Saturday, 23 December 2006

Wishing you a merry Christmas and happy new year!

JK: We are reunited (Melanie got back today! December 23) and off to Greece to spend Christmas and New Year with the Kots side of the family. The picture below shows us celebrating at Brussels' Christmas market over gluwein and tartiflette.

JK&MK: We would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy, productive and healthy new year!

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Erin go bragh

JK: The Irish are "grand". That is the simple conclusion made by JK after a four day trip to Ireland for a conference in Cork. The adventure started off in perfect fashion --in Dublin-- where JK and his old high school pal Ian toured the city, consuming ample amounts of Guinness, Irish stew, and warming up with daily doses of soccer watching in some of Dublin's seemingly infinite number of hospitable pubs. The nightlife did not disappoint either, with visits to pubs and live music bars.

At the end of the glorious weekend, JK hopped on a train to Cork. He arrived just as the sun was setting, which gave him the most glorious first impression of the "rebel county". Since he was in fact in Cork for business (delivering a paper at an academic conference), JK did not get anywhere near the amount of time required to discover the city. But he vows to return to this fine corner of Europe, and next time with "the wife" in tow. ;)

Wednesday, 13 December 2006


MK: Dear readers,
Please find below the press release for the new project that I am managing at UNDP in Rwanda. Right now, it is the biggest project at our country office.

Kigali, December 12, 2006: On Thursday, Dec. 14th, the Ministry of Lands, Environment, Forestry, Water and Mines (MINITERE) will publicly launch a new Global Environment Facility (GEF) project titled “Strengthening Biodiversity Conservation Capacity in the Forest Protected Area System of Rwanda.” The 6-year project, funded by $5.4 million of support from the UNDP branch of the GEF, is being announced during a half-day meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kigali, with partners and stakeholders attending from across the country.

Known as PAB (Protected Areas Biodiversity), this project represents a strongly collaborative effort including national ministries, districts, NGOs and local associations who will work together to strengthen the conservation and management of Rwanda’s extraordinary forested parks. The Volcanoes National Park and Nyungwe National Park are globally renown for their unique wildlife - including mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, and numerous rare monkeys, birds, and plants – and represent a major commitment by the government and people of Rwanda to the great variety of nature (biodiversity) found in its mountain forests. The global attraction of Rwanda’s wildlife is at the base of an increasing ecotourism, which now represents one of the fastest growing sectors of the nation’s economy. The mountain forests of Rwanda also provide important ecological functions of water catchment, maintaining water supply, preventing soil erosion, and could provide significant hydro-electric power. These services benefit a large proportion of the country.

The project PAB is led by the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority (REMA) of MINITERE, in close collaboration with the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks of MINICOM, districts surrounding the parks, community-level associations, and non-governmental conservation organizations, and will be executed with support from the UNDP GEF. This extensive and diverse set of partners indicates the importance of integrating conservation of wildlife and parks with the well-being and support of rural communities.

Emphasis of the PAB project will be on building the capacity of stakeholders at multiple levels to effectively conserve and manage wildlife, the parks, and natural resources surrounding them. In particular, the project will (1) strengthen management of the two montane forested parks through applied research, monitoring and evaluation, (2) increase local and district capacity to plan and co-manage appropriate development activities on lands neighboring protected areas, and (3) strengthen the central government’s institutional capacity to finance, monitor, and manage all protected areas.

In addition to improved forest conservation, the project is expected to result in increased tourism and associated economic activities, better management of trees, bamboo, soils and other natural resources in zones surrounding the parks, maintained water volume and quality essential to the entire nation, and increased income and employment in targeted neighbouring communities.

Thursday’s opening at the Intercontinental Hotel, running from 9am to 12:30pm, will feature opening remarks by the Honourable Minister in Charge of Lands and Environment Patricia Hajabakiga, UNDP Resident Representative Moustapha Soumaré, and the Director General of the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks.

For further information, please contact Jean de Dieu Kayiranga (Information Officer) in Kigali, tel. (250)08505778 or Melanie Kotsopoulos, GEF Programme Analyst (08669000).

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Worlds apart? Not really.

They may be thousands of kilometers apart, but JK and MK are still connected through one of their favourite past times...... eating! Both pictures were taken on the same day (Dec 2). MK is at a UN event outside Kigali and JK is in Aachen, Germany to check out its famous Christmas Market. Pics here: (JIV Day) and (Aachen)

Where is Melanie hiding??

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

First month in Kigali.....

MK: Well, I have survived my first month in Kigali.

For the first few days in Rwanda I stayed at the Hotel Mille Collines (made famous in the movie "Hotel Rwanda"). I am now renting a room for the time being from a nice Rwandan lady named Lilian who works for Rwandair (in Sales and Marketing). She has a charming 13year old daughter named Gloria (and a husband and 2 sons that are currently living in the UK). The house is nice and is located on one of the many hills (Gacuriro) that make up Kigali. I will be looking for a house of my own closer to my office (in Kiyovu) in the new year. The only catch with living with my host family is that I am woken up everyday at 6:00am because the neighbour behind our house has decided to perform a ritual that entails him singing, clapping, and whistling for exactly 15 minutes every morning (except Fridays of course because he is an Adventist!) .

Kigali as a capital city is nice and is relatively safe and lush with green rolling hills. Although Rwanda is the most denseley populated country in Africa, it is not really polluted and is surprisingly clean. It is by far one of the easiest cities in which to live. The downsides are: a high cost of living (rent, taxis, and food are expensive), the food is not all that exciting, and there is not much to do, so boredom comes easily.

I am working on UNDP/Rwanda's Global Environment Facility (GEF) programme. Mainly I am responsible for currently their largest project on "Strengthening Biodiversity Conservation Capacity in the Forest Protected Area System of Rwanda" (GEF resources are $5,450,000 with total allocated resources of USD$13,430,000). The project will be implemented in the Nyungwe Forest/National Park (where the chimpanzees are) and Volcano National Park (where the mountain gorillas are and where Dian Fossey carried out her research). I am organising our big project launch which will be held on Thursday the 14th of December. I have already secured the Minister of Land and Environment to give an opening remark as well as the head of all UN agencies here (UN Resident Co-ordinator/Resident Respresentative). In the new year, we will hold its big launch in one of the two parks.

I am travelling to Nyungwe Forest for an overnight stay in the Guest House on Monday the 11th of December to attend USAID's Eco-tourism project the following day. It is about a four-hour drive one-way. Because it is located near the Congolese border, I had to get UN security clearance to travel.

It is great working in the field as you never stay chained to your desk! I participated in Umuganda Day in which the last Saturday of every month, Rwandans are required to partake in community service (planting trees, cleaning up the garbage, stopping erosion and floods from the rains, etc.). For an interesting article, visit The New Times. I also took part in World AIDS Day (WAD) on Saturday the 2nd of December 2006. I had kids crawling all over me and playing with my hair! Speaking of which, there is a strange thing that happens to me all the time. I will be walking down the street or standing somewhere and someone behind me will pull my hair! If I turn around, they will give me a look like nothing happened but I will proceed to point to the clump of hair that is stuck between their fingers!!

Please check out our photos on Flickr and Picasa Web Albums!

