Monday, November 11, 2013

Bunia, DR Congo: November 20, 2012

On November 20, 2012, I was working from Bunia in Ituri Province to prepare a workshop that had been cancelled previously due to unrest (see Epulu attack). That first version of the workshop had been postponed and rescheduled for early December. In the lead-up to this second version of our workshop, the M23 rebellion in the hills of Masisi and Virunga National Park, and Rutshuru Territory, had intensified its aggression and threatened to attack Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. I flew through Goma (flying through always requires about 2 nights when connecting from Kinshasa) around November 1st and visited my brother-in-law's family and my fiancĂ©e's cousin. They talked of increased insecurity in town including some late-night killings. A curfew had been instituted to counteract the violence, and the bustling city of the day-time became an eerily quiet ghost-town at night. I didn't prolong my stay as the restrictions and rumors didn't inspire much confidence in my. I wasn't trying my luck considering the events that I survived in June.

I needed to get to Bunia to plan the workshop and I had previously found Bunia to be a much more comfortable city than Goma. Contributing largely to this was the presence of a sizable UN (MONUSCO) contingent and many NGOs, including some Christian NGOs which I found to be very caring. The amalgam of these different groups and the lack of places at which to be posted, made one feel very familiar after just a few days. Being independent, I posted myself at MONUSCO House during the days, which was a restaurant and sports club available exclusively to NGOs, UN, and not just any schmoe off the street. They had more reliable internet than most hotels and the Indians who ran the place were very low-key. Similarly the Congolese waitresses who worked there were amiable and capable of joking easily. The grounds were fenced and contained a restaurant, gym, soccer field, and an outdoor eating area (paillotte). I felt comfortable working from there.

However, as news of M23's advance towards Goma (some 250 miles south of Bunia) continued, small effects were noticeable even in Bunia. The USAID staff who I had been in contact with regarding the workshop grew wary of travelling from Kinshasa to Bunia as nearly all humanitarian air traffic was routed through Goma and they were not allowed to travel on commercial lines. Then some cellphone networks developed small interruptions in service. People including the taximen (motorcycle taxi drivers) blamed this on the M23 cutting access. Whether this was true, or possibly the national army may have been sabotaging the networks to prevent rebel communication and civilian panic, I don't know.

On November 20, I got a message in from USAID which contained a State Department warning about the M23 threat, but which also included a dire warning about travel to the Ituri District which is where I was. I grew furious, thinking that State Department was over-reacting from its common risk-averse perspective and sent a message to my correspondents at USAID that there were not problems in Ituri or Bunia and the State Department should not mix all these issues together in the same pot. My agitation was due in part to envisioning a scenario where the workshop unravelled due to whatever was happening in Goma even if Bunia remained relatively stable. Nonetheless, things changed rapidly during the course of that day as the M23 breached line after line of defense converging upon Goma. The mood in Bunia remained relatively calm although everybody was thinking about Goma. Also, we were having difficulty communicating as interruptions in cellphone service became consistent. This prompted me to quickly visit the service provider Congo-Chine Telecom (CCT)'s shop to buy a SIM card and some credit so that I could communicate. The shop was VERY busy as many other people seemed to have the same idea. I waited for what could have been one hour for service, as individual vendors bought dozens of merchandise items.

After visiting the shop, I met up with some of my colleagues who were from Bunia for lunch at a local restaurant. One of them was on vacation, the other had left Epulu after all of the insecurity to resume living in Bunia. And for good reason, he told me his wife had given birth that very morning. What a day to be born...

After discussing all of the DRC's problems at length, we parted ways and I returned to MONUSCO House (MH) to read the latest news and to communicate with colleagues about the viability of our workshop planning. One message I received claimed that the M23 had taken Goma from the national army while the UN had stood by without engaging. Another said that rioting had begun in Kisangani and Beni, and asked how things were going in Bunia. Having just been out, I replied quickly that nothing seemed terribly amiss there but that I'd be careful. No sooner had I finished writing and I began to notice commotion outside of the main MH gate. It first started like a windstorm swirling around - the Indian workers ran out to see what was happening. They exclaimed excitedly that a mob was attacking the PPRD (ruling party) office down the street. I slammed my computer shut hastily as commotion and noise grew closer. By the time my computer was being shoved in to my backpack, rocks started to pelt the roof of MH. I watched in disbelief as a UN truck flew in reverse to block the MH entrance. Two South African peacekeepers hopped out and bolted into the entry. They aided the private MH security guard in slamming and securing the entry door as their vehicle went alight with flames from a Molotov cocktail. As I searched for a safe place inside the restaurant, I heard rocks pelting the roof in an ever-steadier tenor. It goes without saying, that the UN was now the object of the mob's anger. I found myself in yet another hairy situation...its DRC so things change quickly but still I had thought that I'd found one of the "safest" places possible - a UN compound - but it just so happened that I was there at the wrong time.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Rough days in eastern DRC

A patrol in Virunga National Park came under attack from rebels south of Lake Edward. Three people were killed.

