A Travellerspoint blog

Cheese please!

sunny 38 °C

One of my boyfriend’s cousins is visiting Kinshasa at the moment. He was born here but left when he was 3 years old to live in Europe, 32 years ago. Last week they were leaving a terrace at 1am and an 8 year old street kid approached him and asked him for 500CF [less than 50 cents] to buy food. He burst into tears, gave the kid $10, jumped into the car and fled for the hotel. My initial reaction was fury; ‘how ridiculous, he was born here and yet he knows so little about the place and has taken so little interest that he is shocked by street kids’. The average person’s lack of knowledge about the world south of the Mediterranean Sea is enough to send me on a rant, but someone who is actually Congolese?! I was apoplectic.

On reflection, and after a bit of an ear-bashing from my other half, I think maybe this was a little harsh. Reading articles and watching 30 second news clips can only go so far to preparing you for a midnight encounter with a primary school child, not quite dressed in old grey charity clothes, asking you for pocket change to avoid picking through the gutters to survive. But it also made me think that perhaps I have become de-sensitised to the things I see and hear and do everyday, and I am not sure it’s a good thing. It enables me to do my job without losing my mind and I will never ‘accept the reality’ of street kids or widespread rape, but I have started to understand how and why – nothing is inexplicable or unimaginable anymore.

I am back in Gemena, and on arrival I was greeted by news from the 3 teams I left behind in Dongo that rebels were on the move and the town was on ‘yellow alert’ [which means absolutely nothing], but as I said rumour is King in RDC so nobody really knows what is happening. Fingers crossed. I also work in South Equateur and tomorrow I leave for our base in Mbandaka [there is talk of a pizzeria and I have been dreaming about cheese for days]. In April 70 young men with machetes took over the town, captured the airport and generally created widespread panic among politicians in Kinshasa. Our teams have been doing Battle Area Clearance in and around the town ever since. Between 1998 and 2001 this whole area was the scene of intense fighting; one of our technical teams is currently in Ikela Territory which was bombarded and Ikela Town was largely destroyed so the level of pollution in the area is huge, 275 UXOs for a population of 15,000. But a local NGO and the local authorities have been encouraging the local population to ‘hide’ items and to refuse to give vital information to de-mining teams. One man was found to be hiding a live rocket under his bed. We often get asked for money in exchange for information, but this is something else. I will be spending the next two weeks finding out lots more about Equateur south of the river, meeting the flood of NGOs that installed themselves here after events in April, and sampling the local riverside restaurants and bars [including the infamous 222 nightclub]........

Posted by hobbit1 23:52 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

“The soldiers took my bike.”

sunny 39 °C

Richard and crew finally made it home last night; despite offering our generator and fuel and money for treatment and medicine, it appears the hospital was reluctant to encourage others through the doors outside normal working hours. I guess that answers my questions about other patients......Fin, he was treated, missing some teeth but feeling better, and they made it there and back in 4 days which for here is unheard of efficiency. I am pretty impressed frankly.

Usual round of meetings this week and one thing that kept cropping up was the ‘commandeering and taxing’ of bicycles by soldiers. The title quote was given to me by an 11 year old boy who had pushed, dragged and sweated his way along 16km of sandy track into Dongo from his village, carrying more than 70kilos of vegetables to sell in the market. He was dragged out of school as fighting approached his home, and ran carrying his maths school book and his 13 month old sister with his mother to safety in another town. His father never joined them and he is the chief bread-winner for his family of five. He makes 2 trips a week and makes about 5,000 Congolese Francs in profit each time. But the ‘taxes’ at roadblocks cost him 500CF each time he goes past, and that’s if he gets lucky and the soldiers don’t demand his bike to help transport their materials on deployments, like this morning, taking him days out of his way. It would be all too easy to take this at face value; but these soldiers are deployed hundreds of miles from home without basic equipment, some have not seen their wives and children in 5 years, and go for months without being paid their meagre salaries. There is a lot of grey area between right and wrong.

In fact it’s not just bicycles. Yesterday I was asked to provide transport in our vehicles to a group who found themselves under the midday sun and more than 50km from town. Their initial approach was quite insistent but 30 seconds into my detailed explanation of the explosives contained in Mobile 3 and they deferred to my conclusion that it was not safe for them.

Two weeks ago a demining expert was killed whilst working in a mine-field in Southern Sudan. I haven’t previously said anything to anyone about this, I don’t want to sound insincere – I didn’t know him, and I have only been here 5 minutes - but members of my team had worked with him and this afternoon some of them carried out the demolition of some incredibly dangerous stuff. They take huge risks, much more than anyone else who works out here, and I think I probably did not fully appreciate it until today when I left my technical manager standing over a live rocket preparing to pick it up with his hands and move it into a 3ft hole to minimise damage to nearby buildings and risk to the local population, while I merrily sauntered off to the FP singing songs with a few local toddlers in tow. Gained a little perspective on lizard attacks to say the least.

Posted by hobbit1 07:44 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

R&R in Beirut

sunny 50 °C

Having a quick facebook chat with a friend based in Bashi last night [I can connect to fb and talk to my cousin in Teddington but can I text my friend at her office at the end of the road or email my team in Gemena? Can I balls – different story...] < Finally taking a break next month, going on R&R with my girlfriend in Beirut, but see you in Kin for Xmas > he says. At what point in my life did it become normal to seek rest and relaxation in Beirut? But then we do spend our days in 35 degree heat searching for unexploded rockets and landmines so I guess it’s all relative.

