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Victims without killers: The lost returnees of Brazzaville’s ‘Beach’, 20 years on

Some of the missing were executed on the premises of the security forces -UN report

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Victims without killers: The lost returnees of Brazzaville's 'Beach', 20 years on

Twenty years ago, Congo-Brazzaville’s new president urged conflict refugees to come home across the River Congo from Kinshasa. Then 353 returnees disappeared who were widely believed to have been murdered.

“It’s like it happened yesterday,” said 75-year-old Marcel Touanga, grief-stricken for his son, one of those listed as missing in a troubling episode in the long career of President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

In May 1999, the oil-rich central African nation was trying to turn the page on three successive civil wars since 1993.

Sassou Nguesso, a military man, took power back in 1997 from Pascal Lissouba, with the stated aim of achieving “national reconciliation” in the former French colony.

He encouraged people who had fled over the broad river to the capital of the newly named Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire) to return via the “Beach” -Brazzaville’s port area.

The two Congos on opposite shores jointly signed a repatriation agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and people who were prepared to return did so during the week of May 5-14, 1999.

‘Shot on the spot’ –

“Once on the Beach, a kind of sorting process took place, with women on one side and men on the other. The men were subjected to a full body search” for firearms, said Touanga, who heads the main support group for families of the missing.

The authorities were, at the time, hunting members of the rebel Ninja militia loyal to former prime minister, Bernard Kolelas, who was active in Brazzaville’s Bacongo district and a forested region adjoining the capital known as The Pool.

Kolelas said that the Ninja insurgency had only been crushed when Angolan soldiers moved in to support Sassou-Nguesso and secure the city.

Sentenced to death in his absence in May 2000 on charges of kidnapping, rape and illegal arrests by Ninjas, Kolelas was granted amnesty in 2005. He died after receiving medical treatment in Paris in 2009.

“We have inventoried 353 missing youths, but there were many more because some bodies were burned,” said Touanga, who now lives in France.

“There was brutality, there were executions. Some people were shot on the spot and their bodies were thrown into the water,” he added.

“They didn’t even give me his body,” Touanga said of his 28-year-old son, a paramilitary policeman.

Some of the missing were executed on the premises of the security forces, including the General Directorate of Presidential Security, according to a 2012 UN report based on testimony by people claiming to be survivors.

‘Truth and reconciliation’ – 

Under pressure from families, Congo’s parliament launched a probe in 2002, broadening the scope to cover all forced disappearances recorded in the country since 1992.

A trial finally opened in Brazzaville three years later with 15 defendants in the dock, mostly serving officers in the security forces. They were all acquitted in August 2005.

However, the court ordered the state to pay compensation to close kin of 86 of the 353 missing men, to the tune of 15,000 euros ($16,850) for each victim.

Separately in France, several human rights NGOs joined forces and went to court with a suit alleging “crimes against humanity, disappearances and torture.”

The case, lodged in early 2002, targeted President Sassou-Nguesso and three senior officials in his regime.

Congo asked the International Court of Justice in The Hague to freeze the French legal proceedings.

In April 2004, Sassou-Nguesso’s police chief, Colonel Jean-Francois Ndenguet, was jailed in France on a charge of crimes against humanity. 

But he was freed on the grounds that he held a diplomatic passport, which led rights activists to cry scandal.

“French justice for the moment remains the only hope for justice and truth,” Tresor Nzila, executive director of the Congolese Organisation of Human Rights (OCDH), said in Brazzaville.

However investigations in France have ground to a standstill.

“Twenty years on, the case remains unfortunately bogged down,” said prominent French lawyer, William Bourdon.

“The pain is still there,” said Vincent Niamankessi, the 70-year-old father of one of the missing. “We are finding that our missing children are simply victims with no perpetrators.”

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Fashion News

Breaking barriers in product designing across frontiers

Mariam Braimah hopes to extend these skills beyond international borders while inspiring Africans

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Breaking Barriers in Product Design

Netflix has become a universally known online streaming service with 148 million subscribers all over the world. The company and its shows are usually involved in modern pop and meme culture. Its exceptional growth which can be attributed to its user experience design is not by accident.