In an unrelated shocking incident, Dr Mukwege of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, narrowly escaped a targeted attack from gunmen who had broken into his house and waited for him to return home from an overseas. Mukwege treats many of eastern DRC's rape victims and had recently spoken at the UN General Assembly about how he can treat people's wounds but the international community needs to treat the problems which make these wounds in the first place.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Return to DRC

Yep, I am back in DRC. Many people might think I'm an idiot for returning after surviving a rebel attack on my base there, and maybe they're right! I arrived on Tuesday night, one day after the famous biennial Sommet de la Francophonie officially closed. Hosting many Francophone country delegates including newly elected French president, this was a chance for the DRC to showcase itself to the world. The French president made some interesting comments leading up to the conference, including an accusation that human rights and democracy are not respected here, but he also expressed his belief that the boundaries of DRC are unalterable. These comments speak to recent events – including the squelching of all opposition (who French president visited while in country) and the trial of police for the murder of famous human rights activist. Furthermore, there is an aggression in the Kivu provinces by a militia group with links to two neighboring countries. Insiders believe that the ambitions of these countries are to gain territory and annex this resource-rich region. Meanwhile one of those countries was just elected to the UN Security Council which might allow it to veto any concrete action against ITSELF…odd!
So what did the DRC show off to the world? I rode from the airport with a Cameroonian guy who lives in Kinshasa, the massive capital city which had hosted the summit. He had left one week prior to the summit and noted several spectacular differences from 10 days earlier, including thousands of blue lights lining the (one and only) major road from the international airport to downtown. In fact the road is wide and almost felt like we were on a runway. Furthermore there were flickering crosswalk lights even where no one would need to cross. It was interesting because the density of lights was highest close to the airport where in fact there aren't really many people and gradually decreased moving toward the city as the population grew denser. So I guess the government is betting high that first impressions will be the most important and obviously these lights aren't all that important for safety.
In downtown there are large murals of a smiling President, smiling Congolese, okapis – the summit and DRC's national emblem – and many murals and streetlights which were meant to make the place look ultra-modern. Furthermore the summit was hosted on a weekend and Congolese were asked to take these days off to relieve the roads of traffic and to hide the reality of how the majority of Kinois are living and working in the informal sector.
Additionally, a massive hotel built for this occasion and allegedly funded entirely by politicians. It looks like it would blend in to Las Vegas. I'm going to check it out more when I get the chance.
But from what I've seen so far, signs of progress in Kinshasa are largely cosmetic and there doesn't seem to be any more organization or state control than before. I noticed this while chatting with my new Cameroonian friend, as we were stuck in traffic for almost 2 hours. People were driving on the wrong sides of the roads, cars were broken down everywhere, and the few police that we saw were unable to improve the situation. So, the same road that had hosted high level delegates in the 24-48 previous hours probably without traffic had returned to its natural state of chaos. This clearly showed me that resources are being canalized towards improving image but not the reality. But substance never mattered as much as style here so that is hardly a surprise.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Epulu bridges falling down (again!)

On September 24th I reflected on the 3 months since the is still just so depressing. Not a day goes by when I don't think about how the quiet village of Epulu was attacked and destroyed by the hands of a brutal militia - the "Mai-Mai Lumumba" led by a local poacher named Morgan...and then pillaged by the national army...ugh!! Quel malheur!

I want to share a link to my friend's blog post about Epulu. Since the attack, the village had begun to return to a very precarious "normal", but then the bridge fell down again (also in Nov 2009). My colleagues cried out to anyone who would listen about their misfortune. Their livelihoods disrupted by the attack in June and now the inconvenience of having to ford a river just to go to work...while threats of another attack continue.

