in Eastern Congo, many conscripted against their will. Living in the forest, they  moved from camp site to camp site, sometimes witnessing or participating in violence of the most brutal kind. 

Rachel says her wish came true. People did fear her. "They knew that I could kill them or hit them or do something to them," she says. "They  knew I had the capacity and spirit to do it."

When fighting  began to calm down, her group agreed to merge with the Congolese army, which represented the same forces who'd raped her years before. It was at this time she also found out her mother was still alive, back in Bukavu. 

"I deserted, and I came back to Bukavu. They arrested me there for desertion," she says.

In prison, she became pregnant. Out of prison, and now with a three month old, she moved back in with her mother—A happy, if complicated reunification. Making a living proved tough. What once made her feared now made her suspect. 

"People said, 'Oh she's a soldier! She'll kill us! She's a thief!'" she says.

She became a prostitute for a time. Another child and a failed marriage later—her husband shunned her after learning about her past—she decided  to learn a trade. 

She arrived at Laissez Afrique Vivre, a school for ex combattants, where she learned how to cook: "I studied hospitality, hotelerie."

Behind Rachel are shimmery lavender bows and pleated white fabric covering the walls and table. "All of these decorations, I did them," she says. 

Buffet trays of rice and fried plantains are added to the lineup, part of a banquet for special guests.

"I can cook anything int he Congolese kitchen," Rachel says. "Not so much your European food, but any Congolese food you like, I can cook!"

Rachel caters, she makes street food. She likes to make wedding cakes. She has two children now and pays their way to school. Her dream now is to work in a hotel. 

"I don't think about the past."

Off-target flu shot will cost employers

Tue, 2014-12-09 02:00

Every year, federal scientists make a bet on the flu—They try to figure out the dominant flu strain, and vaccine makers produce a flu shot to fight that strain.

“In some years, the prediction is on the mark, and in some years the prediction is further away from the mark,” says Dr. Bruce Lee, an associate professor of international health at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. This year, the vaccine is off the mark, which probably means more flu, he says. “We’ll see more cases this year, and more severe cases."

Lee says, the last time this happened, businesses spent almost $140,000 more on flu-related costs per 100,000 workers.

But employers can fight back. 

“You could increase the number of shifts so there are not as many people working together in the office. Some companies limit the number of meetings," says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. 

And Challenger says employers should still encourage their workers to get a flu shot. Because, doctors say, even if you get the flu anyway, you carry less virus. And that's good news for your co-workers.  

Former child soldiers find rehabilitation a hard road

Tue, 2014-12-09 02:00

A handful of young men in their twenties are busy on the side of the road here in Bukavu, wielding a welding machine that looks as though it barely survived the wars itself. 

"We're fixing this motorcycle," says Daniel Baguma over the din of a saw.  

Putting things back together seems an apt profession for people whose lives came to pieces as children. Eastern Congo has endured two decades of conflict that began when Rwanda's genocidal war spilled across its borders. It proved too much for the fragile Congolese state to handle, and the region descended into chaos.

Thousands of children were swept up by armed groups for use as forced labor or military manpower. As many as 30,000 children were used as child soldiers in 2003. That number has shrunk to an estimated 3,000 or so as violence has declined, some armed groups have demobilized, and a patchwork of peace agreements have been signed. 

For some child soldiers those days are distant memories; for others they remain open wounds. 

"I was out in the country side, taking care of some cattle, and they took me. That's how it started," says Baguma. 

He was 12, and "they" were the Mai Mai — one of dozens of armed groups fighting in Congo in the early 2000's. The group still exists, even though many of the soldiers have since been integrated into the Congolese Arms Forces.   

"I started carrying luggage for them. All of a sudden you don't have a home anymore. You just go. You're just walking through whatever town you find yourself in. You're just ... dispersed."

Baguma remembers those days as he sits down to dinner with friends, many of them former child soldiers like himself. It's a bit like a reunion for Peter Pan's lost boys. 

"I was smoking a lot of weed and taking a lot of drugs. These were the Mai Mai drugs; you inject them and people can't shoot you," he says of the drugs the Mai Mai believed imparted supernatural powers during battle. "I regret it. It messed with my mind."

Pascal Birashirwa was even younger than Baguma when he was taken. He was just 10.

"My father was fetching water for the toilet," when the soldiers appeared, he says. His father fled, and told everyone in town that his son was dead. His family and neighbors went into mourning.

In the jungle, picked up by soldiers, Birashirwa roamed the countryside. "Sometimes they would give me food, sometimes they wouldn't. Sometimes the commanders would eat and leave me with nothing, guarding the camp," he recalls. "I couldn't leave. It was all I knew."

None of the young men like talking about what they did or saw done in the five, seven, sometimes eight years they spent with the armed groups.

"I never killed people, only enemies," says Birashirwa. "And whatever happened out there stays out there."