Monday, 27 November 2006

The French Are OUT!!!

[JK: I am rather certain that the French would have quite a different perspective on this story]

"Business in Kigali city paralysed on Wednesday (22 November 2006) when thousands of infuriated Rwandans singing anti-France slogans and praising President Paul Kagame, staged a peaceful demonstration.

The impromptu demo was a public reaction to Monday’s call by a French magistrate, Jean Louis Bruguierre, for the arrest and trial of Kagame and nine Rwandan top military officers, accusing them of downing the plane that was carrying former Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana.

An estimated 15,000 demonstrators from all corners of the city took to the streets, many carrying placards and banners that described Kagame as a hero, and others condemning the French government over its alleged role in the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. Some of the placards read: “France = Arrogance, ‘Stop France and its politicians from our Lovely Country;’ France, Let us mind our business and not you; Les Francais = Interahamwe (French is equivalent to Interahamwe).”

Genocide witnesses at the stadium said the French trained and worked with Interahamwe to plan and execute the killings, which claimed at least one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutu.“In 1992, French troops pitched camp near our home in Shyorongi (on the outskirts of Kigali) and they always mocked Tutsis until April 1994 when they worked with Interahamwe to kill them (Tutsis). I saw it myself,” Epiphany Mukasekuru, who nearly broke down, said in a brief testimony.

The president of Ibuka, an umbrella organisation of Genocide survivors, Francois Xavier Ngarambe, described Bruguierre’s allegations as scandalous and said that Paris should instead try itself together with the ringleaders of the Genocide who stay in France. “Have you ever heard of a serial killer calling for the prosecution of a policeman? They should first try Agathe Kanziga (Habyarimana’s wife), who chaired many meetings that planned the Genocide; Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, who raped women and owned a gun while he was a priest here,” said a furious Ngarambe. Kanziga and Munyeshyaka, who a week ago was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Military Tribunal over Genocide crimes, live in France.

In particular, Ngarambe blamed French troops for the butcher of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in the areas that fell within a French-manned buffer zone called Zone Turquoise at the height of the Genocide. The zone, which stretched from Cyangugu in the Southwest to Gisenyi in the northwest of the country, is said to have provided safe passage to Genocidal forces which fled to the DR Congo as they lost power to then RPA forces. Kigali City Mayor, Dr.Aisa Kirabo Kacyira, accused the French of attempting to shift the guilt of their involvement in the 100-day slaughter to Rwandan heroes that stopped the French ‘barbaric actions.’ “We are here to remember barbaric actions of the French. Their hands are stained with the blood of innocent Rwandans and continue to be arrogant. However they will not accomplish their ill-intentions,” said the mayor.

The protesters sang patriotic songs with words that affirm their dedication to unity of Rwandans. “They should leave our defendant alone. Paul Kagame restored humanity, he is our all-time hero,” another witness, one Mukamusana, said. She accused the French military of killing Tutsi families in the former Ruhengeri province, now in the Northern Province. Bruguierre has already issued warrants for the arrest of Chief of General Staff (CGS), General James Kabarebe, Chief of Staff (Land Forces), Lieutenant General Charles Kayonga and Rwanda’s Ambassador to India, Lieutenant General Kayumba Nyamwasa. Others indicted include Joint Five (J5) head, Brigadier General Jack Nziza, Chief of State Protocol, Lieutenant Colonel (rtd) Rose Kabuye, MP Colonel (retired) Sam Kanyemera alias Kaka and Major Jacob Tumwine. President Kagame on Wednesday lambasted the French government and Bruguierre, calling the accusations rubbish."

Article courtesy of The NewTimes (Rwanda's Leading Newspaper).

Friday, 17 November 2006

Wednesday night soccer adventures in Europe

JK: Contrary to popular belief, it has not been one continuous wild party since "the wife" departed for Rwanda. In fact, week one sans Mélanie was marked by life spent mostly in solitary confinement, as I worked on some PhD deadlines.

But in an attempt not to completely lose my sense of humanity, I agreed to join a posse on a kamikaze Brussels-Paris-Brussels-in-one-night trip to see France and Greece play a soccer friendly. How is that for footballing dedication? Going all the way to France to see a meaningless game and -- quite predictably -- watch another totally mediocre Hellenic performance.

Still, the experience was fun. I drove down with two Gaulic supporters, my mates Fabrice and Frederic (aka together known as "Fabric"). We met Dénis "the soccer nazi" Trigylidas and two of Fabrice's connections at the stadium.

The Stade de France is a joy to behold; a beautiful stadium with a saucer-like roof. Its only shortcoming is its location, in the heart of "le 93", the notorious banlieu of St-Denis (where some of the worst riots occured last year). On the walk back to our car, I noticed three fresh piles of broken glass -- on our street alone! Fortunately, our, uh, uber-chic white Peugeot was not a target.

Here are some pics from the match.

Sunday, 12 November 2006

Melanie: Our Woman in Rwanda!

JK: Well, after our rather text-heavy and earth-shattering, four part educational series on Rwanda, I will spare your eyes and keep this short.

I can confirm that our fair maiden is now safe and sound in the capital, Kigali! She has already started work at the Sustainable Livelihood Unit of UNDP/Rwanda -- and enjoying it. What a great and interesting challenge it will be! Once she is settled, she will post an update on her first few weeks in Kigali, Rwanda.

Click here for the first pics our "Woman in Rwanda" has uploaded. The photo on this post shows children who died during the 1994 genocide.

Saturday, 11 November 2006

Looking for Older Posts on our Blog???

MK & JK: If you are new to our blog, don't forget to check out our previous posts that may not be found on this page. Instead, they are located in the "Archived Posts" section organised by month located on the right hand side of our blog. Relax, pour a glass of chilled pinot grigio, and enjoy our tales!

Monday, 6 November 2006

Rwanda 101 - Part IV (Its Present and Future)

[JK: YES YES YES, your session at the dentist, uh, I mean your history lesson of Rwanda, is over! This is the last installment.]

Rwanda Today

Rwanda today is struggling to heal and rebuild, but showing signs of rapid development, but some Rwandans continue to struggle with the legacy of genocide and war. In 2004, a ceremony was held in Kigali at the Gisozi Memorial (sponsored by the
Aegis Trust
) to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the genocide, attended by many foreign dignitaries, and the country observes a national day of mourning each year on April 7. Rwandan genocidal leaders are on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in the Rwandan National Court system, and, most recently, through the informal Gacaca village justice program. The current Rwandan government, led by Paul Kagame, has been praised by many for establishing security and promoting reconciliation and economic development, but is also criticised by some for being overly militant and opposed to dissent. The country now plays host to many international travelers and is regarded as a safe place for tourists.With new indepedent radio stations, Rwanda is finally attempting a free press, but some wonder how free the media really is with journalists disappearing and being apprehended whenever articles question the government.

The challenge ahead is to diversify Rwanda’s economic base, to fight poverty, to create a highly skilled and productive workforce that will drive Rwanda towards industrialization and development in the years to come. All these are included in the VISION 2020 as objectives it assigned itself.