A sleepy village transformed into a chaotic, bizarre place...MAF pilot John Cadd explains it well in this post:

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Found: 1:30pm, Sunday afternoon (8.5 hrs after attack)

Deep in my thoughts, I was on a quest to determine how we would escape from our situation. I had a very egotistical hope that my presence in Epulu (the only expatriate) might help speed up the relief effort. I mean, my country, the US, is omnipresent and capable of swooping into any old backwater and saving the day, right? So, if they knew we had been attacked (and that I was there) they’d undoubtedly be working overtime on my behalf, right? Whereas other massacres happen without too much stress for the US embassy, this time, they would know that an American was in the shit and needed help.
But how would I be rescued? Would the UN send a helicopter and pick me up out of there? I began to imagine that a helicopter might come and I would be the one they were going to rescue first. Certainly they’d come with several helicopters to rescue the injured and try to account for me and others. If confronted with scarce places in the chopper, would they allow me to cede my place to those who were gravely injured? Would they then send another helicopter to rescue me later? Ridiculous what the mind comes up with really…I wanted to be important enough to be rescued and a hero at the same time.
Finally at about 1:30 pm, more than 8 hours since the siege had begun began, we heard what we had longed to hear: an aircraft. We listened as it slowly approached, cautiously stepping out of the shady corner of our maize field in order to get a look at the sky. Its approaching rotor assured us that it was a helicopter…and was undoubtedly a UN helicopter. In DRC, they are an indicator of the insecurity which reigns throughout this region, and typically it means that some bad guys are somewhere not too far away.
However, Epulu was different. In three years there, I had only seen one UN helicopter, 1 ½ months prior to the attack, when the rumors about rebels had heightened. It came and made a few sweeps over Epulu and then it went, ready to report back on its mission. Since then, I’d been in Bunia, where a huge UN contingent is based, and these helicopters make daily flights for logistical, transport, and emergency reasons. So, the chopper’s arrival was proof that the outside world had heard about our situation.
We didn’t have much open sky (it being a tiny field in the middle of the bush) but we saw the helicopter, a big grasshopper-shaped thing, which flew at a very high altitude above us, making a bee-line for the station area. It started to sweep over the village area and suddenly a few shots rang out. The rebels were still there and even had the balls to shoot at a UN helico! Surely they UN would have to act! Even if they left, they’d get reinforcements and return. This was the beginning of the end!
The chopper made another wider sweep and then left. In total, the aerial reconnaissance lasted for less than 5 minutes. Despite our small window of sky, we had a good view of the chopper as it departed. I watched with uncertainty as it moved so slowly out and away from us, back towards civilization where they would make decisions about how to break us out of this jungle prison.
I calculated that they’d return in a minimum of 3 hours, so we could still get out before darkness fell at 6:30 pm, that is…if things went well. This wasn’t too much longer to wait.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Shushing the whispers: Sunday mid-day

They gave me a mango which they had stuffed in their pockets before our abrupt fleet. When they gave me the mango, I realized that I was actually quite hungry. We each enjoyed a mango and got our hands nice and sticky with the juice.
I started to look around just to examine the potential for finding more food. In our tiny maize field, there were indeed some mature ears, given that it was harvest season. Also, the tree above us looked to hold some small guava-type fruits. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to seem over-excited or to be wrong about the fruits, but I felt confident that we weren’t going to starve…not today anyways! After all, we were in a large mosaic of agricultural fields and fallows, and this was war! Who could withhold from us an ear of maize if we desperately needed it? Or some papaya?
Somewhat satiated, I laid down to rest at mid-day as we had woken up at dawn with the shooting. Crispin and Baraka did also and we all dozed for a little while. I’m not sure how much I actually slept or if I just kind of spaced out. Lying on my back, I would look straight up into the trees, and just think. Then I’d peek at my companions and see that Baraka and Crispin were doing the same thing. We were all dwelling on our current situation and had no desire to really discuss it. We were just thinking.
To distract himself, Baraka started to read some of the Watchtower reading material that he had stuffed in his pockets along with the mangoes before we fled. Crispin allowed him to read for only a few minutes before asking also to read. Then he became ultra-concentrated on the reading and it seemed like he read for an hour straight, totally consumed with Isaiah or whichever prophet had the fortune to be in forced exile with us. Meanwhile, not having any reading material, nor being too interested in stealing WatchTower from a locked-in Crispin, I continued to space out, but also got up to stretch my legs, and Baraka and I got to chatting a little bit. We asked ourselves how we could have gotten into this situation. And how would we get ourselves out? These were questions which we would ask ourselves every few minutes throughout the entire ordeal. Baraka shared my despair but was also resolute that we would get out soon. I agreed and wanted to believe it, but I didn’t know what risks we’d still have to take to get out.
After a little while, Crispin and Baraka got up and chatted. They held a long conversation about the article which Crispin had been reading. Crispin was in the mood of philosophizing, and practically preached to Baraka or posed him question after question about the article which he had just read intently. I tried to listen to them sometimes, catching some of what they were saying but let my mind wander off to do my own philosophizing, but it didn’t really come. All I wanted to do was get out of there, but I knew that was the last thing that I could do. It was not the first time where I would have to exercise patience despite it not coming at all naturally.
Crispin has kind of a deep voice that carries, so when he wasn’t “whispering”, Baraka and I chided him to. We sat together and whispered, and he continued chatting, so we continued to rebuke him. Eventually he adopted quite a nice whisper but sometimes we’d have to remind him. I felt like all my senses were on high alert and kept an eye out on paths and even regularly gazed into the bushes to make sure that my imagination wasn’t playing games with me.
Sporadic gunshots continued, spread out, and at one point grew closer to us. We knew the rebels were in our concession and even entering into the agricultural zone, but they still had a long ways to come to reach us. However, we took the precaution of being as quiet as possible. Crispin, who was convalescent and still had quite some phlegm in his throat, would sometimes clear it and make quite a lot of noise. I tried to imagine how far would it carry through the bush? 20 meters? 100 meters? 300 meters? Baraka and I would both glare at him and tell him that if we were going to be caught, it would be his fault!
Baraka remarked that these guys were very proud now. We imagined that they were strutting around the deserted village and shooting in the air to announce their victory and their continued presence to the thousands of hidden souls. I could imagine the rebels had a spike of testosterone from the battle that they had just won. They had undoubtedly killed many and were all alone with no one in pursuit. They were at the top of the rebel world! Now they would celebrate, intimidate, shoot, and start collecting their booty.
I shivered at the thought of some hideous persons wreaking havoc on the most peaceful little village that I have ever known. How could I now disappear into that jungle by myself to discover birds which I didn’t know existed? How could I now stumble home in pitch darkness from the village bar to my humble little house knowing that I’d arrive just fine? How could I now make a carefree jaunt with my friends through the forest that time had forgotten? How could I now explore the most remote regions of this forest with my trusted and sure-footed pygmy guides? How could I now continue the endless search for the crown jewel of this forest, the silent and elusive okapi? How could I now bring my girlfriend for a romantic getaway which I was so certain would seal her love for me forever? 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Waiting & Listening: Sunday mid-morning

