Dydier Kamundu, a 29-year-old human rights activist who fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo to protect his family and his own life, has been named the 1999-2000 Oak Human Rights Fellow by the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights. He will be in residence at Colby during the fall semester.
Kamundu, who taught himself law and started a small but effective human rights organization in the former Zaire, is credited with heroic acts amid the ethnic conflict and bloodshed that has wracked his homeland. In 1996, when he learned that a truck carrying ethnic Tutsis to the Rwandan border had broken down and was surrounded by a mob, Kamundu mobilized policemen and went to the scene. He defused the situation and persuaded the authorities to escort the group to the borderacts called miraculous by a Western human rights worker. Earlier the same year, when nine young villagers were labeled rebels, incarcerated and tortured (three of them to death) by Zairian armed forces, Kamundu procured medical care for the victims and waged a campaign that ultimately got the six surviving youngsters released from custody.
Kamundu was a baker before ethnic strife among the Bahunde, the Hutu and the Tutsi people turned his homeland into a battleground and forced his family from their village. Horrified by the partisan violence that claimed 14 of his 15 brothers, Kamundu dedicated himself to human rights and peace, according to Karen Hirschfield, who nominated him for the Oak fellowship. He learned local and international law by reading books and founded the organization APREDICI (Action Paysanne pour le Reconstruction et le Dévelopement Communitaire Intégral). The organization initially consisted of a small shack in Goma with a single desk and typewriter, on which Kamundu typed legal protests of arbitrary arrests, detentions and other abuses. Today it has a staff of 13 in Congo and five in France and works with 2,500 families in peasant collectives.
Oak Institute Director Ken Rodman (government) said Kamundu was selected from among 62 nominees because he was the person who took the greatest risks and saved the most lives.
Eliza Denoeux, associate director of the Oak Institute, said Kamundu best fulfilled the Schindlers List criteria.
In 1998 Kamundu won the Reebok Human Rights Award. After accepting the award in New York he was unable to return to his home. Friends stopped him on his way back to Goma to say an army truck was stationed at his house, waiting for him. He escaped from Congo to Uganda, where he was reunited with his family, and they all are currently living as refugees in Lyon, France.
Unable to go home, Kamundu is working to create an international human rights network, and the Oak fellowship and award should make a significant difference in that effort, Rodman said.