In an interview, Netflix product designer, Mariam Braimah narrates her ordeals during her growth journey, she hopes to extend these skills beyond international borders while inspiring Africans in the diaspora. 

Braimah joined the company’s Growth & Acquisition team. She was involved in the sophisticated process of attracting and keeping the attention of non-members immediately they hit the landing page of the company’s website, through to the process of familiarisation. 

She recently switched to the Emerging Experiences Design team, where she deals with the member and content experience of the product. Initially, she used to be money oriented in her approach, now, on the opposite end of the spectrum, she’s more into the abstracts. She concludes that it is indeed a dream job and she was only able to land such opportunity as a result of her experiences with various designs throughout her career which includes interaction design, user research, and UX writing.

In the course of her work with Netflix, she is aware of the opportunities she has been exposed to. Braimah grew interested in the development of user interface in the African diaspora. Being of Nigerian descent, she has been connected to her roots in more ways than one. This led to her interest in the situation of the design sector in Nigeria. 

During one of her frequent trips to Nigeria, she reached out to people on Twitter to start design tailored conversations with teams and tech companies within the country. In this process, she yearned to gain insights on what it is like to design within the Nigerian tech space. She discovered the drive to learn from international industry professionals at Silicon Valley in the Nigerian tech ecosystem.

This has contributed to her idea for the Kimoyo Fellowship founded by her in August 2018. The fellowship is an all-inclusive learning program designed to provide shared learning and experiences across the different borders of America and Nigeria. Her aim is to exchange ideas, develop talent and build experience. With this, knowledge will be gained effectively by both sides. She identifies it as a step towards identifying and sharing knowledge between both sides.

The long term goal behind the creation of Kimoyo is to explore the composition of design thinking through foreign views while keeping in mind the importance of context. Her next aim is to plan the next Kimoyo Summit in Lagos, in 2020, it will connect a  group of UI/UX design and research professionals and thought leaders that will link the creative communities of Silicon Valley and Nigeria.

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Culture & Tourism

‘Year of Return’ attracts African-American tourists to Ghana

A string of prominent African-Americans have headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing

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The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana

US preacher, Roxanne Caleb blinked away the tears as she emerged from a pitch-dark dungeon where African slaves were once held before being shipped across the Atlantic to America. 

“I wasn’t prepared for this. I’m heartbroken,” she told reporters as she toured the Cape Coast slave fort on Ghana’s ocean shore. 

“My mind still can’t wrap around the fact that a human being can treat another worse than a rat.”

Caleb is among the African-American visitors flocking to Ghana as it marks the “Year of Return” to remember the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship landing in Virginia.

The country is banking on the commemorations to give a major boost to the number of tourist arrivals as it encourages the descendants of slaves to “come home”.

Cape Coast Castle, 150 kilometres from the capital Accra, is a major magnet for those visiting 

The white-washed fort lined with cannons was one of the dozens of prisons studying the Atlantic coast where slaves were held before their journey to the New World.

A string of prominent African-Americans has headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing in 1619. Among them was a delegation of Congressional Black Caucus led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that toured last month.

The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast.
The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast. Today the former fortress is a museum and Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. | usage worldwide

‘Can’t forget history’ –

For those visiting, it is an emotional rite of passage. 

“This has been understanding my history and my roots where I came from,” Caleb said.  

“I am very thankful I came here as part of the ‘Year of Return’.”

Sampson Nii Addy, a corrections officer with the Montgomery police department in Alabama, said he and his family had found the tour an “education”.

“I think every black person needs to come around to learn history; how people were treated,” the 52-year-old told reporters. 

“We can’t forget history but we can always learn something from it.”

Ghana, one of the continent’s most stable democracies, has long pitched itself as a destination for African-Americans to explore their heritage and even settle permanently.  

