Back from the jaws of danger
A VITAL project to help countless thousands of women and children vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse in a war-ravaged corner of Africa has been completed with the aid of Swindon communications expert Brian Barber.
The internationally funded initiative saw Mr Barber make two week-long visits to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is in a constant state of upheaval and where death and violence are an ever present threat.
His remit was to build and install a mobile phone information system which will enable the rape and abuse of youngsters and adults to be more easily reported.
Mr Barber’s two trips to the DRC this year sandwiched an official visit from British Foreign Secretary William Hague and actress and human rights campaigner Angelina Jolie.
They were there in March to highlight widespread violence and sexual abuse in the civil war stricken DRC and to see what measures had been put in place to protect citizens from such attacks. Initially Mr Barber, 65, of Peatmoor, West Swindon had been set to visit DRC’s second city Goma, via Kenya and Rwanda, in December last year.
But the project was hastily postponed days before he was due to fly out after the Congolese city, where around a million people live, was seized by a rebel army. Mr Barber was eventually allowed to go in February following the withdrawal from Goma of the rebel militia, known as M23, which has been fighting government troops for several months.
He installed a refined version of a communications system that he originally designed and built in Afghanistan two years ago.
After monitoring the system from his Swindon home he returned at the end of April to complete the project, making further adjustments and checking that it was working correctly.
Now back in Swindon, he said: “There were good bits and bad bits about going to Goma. You can feel the tension in the city. People are understandably twitchy. They just don’t know what is going to happen next.
“Factions of the rebel army are involved in internal scraps. There’s a lot of in-fighting. No-one is sure whether or when the city will be invaded again.”
A planned trip to a town around 30 miles from Goma had to be scrapped following concerns over Mr Barber’s safety.
He said: “I felt quite safe in the city, I was escorted everywhere. They also put me in a hotel around 100 metres from the border with Rwanda. If any sort of trouble broke out I could run across to Rwanda.
“But it would have been too dangerous for me to get out into the countryside. There are small groups of militia operating there who would see a white man as a target for a kidnap and ransom, so I wasn’t allowed to leave the city.”
The project was jointly funded by the international media charity the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the American Bar Association, comprising US lawyers and law students.
Mr Barber described the level of sexual attacks in DRC as widespread and sickening. He said: “Rape is used as a weapon to spread fear, terror and HIV.
“It’s very common and is considered the norm. The perpetrators don’t think twice about committing these crimes. It’s shocking.”
He said the communications project aimed to establish “a new and efficient means of filing data relating to gender based violence to the courts, enabling the authorities to take action and proceed with prosecutions.”
His system will now enable police from 15 rural areas scattered around the region of Goma to transfer information from a laptop via a mobile phone as they do not have internet on their phones.
He said: “Currently it is very difficult getting statements and other data from the rural police stations into the central judiciary.”
Mr Barber has been providing vital communications links in war zones and trouble spots for 16 years.
He was still perturbed, however, by the appalling conditions in Goma. “There are street kids six or seven years old wandering around homeless trying to eke out a meagre living.
“It is a very primitive place. There is no street lighting. The roads are still covered in the solidified remains of lava from a volcano that erupted ten years ago. It’s like driving on corrugated iron.
“Nothing ever gets repaired or maintained when there is war or the threat of war.
“Goma is a disaster. Just compare it to Rwanda next door where the streets are clean, the street lighting works, there are cafes, and a proper police force.”
Mr Barber first went to this region of Africa in 1997 while working for Swindon-based Lucent Technologies to help create radio infrastructure. While there he helped clear mass graves from the Rwandan genocide when 800,000 people were killed.