Sunday, 5 November 2006

Rwanda 101 - Part III (The Genocide)

[JK: just one more "lesson" after this to go! Relief is in sight! ;)]
This lesson expands on Part II (History) by delving deeper into the 1994 Genocide.

The Strategy of Ethnic Division
President Juvenal Habyarimana, nearing the end of two decades in power, was losing popularity among Rwandans when the RPF attacked from Uganda on October 1 1990. At first Habyarimana did not see the rebels as a serious threat, although they stated their intention to remove him as well as to make possible the return of the hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees who had lived in exile for a generation. The President and his close colleagues decided, however, to exaggerate the RPF threat as a way to pull dissident Hutu back to his side and they began portraying Tutsi inside Rwanda as RPF collaborators. For three and a half years, this elite worked to re-define the population of Rwanda into “Rwandans,” meaning those who backed the President, and the “ibyitso” or “accomplices of the enemy,” meaning the Tutsi minority and Hutu opposed to him.

In the campaign to create hatred and fear of the Tutsi, the Habyarimana circle played upon memories of past domination by the minority and on the legacy of the revolution that overthrew their rule and drove many into exile in 1959. Singling out most Tutsi was easy: the law required that all Rwandans be registered according to ethnic group. Residents of the countryside, where most Rwandans lived, generally knew who was Tutsi even without such documentation. In addition, many Tutsi were recognisable from their physical appearance.

But shattering bonds between Hutu and Tutsi was not easy. For centuries they had shared a single language, a common history, the same ideas and cultural practices. They lived next to one another, attended the same schools and churches, worked in the same offices, and drank in the same bars. A considerable number of Rwandans were of mixed parentage, the offspring of Hutu-Tutsi marriages. In addition, to make ethnic identity the predominant issue, Habyarimana and his supporters had to erase — or at least reduce — distinctions within the ranks of the Hutu themselves, especially those between people of the northwest and of other regions, those between adherents of different political factions, and those between the rich and the poor.

From the start, those in power were prepared to use physical attacks as well as verbal abuse to achieve their ends. They directed massacres of hundreds of Tutsi in mid-October 1990 and in 5 other episodes before the 1994 Genocide. In some incidents, Habyarimana’s supporters killed Hutu opponents — their principal political challengers — as well as Tutsi, their declared ideological target.

Habyarimana was obliged to end his party’s monopoly of power in 1991 and rival parties sprouted quickly to contend for popular support. Several of them created youth wings ready to fight to defend partisan interests. By early 1992, Habyarimana had begun providing military training to the youth of his party, who were thus transformed into the militia known as the Interahamwe ("Those Who Stand Together" or "Those Who Attack Together"). Massacres of Tutsi and other crimes by the Interahamwe went unpunished, as did some attacks by other groups, thus fostering a sense that violence for political ends was “normal”.

Preparations for Slaughter

Through attacks, virulent propaganda, and persistent political manoeuvering, Habyarimana and his group signficantly widened divisions between Hutu and Tutsi by the end of 1992. During 1993, a dramatic military advance by the RPF and a peace settlement favourable to them — which also stipulated that officials, including the President, could be prosecuted for past abuses — confronted Habyarimana and his supporters with the imminent loss of power. These same events heightened concerns among a broader group of Hutu, including some not previously identified with Habyarimana. Increasingly anxious about RPF ambitions, this growing group was attracted by the new
Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) and by a movement called Hutu Power, which cut across party lines and embodied the ethnic solidarity that Habyarimana had championed for three years. In late October, Tutsi soldiers in neighboring Burundi seized and murdered the Hutu President, freely and fairly elected only months before. In massacres touched off by the assassination, tens of thousands of Burundians died, both Hutu and Tutsi. The crime, energetically exploited by RTLM, confirmed the fears of many Rwandan Hutu that Tutsi would not share power and swelled the numbers supporting Hutu Power.

Meanwhile the Habyarimana circle was preparing the organization and logistics to attack the minority. During 1993, some loyalists from Habyarimana’s party expanded the recruitment and training of the Interahamwe. But others, perhaps concerned that the militia were too tainted by partisan rivalries, proposed a “civilian self-defense force” which was to recruit young men through administrative rather than party channels. The recruits were to be trained by former soldiers or communal police who would direct them in attacking the “enemy” in their communities. In early 1993, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora sketched out elements of the program in his appointment book, the intellectual Ferdinand Nahimana advocated such a force in a letter to friends and colleagues, and administrators began preparing lists of former soldiers who could command its ranks.

Soldiers and political leaders distributed firearms to militia and other supporters of Habyarimana in 1993 and early 1994, but Bagosora and others concluded that firearms were too costly to distribute to all participants in the “civilian self-defense” program (NOTE: it is also important to know that France was supplying weapons to militia forces). They advocated arming most of the young men with such weapons as machetes. Businessmen close to Habyarimana imported large numbers of machetes, enough to arm every third adult Hutu male.

Aware of these preparations, the RPF anticipated further conflict. They too recruited more supporters and troops and, in violation of the Peace Accords, increased the number of their soldiers and firearms in Kigali. They understood the risk that renewed combat would pose to Tutsi, particularly those who had come out publically in support of the RPF in the preceding months, and warned foreign observers to this effect.

The Attack
By late March 1994, Hutu Power leaders were determined to slaughter massive numbers of Tutsi and Hutu opposed to Habyarimana, both to rid themselves of these “accomplices” and to shatter the peace agreement. They had soldiers and militia ready to attack the targeted victims in Kigali and in such outlying areas as Cyangugu in the southwest, Gisenyi in the northwest and Murambi in the northeast. But elsewhere they had not completed the arrangements. In the centre of the country, they had successfully disseminated the doctrine of Hutu Power, but they were unsure how many ordinary people would transform that ideology into action. In other areas, particularly in the south, they had not won large numbers of supporters to the idea, far less organised for them to implement it.

On April 6, the plane carrying President Habyarimana was shot down, a crime for which the responsibility has never been established. A small group of his close associates — who may or may not have been involved in killing him — decided to execute the planned extermination. The Presidential Guard and other troops commanded by Colonel Bagosora, backed by militia, murdered Hutu government officials and leaders of the political opposition, creating a vacuum in which Bagosora and his supporters could take control. Soldiers and militia also began systematically slaughtering Tutsi. Within hours, military officers and administrators far from the capital dispatched soldiers and militia to kill Tutsi and Hutu political leaders in their local areas. After months of warnings, rumours and prior attacks, the violence struck panic among Rwandans and foreigners alike. The rapidity of the first killings gave the impression of large numbers of assailants, but in fact their impact resulted more from ruthlessness and organisation than from great numbers.

The killing swiftly spread from Kigali to all corners of the country. Between April 6th and mid-July 1994, a genocide of unprecedented swiftness is estimated to have left between 800,000 to 1,071,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead at the hands of organised bands of militias.

Most of the victims were killed in their villages or in towns, often by their neighbours and fellow villagers. The militia members mostly killed their victims by chopping them up with machetes, although some army units used rifles. In some towns the victims were forcibly crammed into churches and school buildings, where Hutu extremist gangs massacred them. In June about 3,000 Tutsis sought refuge in a Catholic church in Kivumu. Local Interahamwe then used bulldozers supplied by the local police to knock down the church building. People who tried to escape were hacked down with machetes.