When their groups demobilized in 2010, the boys—now nearly young men—found their way back to town. Everyone thought they had died.

"They were so happy," says Birashirwa. "So, so happy to see me."

Likewise, the whole neighborhood came out to celebrate for Baguma when he came back.

But the joy was short-lived.

"My family was disappointed," says Birashirwa. His shame is typical. "They said I could've gone to school, but I came back smoking weed and cigarettes."

"When we compare our lives with the lives of someone who stayed in town, stayed in school, did the usual route, they have had successful lives. We're still figuring ours out," says Baguma. 

While many Congolese sympathize with child soldiers, they are often suspicious of them as well. It can make finding work difficult. Baguma spent a year essentially doing nothing, wondering if he should return to the forest. 

Learning some basic literacy skills and some kind of vocation has been critical to reintegrating young people whose childhoods were stolen by armed groups. But sometimes they've needed to learn things that were much more basic.

"Things like: you're allowed to make eye contact with people. It's OK to disagree with people when having a conversation. You are valuable as a person and you have the right to determine your own future," says Jocelyn Kelly, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. 

"These are the skills that are so incredibly human and basic, but often, especially for young girls who were in armed groups, [they] had no idea no idea were available to them," she says.

HHI helped do a study of what worked and what didn't when integrating former child soldiers. A lot of groups have tried a lot of different things. 

"Cash payouts, a kit that has basic household goods, trying to engage people in small income generating activities," she says. 

Fly by night operations that gave a group of young, male child soldiers a goat and a pat on the back, and then left after a few months—and Kelly says programs like this did exist—did not work. And former child soldiers whose psychological needs weren't met, suffered. 

Some ended up institutionalized.

"I mean it's kind of the foundation of everything you're expected to do. If you don't have that basic capacity to engage with people, overcome anxiety or symptoms of PTSD, you're not going to be able to engage with a job in any way shape or form," she says.

Child soldier survivors need sustained follow up care—essentially a caseworker—and so do their parents, says Kelly. "I've not seen many programs at all deal with the effects on families," she says. Parents are anguished that they can no longer seem to communicate or connect with their children; a typical problem for parents of teenagers, made exponentially more intense by a parent's knowledge that just on the other side of their childrens' eyes is an ungraspable reality of deprivation and trauma. 

If they could just get through. 

Both Pascal Birashirwa and Daniel Baguma were lucky enough to find a place at Laissez Afrique Vivre, a school for former child soldiers. They learned welding. For Baguma, who now has his own children, his new career seems to be working out. 

"Business is good," he says. "I know a lot of people who respect my work, I have work, I make money, I feed my kids." He's built a house, and he's paying his children's way through school.

Pascal Birashirwa is having a little more trouble. 

"I could've gone to school. I could've had a life. Welding is giving me money day to day, but I can't plan on anything bigger than that," he says.

Back at the welding shop, former child soldiers are smoothing off some scarred metal on a door they repaired. They're trying to smooth away their own scars too.

Airbnb confronts an unusual marketing challenge

Tue, 2014-12-09 02:00

Airbnb, the home sharing website, is now by some measures the largest lodging provider in the world. It’s valued at over $10 billion and has a million listings — that’s about 300,000 more than the number of beds of either Hilton and Marriott.

Bob Thorson rents out his Washington, DC apartment while he’s out of the city. Guests find his place online, pay $130 a night, and get a cool apartment in one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods. But once you’re inside, there’s nothing that indicates it was rented through Airbnb.

Andrew Schapiro, head of brand creative teams at Airbnb, says he recognized that disconnect.

“Every day hundreds of thousands of people are traveling on Airbnb and staying in homes all over the world,” Schapiro says. “How do we actually share stories of those people who are on those travel adventures?”

So, this winter, Airbnb will publish its first issue of "Pineapple," a magazine that will be sent to hosts and bookstores around the world. It will contain stories from three of its most popular cities: San Francisco, London, and Seoul. Pineapple is an effort to address what other companies in the so-called sharing economy have faced when they make it big: moving their online success into real-world brand loyalty.

“It kind of expresses how Airbnb can fit into the greater travel landscape, and that’s part of the issue; people have some sense of Airbnb in general, but not really how it fits in,” says Bjorn Hanson, a hospitality professor at NYU.

The area where Airbnb and its hosts still haven’t figured out where they fit in is with the law. New York’s attorney general has set his sights on the company, which he says enables hosts to violate zoning and hotel laws. In fact, it was hard to find an Airbnb host willing to be interviewed. They said they worry about breaking the law, breaking their lease, their condo board rules, or just about irritating their neighbors.

Thorson owns his place, but some of his fellow host friends are renters. When asked what they do, Thorson says, “they try to skirt it. They just hope that they don’t get found out.”

So guests will soon be able to flip through Pineapple to plan their next travel adventure, even if their hosts would prefer that nobody find out that they’re there.

 

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