I am still in Dongo, where I just closed my door to go to bed and a lizard landed on my face – I barely flinched, I am getting better with the vast array of bugs all over me on a daily basis. Today was easily the hottest day of my life, it was ridiculous heat, and has barely cooled down at 8pm. I spent the morning with a group of colleagues discussing floods in Zongo [a large town on the river directly opposite Bangui, the capital city of Central African Republic] which have started a cholera epidemic, destroyed crops right at the end of rainy season, and made refugees of the conflict homeless for the second time in less than a year. Makes the lizard incident look like a trip to New York Zoo.

At midday one of the medics told me Richard, our driver, had chronic toothache and needed treatment. Suspecting this might not be a simple trip to the local dentist and a 5 minute wait in line at the pharmacy, I asked what treatment might entail. The only dentist in Equateur Province is in Ntandala, more than 150km from Dongo, based at the military hospital. So they will need the car, some fuel, some money for food/water/somewhere to sleep, and will be back tomorrow night, I am thinking. If only it was that simple. The hospital can only afford to run its generator 3 days a week [Monday, Wednesday and Friday] and anyone expecting treatment must pay for a consultation, medicine, and fuel for the generator. Hardly universal. Lest we forget, my medic reminds me, that we will arrive tonight but Richard will need to be treated tomorrow, a Tuesday, when the hospital generator is not running. Merde! We need to take our generator and extra fuel to get him treated on a Tuesday, he tells me. So off they went, not a problem; we have the equipment, fuel and money to cover medical expenses. But about an hour later I thought about those few people who can afford to go to the hospital but don’t have a generator, or a budget line for medical expenses - pregnant women, people with malaria or cholera, motorbike drivers who have an accident – are they wheeled out into the bush on a Monday night to come back for more quinine/painkillers on Wednesday morning? Do they just have to hope the baby doesn’t come over the weekend? I am going to take a detour on my way back to Gemena to find out.

RAIN! Finally.............

Posted by hobbit1 13:23 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

Congolese Pigs......

storm 31 °C

……..have bizarre faces, especially the dead ones……

I spotted this on an 8hr car journey yesterday so perhaps I was losing my mind a little at the time, but they seem to be smiling all the time and have rosy cheeks and wear fake eye-lashes, I had flashbacks to Miss Piggy.

I am in Dongo, a town on the Ubangi River which until October last year was home to 97,000 people but largely deserted when it became the centre of ‘inter-communal fighting’ [proof positive of UN diplomatic language gone mad] and everyone headed over the river to the Republic of Congo. It is safe to say that this town saw more than its fair share of violence; I wasn’t here [and it is part of the problem of unravelling the web of rumour surrounding this conflict that nobody else was either] but there is plenty of evidence of vicious fighting – including the 14 unexploded rockets the technical team destroyed this afternoon after only 2 days of evaluation of the centre of town.

Rumour is King in DRC and although 25% of the 200,000 people who fled the territory have come back, mainly to towns like Dongo where almost 50,000 are rebuilding their burnt homes, rumours that leaders are re-grouping on the other side of the border mean the majority of women and children are not taking the risk. It’s sad, and a little worrying, that the population only believed that security had improved when they saw international NGOs turning up [although if it was me I would be using exactly the same yardstick]; sad because of the continued dependence that this shows, and worrying because to me it’s pretty clear that if something does happen here we are all stuffed!

Posted by hobbit1 11:18 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

9 Golf

sunny 36 °C

I have a radio call sign?! This is still all a bit bizarre to me……

I have been working in DRC all year and moved from the capital Kinshasa to Northern Equateur 3 weeks ago. To people back home living in Kin is considered a hard-ship, in reality it’s a normal African city where you can find a tennis coach and an ice-cream parlour within a mile stretch of the brand new Boulevard de 30 Juin. Equateur, on the other hand, is a different story.

The province is largely thick forest sliced up by the Congo and Ubangi Rivers, and bordering the Central African Republic to the North and the Republic of Congo to the West. Ex-President Mobutu built 50km of tarmac road leaving his home-town Gbadolite, but this is the full extent of Equateur’s surfaced roads. I am based in Gemena; with a handful of front gardens with plastic furniture and selling 2 kinds of beer, 3 street stands selling goat meat, and an epic search to find Fanta my life has changed quite a lot since deploying!

It’s been an eventful 3 weeks; I have already visited villages in and around Dongo (almost entirely deserted after fighting erupted at the end of last year), survived the worst storm in 66 years (including a direct lightning hit to our sub-base), and within 10 days medevac’d a senior member of my team with cerebral malaria and a temperature of 41 degrees (the Egyptian MONUSCO Doctor called Equateur a ‘basin of disease’ – apparently he sees 3 or 4 cases a day so I am munching the doxycycline).

Last week I joined our technical teams on a demolition at a village 50km from the base – an 88mm USSR anti-tank mortar lying in the front-yard of the Chief’s house, a stone’s throw from the local school. Within 3 hours the team had held a meeting with the authorities, educated the local population, and identified, moved (!), and destroyed the mortar (even managing to protect the nearby rice crop). Great stuff……

During an evaluation of the airport this week (the same one I landed at incidentally), several unexploded ordinances were identified on land around the runway……but no need to worry about my flight out next month, they are now all in an explosives store in my front garden……….!

Posted by hobbit1 04:52 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

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