For the rest of the story, please read "
Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda" by Human Rights Watch or read Wikipedia's background on the Rwandan Genocide.

Saturday, 4 November 2006

Rwanda 101 - Part II (Its History)

Rwanda's History:
As early as the 15th century there were three distinct groups of people, the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa living in Rwanda. The Tutsi, from further north, conquered the area, and became the ruling power, and forced the Hutu into a feudal type system that was strictly enforced. The Twa, the smallest minority group, were court jesters and often exploited. John Speke became the first European to visit Rwanda, and in 1895 the Rwandans accepted German rule to become part of German East Africa. The Germans, however, were at first completely dependent on the existing government; they did nothing to develop the country economically. The German authority kept the indigenous administration system by applying the same type of indirect rule established by the British Empire in the Ugandan kingdoms.

After Germany's loss in World War I, the protectorate was taken over by Belgium with a League of Nations mandate. Belgian rule in the region was far more direct and harsh than that of the Germans. However, the Belgian colonisers did realize the value of native rule. Backed by Christian churches, the Belgians used the minority Tutsi upper class over the lower classes of Tutsis and Hutus. Belgian-forced labour policies and stringent taxes were mainly enforced by the Tutsi upper class, whom the Belgians used as buffers against people's anger, thus further polarising the Hutu and the Tutsi. Many young peasants, in order to escape tax harassment and hunger, migrated to neighbouring countries. They moved mainly to Congo but also to Ugandan plantations, looking for work.

After World War II Rwanda became a UN trust territory with Belgium as the administrative authority. Through a series of processes - including several reforms, the assassination of King Mutara III Charles in 1959 and the fleeing of the last Abega clan monarch, King Kigeli V to Uganda - the Hutu gained more and more power. Upon Rwanda's independence in 1962, they virtually held it all.

Gregoire Kayibanda was Rwanda's first president (1962-1973), followed by Juvenal Habyarimana (1973-1994). The latter, who many view as a ruthless dictator, was unable to find a solution to increasing social unrest, the calls for democracy and the long-running problem of Rwandan Tutsi refugees. Rwanda had by the 1990s up to one million refugees scattered around neighbouring countries, the majority of them in Uganda and Burundi.

In 1990, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from Uganda. During the course of the fighting, top Rwandan government officials, mainly Hutu, began secretly training young men into informal armed bands called Interahamwe ("coming together"). Government officials also launched a radio station that began anti-Tutsi propaganda. The military government of Juvénal Habyarimana responded to the RPF invasion with pogroms against Tutsis, whom it claimed were trying to re-enslave the Hutus. In August 1993 the Rwandan government and the RPF signed a cease-fire agreement known as the Arusha Accords in Arusha, Tanzania to form a power sharing government, but fighting between the two sides continued. The United Nations sent a peacekeeping force named the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), under the leadership of Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. UNAMIR was vastly under-funded and under-staffed. More details of this aspect of the conflict are starkly explained in Dallaire's 2003 book Shake Hands With the Devil.

During the armed conflict, the RPF was blamed for the bombing of Kigali. These attacks were actually carried out by the Hutu army as part of a campaign to create a reason for a political crackdown and ethnic violence. On April 6 1994, President Habyarimana was assassinated when his Falcon 50 trijet was shot down while landing in Kigali. It remains unclear who was responsible for the assassination — most credible sources point to the Presidential Guard, spurred by Hutu nationalists fearful of losing power, although others believe that Tutsi rebels were responsible, possibly with the help of Belgian mercenaries. Over the next three months, the military and Interahamwe militia groups killed between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates in the Rwandan Genocide. The RPF continued to advance on the capital, and occupied the northern, the eastern, and the southern parts of the country by June 1994. Thousands of civilians were killed in the conflict. U.N. Member States refused to answer UNAMIR's requests for increased troops and money. Meanwhile, French troops were dispatched to stabilise the situation under Opération Turquoise, but this only resulted in an exacerbation of the situation, with the evacuation limited to foreign nationals.

On July 4 1994, the war ended as the RPF entered the capital Kigali. In the resulting Great Lakes refugee crisis over 2 million Hutus fled the country after the war, fearing Tutsi retribution. Most have since returned, although some Hutus remained in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including some militia members that became involved in the First Congo War and the Second Congo War. In 1996, after repeated unsuccessful appeals to the UN and the international community to deal with the security threat posed by the remnants of the defeated genocidal forces on its eastern border, Rwanda invaded eastern Congo (then Zaire) in an effort to eliminate the Interahamwe groups operating there. This action, and the simultaneous one by Ugandan troops, contributed to the outbreak of the First Congo War and the eventual fall of long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko (former President of Zaire).

Friday, 3 November 2006

Rwanda 101 - Part I (Geography and Climate)

Everything you wanted to know about Rwanda but were afraid to ask. Thus, here begins your class on "Introduction to Rwanda":

Rwanda, officially the Republic of Rwanda, is a small landlocked country in the
Great Lakes region of east-central Africa, with a population of approximately 8 million. It is bordered by Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. Its fertile and hilly terrain gives it the title "Land of a Thousand Hills" (in French, le Pays des Mille Collines or Igihugu cy'Imisozi Igihumbi in Kinyarwanda). Rwanda supports the densest populations in continental Africa. It is best known to the outside world for the 1994 Rwandan genocide that resulted in the deaths of up to one million people.

Rwanda's Geography:
Rwanda is a small republic in Equatorial Africa, situated a few degrees south of the Equator and on the eastern rim of the Albertine Rift, a western arm of the Great Rift Valley, on the watershed between Africa's two largest river systems: the Nile and the Congo. Much of the country's 26,338 km2 is impressively mountainous, the highest peak being Karisimbi (4,507m) in the volcanic Virunga chain protected by the Parc des Volcans. The largest body of water is Lake Kivu, but numerous other lakes are dotted around the country, notably Burera, Ruhondo, Muhazi and Mugesera, some of which have erratic shapes following the contours of the steep mountains that enclose them. Rwanda is separated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Lake Kivu and the Ruzizi River valley to the west; it is bounded on the north by Uganda, to the east by Tanzania, and to the south by Burundi. The capital, Kigali, is located in the centre of the country.

Rwanda's countryside is covered by grasslands and small farms extending over rolling hills, with areas of rugged mountains that extend southeast from a chain of volcanoes in the northwest. The divide between the Congo and Nile drainage systems extends from north to south through western Rwanda at an average elevation of almost 9,000 feet (2,740 m). On the western slopes of this ridgeline, the land slopes abruptly toward Lake Kivu and the Ruzizi River valley, and constitutes part of the Great Rift Valley. The eastern slopes are more moderate, with rolling hills extending across central uplands at gradually reducing altitudes, to the plains, swamps, and lakes of the eastern border region (hence Rwanda being fondly known as "Land of a Thousand Hills"). Recently, a British-led exploration announced that they had located the longest headstream of the River Nile in Nyungwe Forest.

