Femme au Fone faces the task of checking the information that the SMS system receives.


Checking information: A challenge for the isolated and distant areas

«I am on my way to Baraka, where there is news from villages such as Lweba, Bitakola-alende and Mibula-alokolo in the region of Fizi, where women and children live in the middle of nowhere because of tribal conflict and the systematic looting by unknown people», said in a SMS message, a woman from Fizi through the system of Femme au Fone (FAF) on 7th March 2014 - the night before International Women's Day. Her warning message proved to be false, exemplifying a serious problem to ensure the messages received by the FAF are truthful, especially when the messages come from isolated and distant areas of Bukavu. Consequently, checking the accuracy of information and avoiding the tramp of wrongdoer people is the real challenge that FAF faces.

Women and children in the forest and unassisted

FAF first approach the origin of the message «women and children were in risk and unassisted». Due to the urgent situation, FAF increased the number of calls to inquire about the message. The first inquires provided further information and allowed a brief post on the FAF's Facebook wall on 8th March 2014. In fact, the FAF could not understand how women were trapped in the forest of Fizi while International Women's Day was being celebrated.

In order to clarify the facts, FAF contacted the sender of the message. He was in Mboko, a village located in the Fizi region, and he told them his version of events as follows: « on last 15th and 16th of February, men who were just identified by their uniforms attacked and mugged women, children and men who were coming back from Kakuku market. Then, their villages were burnt, forcing some of them to seek refuge in the forest close to different villages of the Fizi medium plateau»

Thereafter, both sources reported that, apart from their association and some churches, no other local or even international Non Gubernamental Organisations (NGO) cared about their fate out in the sticks. They also pointed out that the outreach work they were doing with women, under the church's umbrella, allowed some of them to return to their villages. Both sources said that their organisation has donated five bags of salt and a sack of clothes to vulnerable women.

In order to gain comprehensive knowledge of the case and document it for wider dissemination, FAF asked the sender to produce some statistics related to the women who were hidden out in the sticks. The source reported that 328 women in total had taken refuge in the countryside of Fizi after the above mentioned attacks, and that 136 of them have accepted to return to their houses after their organisation had raised awareness. 50 of these 136 women, of whom nine are girls aged between 12-16, would have been raped. The source testified that the local authorities were aware of the situation as well as the NGOs working in the plateau of Fizy, but neither one were concerned about it. The source has explained that this lack of assistance is due to the unwillingness of the authorities and the NGO leaders to penetrate into the inaccesible forest, where there are a lot of water flows, roads in poor conditions and armed groups. « Only OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) helped these women five years ago, and currently, OCHA is short of funds»(1), the same source said.

How could the authorities and the humanitary agents rooted in the affected area be so insensitive to such serious facts? This question led FAF to collect diferent testimonies in Fizi, in order to ascertain the veracity of the facts.


Facts that never happened!

None of these facts have been confirmed by the people of Fizi who were asked about it. The people who were contacted informed us that similar events had occurred many years earlier. The same question was asked during the working sessions organised in Baraka (2), but nobody seemed to be aware of the serious situation in the region.

Why would anyone take the decision to report false information or present information that had taken place in the past as a recent event? Is it to earn money or the confidence of the FAF? An interview with this person and his reasons could, some day, provide an answer to FAF.

Source's contradiction

The message reported facts as if they had happened on the eve of 8th March. However, the first contact with one contributor of the sender revealed that the events occurred one month earlier, between 15th and 16th of February 2014. This second contact did not mention any tribal conflict that the initial message evoked.

In another phone conversations with the originator of the message, she stated many times that «international NGOs are working in this part of Kivu South, but they don't provide any assistance to people in the forest».

Then, she said, without specifying the nature of this assistance, that «OCHA was the only NGO that helped women five years ago and that OCHA is currently short of funds and could not do anything». There is a contradiction because whilst the events were recent, the source places the OCHA action in the past. Moreover, in an unaccessible region, the source could not clearly explain to FAF how her organisation reached the women in the forest to help them.

OCHA, as presented in this version, seemed to be an international organisation with intervention activities to work directly on site. However, OCHA is the department of the United Nations Secretariat in charge of reinforce the response of the UN to the crises and to natural disasters and to coordinate the humanitarian response, the political development and the humanitarian advocacy. In other words, OCHA does not intervene directly in the field.


The source

The sender of the warning is a woman who is committed to the cause of the women in the region of Fizi. She introduced herself as the coordinator of a local organisation based in Baraka-Fizi and in the plain of Ruzizi, that has focal points in different villages of Fizi with which she collaborates within her organisation. She was also interested in politics. Recently, in a private visit to Bukavu, FAF tried to contact her, without success, to discuss the alert she sent. FAF contacted her again to encourage her to suggest what could be done with the information confirmed by her. Hesitantly, she replied «Do what you want, I have just provided you information».


The Fizi reality

A serious journalist from a local radio station in Baraka, has confirmed to FAF that several local and international NGO work effectively in Fizi. This strong presence barely improves the security and economic of the population who are the beneficiaries of the NGO's actions. According to some observers who have worked in Fizi for several years, this territory has a serious problem of insecurity, treacherous roads that make it dificult to move, a high number of illegal check points and a lack of women's autonomy. Some development stakeholders also think about what they call «the indigenous laziness» as a problem of the Fizi territory. They find the justification for this «laziness» in the fact that for almost two decades the population of Fizi has benefited from the assistance in food and non-food items and from several organisations that came to intervene in the field. In addition, the movement and violence from armed conflict have affected this territory. There is ongoing violence in some regions of Fizi. The population's daily income comes mainly from agriculture, fishing and traditional mining. However, these populations have been forced into regular displacement. So, some people have progressively lost their ties with the land and have started to depend on the «NGO distribution of aid».


The danger

Considering that FAF is based on women's interest in sending messages about their security in their environment; and these messages are used by the editorial board of the radio, the danger lies in the fact that the final intention of the sender remains personal.

Was the sender of the warning asking for any kind of support? Shouldn't such alerts call the attention of all the stakeholders? It is neccesary to increase the awareness and the work of the FAF project and the importance of the women's security. To this end, FAF has reached almost 70 «spokespersons» in the workshops organised in Bagira, Kadutu, Miti and Walungu on 8th, 12th and 13th of May 2014.


What behaviour should be adopted?

The simple fact checking of an SMS message from one source is insufficient to prove its veracity. For this reason, it is important to carry out further inquiries about the information received. All the information must be subjected to an intense inquiry and must be corroborated with other concordant sources to determine where it comes from. So for sensitive facts, such as the one explained in this article, we need to consider outreach work in the affected area or to collaborate with journalists based in the field as special correspondents. This would allow us to ensure that the information received is accurate. Learning more about the people who send the messages is also important.

As far as possible, we should also know about the reality of the field where the events are happening, going back in time and putting them in context. Before this research work is done, any message about sensitive facts must be taken with a grain of salt.


Judith CUMA & Yvette MUSHIGO, Femme Au Fone.

(1) OCHA: The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

(2) Every week in Baraka, region of Fizy, one civil society meeting is taking place. The meeting gathers local, national and international stakeholders and UN agencies who review social, humanitary and socio-economic context from different areas of internvention.