Shortly after settling in to our hiding place, we began to hear gunshots all the way to 4 km down the road (distance is measured from Epulu village eastwards along the road towards villages Eboyo @ 1-4km and Bapukeli @ 5-7km). Our tiny maize field was positioned just below the crest of a hill which sloped gently down towards the river. This would protect us from being heard by anyone who was closer to the road, but also would prevent us from hearing anything very well, except for gunshots. The morning air grew slightly thicker, though the temperature stayed cool as it was overcast. This prevented us from hearing very well but I won’t forget the sound of emptiness.
On hot weekend afternoons, I have often noted an empty silence, which is only accompanied by the white noise of the rushing rapids on Epulu River. Sometimes I am alone in my concession, reading, enjoying the quiet. Few people mill about because of the heat and all I can hear is this rushing. This makes me feel like time has stopped and I start to think about how far away I am…from anything. I cannot call anyone, I don’t see anyone, all I can see is a huge blue sky, and endless green jungle. And all I hear is the rushing river because even the birds find it to be a bit too hot to be chirping or singing. This rushing sound even lives with me when I am not in Epulu. A few days after returning home to Massachusetts one summer, I asked my dad why the creek behind our neighbors’ yard was rushing so much. He corrected me and reminded me that the local highway was the source of the white noise.
However this silence with a rushing river sound is typically broken by signs of life which interrupt my day-dreaming. Huge trucks cross over the Epulu River bridge and the loose planks loudly clang together or loud vehicles drive past. But being so far from the bridge, we could now hear nothing. Sometimes we would imagine sounds. Was that a vehicle crossing the bridge? Or a distant gunshot? Or we’d hear a tapping and strain to hear its source, and then realize that Crispin was unconsciously tapping his shoes together. I’d lie down, close my eyes, and hear some unknown sounds, only to rouse myself and realize they were coming from Baraka’s groaning stomach. We’d laugh and then go back to thinking, chatting or resting.
Similarly to my day-dream filled weekend afternoons, the silence was frequently interrupted and the source was easy to determine. Gunshots pierced the silence at random, with varying distances between them in time and space. We knew that we were not just under attack, but under siege. My thoughts turned to my coworkers…my assistant Martinique, my good friend Tony…what had they experienced up in town? Were they ok? I had no way of knowing. Then my thoughts jumped to maman Asumpta. Had she run and hidden somewhere? Where were her kids and my homonym, her 2-year old daughter, Joelle? Were they ok? I prayed for God to protect them from the gunshots. In my head, I started to count the guards who I decided must be dead. I hoped that if it wasn’t all of them, then that it wasn’t some of the ones who I knew well. But I knew it would be bad, the frequency in which silence was pierced by gunshots, told me that it would be bad.