Rwanda's Climate:
Rwanda is a tropical country; its high elevation makes the climate temperate year-round. In the mountains, frost and snow are possible. Temperatures rarely stray above 30 degrees Celsius by day or below 15 degrees Celsius at night throughout the year. The exceptions are the chilly upper slopes of the Virunga Mountains, and the hot low-lying Tanzania border area protected in Akagera National Park. Throughout the country, seasonal variations in temperature are relatively insignificant. Rwanda is considered the lightning capital of the world, due to intense daily thunderstorms during the two rainy seasons (February to May and September to December). Annual rainfall averages 31 inches (830 mm) but is generally heavier in the western and north-western mountains than in the eastern savannas. Most parts of the country receive in excess of 1,000mm of precipitation annually, with the driest months being July to September and the wettest February to May.

Current Problems:
High dependence on subsistence agriculture, high (and increasing) population density, decreasing soil fertility, and an uncertain climate make Rwanda a country where chronic malnutrition is widespread and poverty endemic.

Monday, 23 October 2006

Jenever know

MK: Hasselt, Hasselt, Hasselt.....what a strange adventure! Once a year, this town in North Eastern Belgium hosts the Jeneverfeesten (Genever Festival). In other words, yet another opportunity for Flemish Belgians to drink copious amounts of alcohol and do peculiar things. Like, for example, a waiter competition as shown in the photo above. From what I can tell, this involves a bunch of males and females walking around the town balancing a bottle of Jenever and its associated glassware...I still can't explain the whole point to it but it is fun to watch!

Back to the star of the festival: Jenever. In French: Genievre. In English: Genever. It is the juniper-flavored and strongly alcoholic traditional liquor of the Netherlands and Flanders, from which gin has evolved. While the old skool version ("oude") can bring even the toughest of men to his feet, there are thankfully countless other flavours available (e.g. fruity : cherry, blood orange, sour apple, banana, lemon; creamy: vanilla, chocolate, coconut; and wacky: cactus, speculoos. Yum!!

After what was a pretty satisfying day enjoying the fest and downing jenever samples, we made our way towards the train station. Just as we were about to clear the crowds, we ran into a huge Irishman, his English wife and their drunken friend -- a Dutchman. What initially seemed like a brief encounter turned into a party, with jenever after jenever and beer after beer consumed. So much for a simple Sunday out! We just caught the last train back to Brussels, feeling just a tad wobbly to boot.

We also witnessed our first true fight in the two years we have been living in Belgium -- and it was between two posh looking Flemish lasses no less! Their battle royale eventually drew in their male mates, causing an unprecedented frenzy which the not-so-motivated police had to break-up. It was almost as if we had been transported back to nights out in Hull (Quebec).

Photos of Hasselt Jeneverfeesten 2006 on Flickr
Photos of Hasselt Jeneverfeesten 2006 on Picasa Web Album


MK: After much protest from my (JK says: "supremely macho") hubby, I finally convinced him to take me to Spa. Little do most people know that the word "spa" -- and all the fun associated with it -- comes from this Belgian town.

The town of Spa itself is small and attractive. And behind every modern-day facade you can see a city that was once brimming with grandeur. While its heyday has long since passed, Spa still attracts visitors from all walks of life. John and I spent a day at the ThermaSpa on top of the hill overlooking the town (for quite a shocking price of 15euros each = York Street Spa beware!!).

It was surreal soaking in the heated waters outside, with cool air keeping you fresh and multicoloured fall leaves providing a nice backdrop. I also tortured John by making him go in both the dry and steam sauna followed by dipping ourselves into 3 tubs of different temperatures: an ice cold, a luke warm, and a steaming hot tub. It was painful but our bodies felt rejuvenated (JK: I thought it was a bit of BS, to be honest ;)).

Oh, did I also mention that Formula 1 Grand Prix is in Spa too? Sorry guys, I have nothing to report!

Check out the links: Photos of Spa on Flickr
Photos of Spa on Picasa Web Album

Thursday, 19 October 2006

The Grand Voyage Home

JK: With the UNDP imploring (well, perhaps more accurately "calling") Melanie to begin a one year contract in Rwanda at the end of October, we decided it was "now or never" to make a short trip back home to Ottawa (Canada, not Illinois). So, at literally the very last minute, we hopped on a plane in Brussels, suffered through the indignities of London's Heathrow (bring on the new Terminal 5 because the current state of this airport is tragic!), and eventually made it back home.

Mel had been back to Canada as recently as February, but it was JK's first time home since moving to Belgium a full two years earlier. (This led to some reverse culture shock, see separate entry below).

Our eight days and nine nights spent in Ottawa and Toronto were tremendous (what were you expecting us to say, that they sucked? ;). Although, sleep was at a premium, but it was all worth it. Shock-quality hospitality in Ottawa was provided by Kootch "the sleep adventureman" Mertikas (when he does sleep, which is not often, the Kootch likes to try out several rooms, floors and sofas over the course of the night) and his tremendous wife Anabela "Tavaresa". Their home, and particularly the living room, looked like it came straight from the set of a designer TV show. Very nice. The same goes for our other hosts, Zvonimir Martin and Sweet Leonard Nimoy, who occupy a glorious pad downtown complete with an authentic Metallica shrine. What messiahs.

Despite the abbreviated time in Ottawa, we consider ourselves lucky to have seen so many "critical friends", titans, and legends. We accomplished tons: from the Scotsman's surprise birthday dinner, poker with Ottawa's "man-mountains", lunches with legends, elbow drops with NHS'ers, dinner with the Baron and his Italian wife, re-uniting with the Duce and co., dining and debating with the Perrakides, seeing Will sell apples for his Beaver colony, thanksgiving with the Illingworths (amongst a few other family get-togethers), and of course our impromptu wedding reception. Seeing so many new babies (all cute of course -- don't worry moms and dads!) was quite a shock for JK in particular. All this and my wife still managed to - unbeknownst to me - get a pedicure at the York Street Spa and stock up on all the necessary Aveda, Lancome, and MAC products that are crucial to her existence in Rwanda.

Toronto was also great, but the visit was far too short (one night only). The city is so interesting, but we did not have time to even scratch the surface. Still, we received excellent hospitality from my bro, "Iasonas", and his wife (Caro)'lyne. They too have a great pad north of the beaches and south of -- where else? -- the Danforth. In TO we hung with the Nico-Man and Mara, downed sushi with CK, coffee with Mel's older brother Mike, and guzzled margaritas with Dawn, my bro/sis-in-law and the Nezanator/Rob.

The reception in Ottawa, expertly organised by none other than -- how did you guess? -- Mélanie (actually, with the tremendous help of the Kootch), was a true highlight. About one hundred people came to gobble on nibblies, exchange banter and have some laughs. We were honoured that so many people came to see us on what was a Thanksgiving long weekend!!!

For photos of our wedding reception in Ottawa, click here.

For scenic photos of Ottawa, click here.

For silly photos with friends, click here.

For fun photos with family, click here.

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

(Reverse) Culture Shock!