In 2009, President Barack Obama visited with his family and paid homage at the Cape Coast Castle. 

The “Year of Return” has added fresh impetus and the country is hoping it will increase visitor numbers from 350,000 in 2018 to 500,000 this year, including 45,000 African-Americans. 

Kojo Keelson has spent nine years guiding tour groups around the Cape Coast Castle and says 2019 has seen a surge in interest as Ghana looks to rake in tourism revenue of $925 million. 

“It’s like a pilgrimage. This year, we have a lot more African-Americans coming through than the previous year,” he told reporters.

“I’m urging all of them to come home and experience and reconnect to the motherland.”

Stairs next to the "Door of Return", the former "Door of no Return" of  the Cape Coast Castle
Stairs next to the “Door of Return”, the former “Door of no Return”. The Cape Coast Castle served as an important base for the slave trade on the Gold Coast. Today the former fortress is a museum and Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. | usage worldwide

‘Love to come again’ –

Akwasi Awua Ababio, the official coordinating “Year of Return” events, pointed to high hotel occupancy rates as he said, “enthusiasm is very high and we’ve got huge numbers coming from the US and Caribbean”.

He insisted that beyond the major economic boost, Ghana was also looking to use the new connections it is forging to convince the descendants of slaves to resettle for good and help the country develop.

“Human resource is always an asset and we need to see how we can welcome them home to utilise their expertise and networks,” the director for diaspora affairs at the presidency said.

The African American Association of Ghana brings together those who have moved to West Africa and offers help to integrate them into their new surroundings.

President Gail Nikoi praised the “Year of Return” initiative by Ghanaian leader Nana Akufo-Addo and said the country was “setting the stage for future engagements and involvement of African-Americans and other Africans from the diaspora in the development of this country.”

But she said the authorities could still be doing more to help attract arrivals and convince them to stay.

“Dialogue and engagement is the first step,” she said.

While most of those visiting Cape Coast were not thinking about settling back permanently — they said the trip had opened their eyes to both their own history and what Ghana has to offer.

“It has broadened my horizons about how we came to be here and what our ancestors went through,” said William Shaw, 57, from Montgomery.

“I would love to come again. There is a lot more to see here in Ghana… at least once in a year, I’d advise African-Americans to come back to their native land and learn about their history.”

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Feature News

Celebrating beauty in diversity as captured by Nigerian photographer, Noma Osula

Osula’s artistic works comprise of bright hues, animated gestures and rival textures all derived from the usual daily life in Lagos

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Noma Osula, beauty in Diversity

Nigerian photographer, Noma Osula is a creative, born and raised in Nigeria. Osula, Like many creatives originating from West Africa, attributes much of his artistic inspiration for photography to the ever-bubbly city of Lagos in Nigeria. Walking through the streets of Lagos, his assertion is proven right, as the surroundings are indeed a sight to behold. 

Osula’s artistic works comprise of bright hues, animated gestures and rival textures all derived from the usual daily life in Lagos. Trudging between the line of fashion and enfolding portraits, the artist acknowledges and renews the African Aesthetic. He admits that he draws his inspiration from his immediate surroundings and uses the camera to bring this to reality.

Noma Osula Celebrates Beauty in Diversity
Courtesy: Noma Osula Photography on Tumblr

Osula has always had an in-depth love for art and all things creative, but his concern in the medium developed towards the ends of his schooling in the university when he self-taught himself how to use a camera and to explore the feasibility of photography.

He believes that creativity allows self-expression and that becoming an artist has helped him gain more self-acceptance, cultural understanding, and representation. It is these notions that have challenged him to question societal norms and stereotypes through his art. 

Most often his muse is seen wearing glamorous and exaggerated pieces, embracing their African heritage while exploring the different values of the African Aesthetic – part of his bid to reconstruct the perception of beauty and perfection in African cultures.

Osula’s exploration into the world of photography has taken him to great heights, but what remains the most paramount to him is the notion of pursuing an idea and watching it come to fulfilment.

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