Sunday, February 27, 2011

Old Emails: 2005 in the Congo

Part Two of the Saga

We had quite an exciting day in Ituri on Wednesday of
last week when we finally got out of the town and
surrounding areas. We accompanied CESVI, an Italian
NGO, on a trip to a camp called Kafe on the shores of
Lake Albert. It was in a pretty remote area so we
drove for two hours down to the shore and then boarded
boats loaded up with NFI (Non-food Items - blankets,
soap, tarps) to distribute to the approximately 10,000
IDPs (refugees who are still in their own country) who
had fled recent fighting and moved to this area
trapped between the mountains and the lake. On top of
the area being fairly remote, they also had a big bout
of cholera going on because the lake is cholera -
endemic and people were refusing to drink the treated
water brought in by NGOs because it smelled of

After waiting about 30 minutes at the beginning of the
trip for two Italian journalists to finally get out of
bed and join us, we took off in a convoy of three
jeeps and our truck to head over the mountains down to
the lake. The countryside was so beautiful. I had
always heard how beautiful Congo was but it had never
really hit me until we were driving for hours without
really encountering a lot of people. The rolling hills
are covered in lush green grass with flowering
"flamboyant" trees and boulders dotted about. We did
get stopped twice by the Army at roadblocks but these
are the "Ituri First Brigade" who are trained by the
Belgians and South Africans and supposed to be
professional. As they didn't shake us down for money,
we were impressed. However, we had interviewed IDPs
and other community folk who said that there was a
problem with the brigade - they hadn't been paid for a
few weeks and were starting to "feed themselves by
their guns" and looting some communities.

We landed down by the lake to board the boats. The
boats that were transporting our goods were long "john
boats" (from those of you from South Carolina) with
small outboard motors. We climbed won on to them, made
ourselves comfortable on the tarp settled on top of
the bags of goodies, and settled in fro the two hour
boat ride. As some of you may know, I get seasick
pretty easily so I took the precaution of taking
dramamine and wearing some sea-sick arm bands that are
supposed to help. They helped but I slept for about an
hour on the boat trying to cover my feet with my
backpack and pull my bandana over my face. It wasn't
enough - I'm bright red and sunburned right now with a
lovely demarkation of my long sleeve, my seasickness
band, and my sunglasses outlining parts of my body.

About a half an hour before we reached the camp, we
encountered some pretty fierce winds and the lake got
really choppy. They had handed out lifejackets to the
"muzungos" (white people) so we felt okay about being
plunged into the choleric waters but one of our boats
accompanying us (from German Agro-Action) was not as
lucky. They capsized and lost their entire load of
food and we rescued their workers and continued to
head into Kafe camp. The waves were really choppy and
we got soaked as the water splashed up on us and by
the time we reached Kafe, where we could see the
people lined up on the shores waiting for us, we were
really wet. The Congolese rowed out in pretty
unseaworthy canoes to meet up with us. Those boats are
a three man operation - two to row and one to bail. As
the boats docked, the Congolese men ran out to them
and carried the cargo in to different distribution
points near the shore. It was reminiscent of old
movies about colonials and their African porters
lugging everything on their heads.

It was pretty awe-inspiring to see the non-food item
distribution. There were hundred of bags filled with
blankets,soap, and tarps, one for each family. the
first thing off the boat were ropes and stakes where
the humanitarian workers outlined intake and outtake
queues. The Italian agency, CESVI, had handed out
slips of paper to the head of households the day
before and they lined up to receive the distribution -
as there is very little to do in a refugee camp, the
rest of the people lined up to watch this. CESVI
selected women to pass out the bags because men are
notoriously corrupt in these matters - giving their
friends two or three bags. The tickets were checked
when they entered the queue and checked again as they
left to catch people without them. The women streamed
in with babies strapped to their backs, hoisted the
bags on their heads and then headed back to their
huts. It was a seamless procedure.

After documenting the distribution for a while, we
decided to walk around the IDP camp. The army is
camped out there but the population doesn't mind
because they feel safer. The fact that the army is
Congolese means that they suffer the same
socio-economic condition as the IDPs. In fact, three
soldiers died of cholera. They eat the same food as
the IDPs and most wear flip flops in lieu of boots.
The IDPs seemed to be in pretty good condition - there
was a small market set up where one could buy ladies
underwear, sugar from South Africa, or salt - a
luxury. Some IDPs have money but most have very
little. It's a common misconception that most IDPs and
refugees are completely destitute - the problem is
some of them have money but there is nothing to buy.

The storm on the lake had really begun to pick up so
we decided it would be too difficult to take the boats
back - espescially since they were so light now
without anything loaded into them. We negotiated our
way onto the MONUC (UN in Congo) helicopter piloted by
the Bangladeshi air force. Like any other military
men, they were reluctant to do anything they didn't
have paperwork authorizing them to do. Andrea, my
Italian colleague and the most skilled negotiator, got
them to call their base and get confirmation that we
were okay. After a few hectic uncertain minutes where
I began to worry that we were going to have to stay
overnight in the camp or face another few hours of
sunstroke on the boats, we were cleared.

We said "Au revoir" to the IDPS who all gathered
around the helicopter to wave us off and took off for
the return trip. As opposed to the five hours it took
us to get there, we were home in 30 minutes. So, off
we went to the "Hellenic" - the favorite restaurant
(of two) in Bunia for cold "Nile" beer, brochettes of
beef, pommes frites, and cucumber salads. As the
sunburn kicked in, I decided I need to go home so I
paid a 'moto taxi' (motorcycle) one dollar (way above
'le prix Congolaise') and roared off down the dusty
road to the amusement of all of the Congolaise women
around me.

More later about the convoluted trip routings of the
UN MOVCON (office in charge of transport)....

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