JK: As mentioned above, Mel had been back to Canada as recently as February 2006 (7 months ago), but it was JK's first time home since moving to Belgium a full two years earlier (October 2004). This led to some reverse culture shock, including:

  • Cheeriness and friendliness of most people. You could actually walk into a store in Ottawa and not fear: a) it being closed 10 minutes early; b) being told to get out; or c) receiving the trusted shrug and "non, c'est impossible monsieur" line:).
  • Peacefulness. This was both good and bad. The good: JK admired the number of people who were genuinely upset when a nearby Ottawa driver honked his horn a few times in anger. In Brussels we are truly disturbed when we don't hear someone unload on his/her horn at least every hour -- including in the middle of the night! The bad: even the Byward Market seemed a bit too peaceful compared to the action on Euro-streets (I won't even bother mentioning Sparks Street).
  • Service culture. When JK realised on the way to rent a car that his license had recently expired -- and having become habituated to the Kafkaesque ways of Europe -- he panicked. "Good god, I don't have 10 pieces of identification, a letter from my deceased great-grandmother, a certificate from my childhood dentist, and 15 weeks to spare", he said. Fortunately, he was in Canada and, after a quick visit to the license bureau, we were on our way to Toronto in a rented car with JK at the helm, renewed license in tow!
  • Coffee to go. This is both good and bad. The good: convenience. It is nice to know that, if you are in a rush, a coffee "to go" can be prepared for you without risking the wrath of the server. While this is catching on in Europe, it is still considered a peculiar habit. Walking down the street with take-out coffee is practically sacrilegious. The bad: it is actually nice to sit down and enjoy your coffee, particularly the high quality - straight from the espresso machine - stuff they ply us with over in Brussels. Also, and perhaps this is a bureaucratic Ottawa thing, but it is a tad disturbing seeing every second person walking around town with a 1 litre "cup" of watery filtered coffee in hand. Coffee has almost become the new Linus and his security blanket.

Monday, 16 October 2006

On 15 and 16 October: Stand Up and Help Fight Poverty

On 15 and 16 October, the world came together to stand up and remind their governments that promises to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and help the billions living in extreme poverty must be kept.

The purpose of the action is to raise awareness of the MDGs and to publicly demonstrate to policy makers the growing global support for the eradication of poverty.

STAND UP is an initiative designed to coincide with Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) month of global mobilizations around the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. We need everyone to take part to ensure governments listen and take action. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs is organizing an International Forum on the Eradication of Poverty on 15 and 16 November at United Nations Headquarters New York to mark the end of the First UN Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (1997-2006).

Although they ask for you to take notice for only two days, why don't you go further and stand up against poverty a little bit every month, or every week, or even every day. Click on the Stand Up logo to find out how you can help. And buy a white band.

To see photos from the "Stand Up Against Poverty" campaign around the world, click here.

Saturday, 7 October 2006

Congratulations Miss Sutton and Mrs Airey-Castillero!!

M&J would like extend a warm congratulations to both Miss Sutton and Mrs Airey-Castillero for entering into the world of management consular officers (MCOs). We couldn't think of two finer people to provide service to Canadians abroad.

Thursday, 28 September 2006

Hide and Seek

All the noise and chatter have stopped. You cannot hear a sound. Melanie and John have gone into hiding. They are busy preparing for their next adventures and changes to their lives. Please come back soon and you will learn where they have gone, what they have been up to, what and whom they have seen, and where they are going.

Wednesday, 6 September 2006

Answers to Madonna Quiz

MK: Well, it looks like our readers are not up on their pop culture! So for those curious minds, here are the answers:

1. Lucky Star (Madonna)
2. Dress You Up (Like a Virgin)
3. True Blue (True Blue)
4. Who's that Girl (Who's that Girl)
5. Keep it Together (Like a Prayer)
6. Something to Remember (I'm Breathless)
7. Erotica (Erotica)
8. Secret (bedtime Stories)
9. This Used to be my Playground (Something to Remember)
10. Don't Cry for me Argentina (Evita)
11. Frozen (Ray of Light)
12. Music (Music)
13. Die Another Day (American Life)
14. Isaac (Confessions on A Dance Floor)

Seeing the Material Girl Live.... At Long Last

MK: Thanks to Janet (one of NART's original members), my life long dream and passion (well, one of them at least!) came true on Monday night. I ventured to Amsterdam and saw Madonna's Confessions Tour.
Instead of going into how artistic, creative, flexible, amazing, and wonderful Madonna and her concerts are, I have decided to do something interactive with you.

Guess what songs and album these lyrics are from:

1. "And when I'm lost you'll be my guide. I just turn around and you're by my side."
2. "Let me cover you with velvet kisses. I'll create a look that's made for you."
3. "You're the one I'm dreaming of. Your heart fits me like a glove."
4. "Her heart is on the street, tu corazon es suyo. Now you're falling at her feet."
5. "When I get lonely and I need to be. Loved for who I am, not what they want to see."
6. "But you gave me something to remember. No other man said love yourself."
7. "Once you put your hand in the flame. You can never be the same."
8. "Since you came into my life. You found a way to touch my soul."
9. "This used to be the place I ran to. Whenever I was in need."
10. "Couldn't stay all my life down at heel. Looking out of the window, staying out of the sun."
11. "Love is a bird, she needs to fly. Let all the hurt inside of you die."
12. "It's like ridin' on the wind and it never goes away. But she's everything I'm in got to have it everyday."
13. "I think I'll find another way. There's so much more to know."
14. "Wrestle with your darkness. Angels call your name."

Here is a hint: They are in chronological order from each album she has produced.... And NO cheating!!

Tuesday, 5 September 2006

A Belgian Beer Fest

For those interested in beer, there are very few countries that can compete with Belgium for the production of quality brew.
M&JK: While the Belgians are normally very modest, they are quite proud of their brewing tradition. So what better festival to organise than a beery one in the heart of Brussels.

We made our way down for what we thought would be a simple afternoon beer sampling adventure. In the end, we (mostly John, "the beer drinker in the family") spent hour upon hour there, consuming incredible and wacky beer upon incredible and wacky beer. Many mates joined us over the duration of the event, making it a superb Saturday!

Monday, 4 September 2006

Has it Really Been One Year Already??

M&JK: On Sunday the 3rd of September 2006, we passed the one-year hurdle (of marriage, that is). It doesn't seem so bad afterall! We still talk on occasion! ;)

Here is a (JK: rather cheesy but fun ;)) collage showing some of our best memories together:

To celebrate we convened some very fine folk a few days later for a drink at -- where else? -- the Grapevine in Place Lux (formerly known as "Place Petros", until the bugger picked up and moved to London). The sun was shining (we're having a bit of an Indian Summer -- and we deserve it after the August we had) which made everyone particularly giddy.

So, on we go for year two. Let's see what surprises await us!

Sunday, 3 September 2006

A Bacchian experience

JK: Dionysios Trigylidas, aka "Denis", "Trigger" or "The Dionetian", blessed us with his legendary presence last Thursday night.

The visit started on a peculiar note. After a 3.5 hour wait for us to finish work, Denis was forced to sit solo for another 30 minutes at a bar, beer in hand, unceremoniously abandoned by John, who ran off in a panic looking for his set of keys (which were inadvertently left in the front door of our apartment building).

Triumphantly, the night was redeemed by a beautiful dinner at "Le Cap" (Marche de Vieille Halle aux Bles -- a very neat and undisturbed square near the Grand Place).

