Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Comoros: 'Love Bombing' in the Never Ending Revolution.

Ok hands up who wants an education? 

Boats left the tiny island of Moheli at dawn on Tuesday 24th carrying 1300 African Union troops to back up the Comorian army. The opposition Anjouan forces numbered just 500, so why the need for so much backup? Well these 500 heavily armed rebels had successfully fought of the Comorian National army at least twice before in recent history. When the federal government attempted to invade in 1997 after Anjouan actually declared itself independent what followed was four tumultuous years of coup and counter coup, with the iconic presence of Colonel Mohamed Bacar, a French trained former gendarme, as the leader of the Anjouan people.

Local legends say that the three troubled islands that form this fragile union were born out of a massive under sea explosion when molten lava from the volcano Karthala spat out rebellious brother Anjouan and then little Moheli. Some even say the explosion was caused by a diamond, carried by a messenger from King Solomon to the Queen of Sheeba. The messenger dropped the jewel into the sea and from the passion it symbolised the volcano was created and so the crescent moon shaped archipelago was born, and has remained restless and volatile since.

Now we are told that the 300,000 population danced in the streets to welcome the invading or perhaps liberating AU forces, as Bacar supposedly fled clothed as a woman to escape via fishing boat to Mayotte.

I have to say I find the idea of him fleeing dressed as a woman a little hard to believe. This is not the sort of Islamic country where women walk around in Burkas. In Anjouan, especially the poor mountain villages, women wear lambas, a simple wrap of cloth, bright, colourful and wrapped around the body like a sarong. Not really much to hide under. But seeeing as the source quoted for this is the federal goverment's own spokesman, also the peacetime minister of education, I suppose it rubs salt in the wound of Bacar's defeat and serves as a handy way of removing any legacy of heroic opposition to an oppressive regime. How seriously will a military leader of an Islamic country be taken if the enduring image is of him hiding in a canoe wearing a dress. How seriously would we take Brown or good old Sarko if we were to be presented with the same picture.    

"Anjouan island is under total control of the army," Major Ahmed Sidi declared within hours of the invasion. It made me chuckle a bit when they heroically claimed possession of the island's airport. Anjouan's airport is a grass roof held up by sticks. It doesn't even have walls. Well the little restaurant next door has walls I suppose, but anyway.. Technically speaking fighting continues guerilla style in small pockets, but it is taken as read that the year long standoff is over and the big island has won.

It is hard to tell what this latest changeover in the corridors of power will mean for the population of Anjouan who seem to have been held hostage to rich men's ambitions for decades. What revenge will the big island exact on it's small rebellious brother? It doesn't seem likley that Bacar had no local support, though after the island was carpet bombed with love letters from President Sambi's camp advising them on how to behave until the rescue mission was complete, it seems people paid attention and stayed hidden away in their homes until it was safe to come out and celebrate.

These are people whos perseverence is astonishing. Civil servants work for a few hours a day to keep things ticking along, knowing that they might have to wait two or three years before the EU or some other foreign body steps in to actually pay them.

In country where almost everything is imported and therefore sold at prices out of the reach of most, somehow everyone finds a way to survive. Amidst this kind of poverty, you can go leave your wallet on a table in a small roadside cafe, realise a few minutes later, run back to find it still there. People are proud and kind and helpful. On the whole crimes happen in the corridors of power. That isn't to say this is a paradise of virtue. One of the first stories I ever covered in the Indian Ocean was the extent of abuse against young women, especially in the poorer mountain villages. The girls were so accustomed to being used that it almost wasn't shocking anymore. Their faces were hard and expressionless as they told me their stories, but their hands were shaking.

I met a 13 year old girl who had been raped twice and had become pregnant. She asked for the help of Fatima Bacar who runs the Cellule d'Ecoute, a children's safe house on Anjuoan. She wasn't hoping for justice, just someone to help her tell her mother, but Fatima is a formidable woman and has devoted her life to getting prison sentences for rapists or at least financial support for the girl. The later sounds like poor compensation but circumstances mean women worry more about survival than justice. About feeding the new little mouth than punishing the abuser. The more noise Fatima can make about the subject the more likely it is that this will change, still the ever present and overbearing burden of poverty seems to thwart everyones efforts to make a lasting difference.

The AU have scored an easy victory here and earned some international prestige to offset the struggles of its peacekeeping missions in Sudan and Somalia. The tough AU stance on Anjouan also reflects its aversion to any secessionist movements. Sudan and Tanzania certainly have an interest in reinforcing the integrity of their borders from within which might have motivated their involvement.

For once maybe Mbeki has a point. "I think it is very unfortunate that the military action has taken place because it takes the Comoros back to this history of force instead of resolving matters peacefully."

...... more soon...

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