But the greatest highlight -- and yet another chapter in Denis and JK's shared sport viewing history -- was the Greek victory over the NBA-based US national team at the World Cup of Baskeball. They watched the game in a jam-packed and cigarette smoke infested Greek resto-bar across the street from the EU Commission (Kafeneio). The game was rather early in the morning, as you can see by their sleepy eyes in the pic above. Posted by Picasa

Monday, 28 August 2006

One night by the North Sea...

JK: In a desperate attempt to run away from the endless cloud and rain (yes, the weather is a recurring theme of conversation lately, but by god it has been hideous), we hopped on a train to the North Sea coastal town of Oostende. Miraculously, by the time we arrived the sky had opened up and we got to enjoy the Belgian coast with our friend the sun.

BUT, of course, there was a catch: so enthralled were we with being on the coast, that we missed the last train back to Brussels (well, that is my version; Mélanie "claims" I misread the train schedule... ;) ).

MK: I interject here to say he did indeed read the train schedule wrong but too manly to admit it.

JK: Stuck in Oostende for the night, and on a very tight budget (you get paid at the beginning of the month in Europe, hence end of month spending becomes rather tricky), we had the choice of either pulling an all-nighter and catching the first train back to Brussels, or else finding some sort of cheap room. With the youth hostel closed (it was already midnight), and every hotel either booked or far too expensive, we finally stumbled upon a "seniors' bar" -- i.e. a bar full of extremely old folk dancing to Flemish gigs -- that advertised cheap rooms for the night.

We got the room, and after sheepishly trudging through a group of partying octagenarians, settled in. The building lacked a shower for guests (presumably showers at the nearby beach could be used -- thanks for the convenience!), the tap in the bedroom spurted out a few drops of water and the walls could have been made from paper maché, but at least the sheets looked clean!

Fortunately, a superb beer bar was located directly across the street. It provided the perfect relief from our misfortune and an opportunity for me to go hog-wild tasting the variety of glory on offer (La Chouffe on tap! Bink Blonde, etc) while Mélanie daintily sipped chilled jenever. What a peculiar weekend adventure!

To see the photos, click here.

Thursday, 24 August 2006

Boyo was here! Yes he was

After an odyssey that included the 24hour postponement of his flight to Europe, a missed train in Paris, a missed second flight to Barcelona and a host of penalty charges, Ottawa's heroic Boyo (aka DJ Boyo, DJ Chicken Stardude, Pollo, Barnabitch) finally made it for a visit --albeit an abreviated one-- to Brussels. Boyo put on a brave and honourable face whilst here, belying the exhaustion and trouble he had endured. Clearly his years of weight training had made him strong.

Our powerful frisbee-obsessed friend from Ottawa spent five hours in our adopted home before we escorted him to the airport for his flight to Barcelona/Ibiza. But what an action-packed five hours they were! We attempted to give him a taste of both "the real" Brussels (e.g. Marolles, Jeux de balle, Midi marché, St. Boniface, etc) and the tourist version (Grand Place, which was fortunately still adorned with the Tapis de Fleurs - photo posted here).

The young Boyo entertained us with tales from Ottawa. The only sad note was that his short visit precluded the consumption of many of the Belgian beers of glory John had amassed with the intention of imbibing in his honour. Next time! Restez massif Boyo!

Sunday, 20 August 2006

The Secret of Mons

MK: To break yet another dreary/rainy weekend in Belgium, we lifted our spirits by taking a day-trip to Mons (45 minutes by train from Brussels). We were pleasantly surprised by yet another "discovery" in this under-rated country: Mons is indeed a very attractive town. The Befry is captured in the pic belowOne interesting point: Mons happens to be the location of NATO's Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers in Europe (SHAPE). So lots of ex-pats and folk with crew-cuts to be seen!
For more pics click here.

Thursday, 17 August 2006

Flower Carpet - Tapis de Fleurs - Bloementapijt

Every two years, Brussels turns on the razzamatazz, struts its stuff, and delivers what even non-flower folk like me acknowledge is quite a spectacle: the Tapis de Fleurs (Bloementapijt for you Dutch speakers in cyberspace). The massive carpet, placed in the middle of arguably the mother of all European squares, is displayed for only four days on even numbered years in August. This year's themed pattern was "Middle Ages", which included nine elevated "rosettes", which spun slowly to give the whole thing an animated feel.

I must say that after what has been a horrendous August in Northern Europe (15 days straight of cloud and rain), this exhibit came as a god-send!! Click the pic to be taken to our Flickr Tapis de Fleurs set. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, 15 August 2006

Utrecht and The Hague

JK: We went the Netherlands to visit our mate -- and the EPC's most eccentric employee -- Ms. Vanessa Matthews.

The Dutch adventure began in Utrecht, where we battled hard with a furious mother nature (it rained non-stop the entire time we were there), and eventually came out winners. The city was full of university students on frosh week, so despite the biblical rains, there was plenty of action on the streets.

From there we made the short trip to The Hague ("Den Haag" for all you Dutch folk), where Ms. Matthews took us on a wonderous tour, including a highlight stop on the Dutch North Sea coast (just a 20 minute tram ride away). As you can see from the picture above, the sun came out on the coast and made us as giddy as schoolkids. Thank you Vanessa for presenting Den Haag's most glorious face! Dank U mijn vriend!

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Change of Plans

MK: After a last minute change to our Greek holiday schedule, I left for the bustling cosmopolitan town (yah, right!) of Bonn, Germany. I spent two intensive weeks (23 July - 5 August 2006) doing training for the UNDP's ARMADA (Advanced Resource Mobilisation and Delivery for Africa) initiative. I not only received certification in "Projects in Controlled Environments" (PRINCE2), not to mention being burdened with "pop quizzes", but also learned that the UN has quite a complex system of acronyms - far worse than any government - in which even the same acronym can mean something different. How confusing is that? Despite the work-horse agenda (8:30AM - 7:00PM), 40 of us from all over the globe managed to pass the nights away at a local watering hole. The final night was spent at a Brazilian bar/restaurant in which - while sipping on caipirinhas - 30 of us danced up a storm while the local Germans watched on with part disdain and part awe!

Thursday, 3 August 2006

Adventures in Hellas

JK: A career training offer for Mel beginning the day after Jason and Carolyne's wedding meant we had to quickly revise our original plan to stay in Greece for a holiday after my brother's wedding.

Left with what was essentially a day to decide on a plan, we thought up the most obvious agenda for a holiday: fly a cheap charter flight to Lesbos, spend a long weekend there, take a 12 hour overnight ferry to the northern port of Kavala, from there take three buses to my mother's town of Alexandroupolis, after three days fly down to Athens on the weekend of Jason and Carolyne's wedding only to take a flight directly from the wedding back to Lesbos to catch the return charter home. Sound easy? Believe it or not all the pieces fell into place and we pulled it off -- even if the frenetic pace resulted in me actually falling asleep at the office on my first day back at work. Oh well, it is "summertime" in Europe and no one is at work anyway.

Highlights of the trip included our visit to the lesbian mecca of "Eressos" in Lesbos. In case you're wondering, it was more of a comfortable shoe and close-crop hairdo convention than anything else. ;)

In my mother's homeland of Thrace, Melanie was introduced to the wilder side of the family. However, most of this wildness in middle age entails carrying out Herculean feats of food consumption. We -- and our respective bellies -- were taken very, very, good care of in northern Greece.

In Athens, Melanie achieved here life-long goal: to see Shakira in concert. Yes, we took the trek, along with about 25,000 disciples, to the Olympic stadium to watch the talented little lass in action. We also spent a bit (not enough) of time with our cousins in Athens' up-and-coming neighbourhood of Gazi, a former gas works and warehouse area.

So despite its relative brevity (10 days by European standards is paltry for one's summer holidays; then again, 10 days by North American standards is a massive holiday that one should be honoured to have) our trip was a success!

Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Adieu to two legends!

Adieu - Au revoir - Good bye - Adios - Antio - Kwa Herini - Sayanara... There are no words we can write that will encompass our feelings about your departure. Belgium definitely won't be the same without both of you. Both of you were a major part of our best memories here. We wish you all the best in Colorado and hope to see you somewhere in the world again soon... Vancouver 2010??!! ;-)

Sunday, 23 July 2006

Kotsopoulos' youngest clan member marries

JK: My brother Jason and I are about 11 months apart in age. So, just for the sake of symmetry, our respective weddings have now taken place about 11 months apart too. Jason and Carolyne's (Topdjian) big day took place outside of Athens on Sunday, July 23 in a nice venue set amidst modern art and flora (Museum Vorre).

The bride was ravishing and the groom dashing (yes, cliché terms, but accurate -- so why not!). Highlights included the best man (Mike Slayer) head-banging to the Ramones, the groom performing a shockingly accurate traditional Armenian dance, the Team Canada table achieving new heights in beer consumption, and various folk from both maternal (Thrace) and paternal (Messolonghi) homelands battling it out for folk-dance supremacy.

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves despite the challenge of going directly from the wedding to the airport for our 6am flight back to Brussels. Our flight was via Lesbos (we had come to Greece by charter which landed there). The Lesbos leg was delayed by 4 hours...but there are worse places in the world to spend an extra few hours. Update on our trip to come (early pics already available here).

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

FACTBOX: Dangers facing children around the world

MK: Kidnappings, rape and forced labour are some of the horrors inflicted on children highlighted in a Reuters AlertNet poll released on Tuesday to identify the world's most dangerous places to be a child.

Here are some statistics for dangers faced by children around the globe:

  • Nearly 11 million children a year -- about 30,000 a day -- die before their fifth birthday, mostly from preventable causes.
  • Out of 100 children born in 2000, 30 will likely suffer malnutrition, 26 will not be immunised and 17 will never go to school.
  • An estimated 218 million children are used for labour. Millions work in especially horrific circumstances, including the virtual slavery of bonded labour.
  • An estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year for labour or sex.
  • About 1 million children are thought to be exploited in the multi-billion dollar sex industry.
  • There are over 300,000 child soldiers, some as young as eight, in more than 30 countries.
  • More than 2 million children are thought to have died as a direct result of armed conflict in the past decade.
  • Up to 10,000 children are killed or maimed by landmines each year.
  • An estimated 100 million women and girls have undergone genital mutilation.

(Reuters Source: Unicef, International Labour Organization.)

Monday, 3 July 2006

The Peacekeeper joins us in Brussels

MK: Mr. International Development, none other than Ian Rowe, blessed us with his powerful presence for almost a week in early July.

A great friend of JK’s since 1986 (yep, the years are really going by), Ian is moving to Brussels to undertake an MA at the same university (Kent) where John studies. So, 15 years after they graduated high school, the two will be classmates again!

On top of that, Ian found an apartment approximately 30 seconds by foot from ours – perfect for weekend “pub crawls” and “keggers”. Welcome back to school Mr. Rowe!! :)

Tuesday, 27 June 2006

Welkom Baron and Baroness

MK: Two legends popped into Brussels for a visit. We were very pleased to have our Italian lady Melissa and Baron von Shilling. Many different beers and restaurants and laughs later, they left as quickly as they came.

Sunday, 25 June 2006

Jakarta: A City of Contrasts

JK: In rather Forest Gump-like fashion, I was sent to Jakarta at the last minute to present a paper on European human security at a conference on South East Asian Security Cooperation. Although most of my time was spent in the conference room, I did have 1.5 days to explore the city. Unfortunately, there was no time to actually get out of the capital and explore the countryside.

Jakarta is Blade Runner-esque. Huge skyscrapers straddled by shanty towns. Ultra-modern indoor shopping malls enveloped by garbage strewn canals. I love cities, warts and all, but I have to say it was difficult to be charmed by Jakarta's wares. Still, there were wacky and neat things to see.

Some of the highlights included the old harbour, where only sailing schooners without engines are permitted to dock (pic below). The sea of TV antennas popping up along the sides of highway bridges was also interesting. I found out that the "super-stretched" antennas came from illegal shelters built underneath the bridges. For more photo evidence of this trip, click here.

Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Keeping the Flame of Hope Alive

MK: 20 June is World Refugee Day

"Throughout their long and daunting journey from oppression and persecution to asylum and protection, and eventually to a place they can call home, refugees show incredible strength, courage and determination. Their journey is a dangerous and arduous one and every day spent in exile is a day too long.

But in every step of their journey refugees carry with them an unshakable, unrelenting hope. By hanging on to their hopes for basic survival, sustenance and protection, and for the chance to one day rebuild their lives, refugees defy all odds. As the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), we continue to be impressed by the tenacious hopefulness of refugees which, in turn, motivates us to leave no stone unturned in the fulfillment of our mandate, to protect them and to find durable solutions to their plight.

On World Refugee Day, we ask you to remember the millions of refugees under our care who are trying to pick up the pieces of once-peaceful lives. As different as they are from each other, one thing connects them all: hope for a better future and a chance to restore lasting peace to their lives.

Help us keep that flame of hope alive!"

While the number of refugees worldwide has reached a quarter-century low, UNHCR's annual tally of uprooted people rose in 2005 to nearly 21 million, with the rise to the refugee agency's expanding role in caring for internally displaced people (IDPs).

UNHCR draws inspiration from the perseverance of the world's estimated 20.8 million people of concern to the agency – including some 8.4 million refugees – and the fact they never give up hope despite losing everything. While global refugee figures had dropped 31 percent since 2001, returnees often still faced a bleak future back home. Greater focus is needed on ensuring countries move forward after conflict. The international community needs to devote much more attention to the transition between relief and development and to rebuilding societies ripped apart by violence so that refugees who go home, can stay home.

As an expression of solidarity with Africa, which hosts the most refugees, and which traditionally has shown them great generosity, the UN General Assembly adopted
Resolution 55/76 on 4 December 2000. In this resolution, the General Assembly noted that 2001 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) had agreed to have International Refugee Day coincide with Africa Refugee Day on 20 June. The Assembly therefore decided that, from 2001, 20 June would be celebrated as World Refugee Day. [Note: The OAU was replaced by the African Union on 9 July 2002.]

For more information, please visit: the
United Nations and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.