Kalima, April 5, 2003

 Without places like Kalima, there would be no war on Iraq. 

Kalima is a small city of perhaps forty-thousand people, nestled in rolling green hills and low volcanic mountains, and streets neatly lined with identical brick houses, two rooms and a porch, which must have been very pretty before Gecamines, which owned the town, went bankrupt.  Outwards from these projects are the traditional mud homes, many with corrugated metal roofs. Along the main road are the common ground level concrete buildings, which were once shops, hotels or bars. The hydroelectric dam still works so the lights are on even during the day, “except when it rains and they shut down the turbines”.  There is a very good paved road, which runs about twenty kilometers West towards Kindu and ends at the abandoned tungsten, tin and other mines for rare metals.

  When Gecamines went bankrupt, the workers had not been paid for a long time.  They considered it only normal they keep the houses.  Fair enough.  But they have been unable to maintain them, yet the splendour the city once knew can still be seen.  

There are two large Catholic schools, each with a ground floor plus two upstairs levels.  One of them, Tchem Tchem, or the Source, has almost 1,300 pupils divided evenly between the primary school and the Lycée. The date on the large church next door, also in red brick, is 1945. The other school can be seen below on another, lower hill.  

Shabin Pius, a middle-aged man with large, gold glasses, was holding a small class in his austere office.  What little furniture there was must have come at the same time as the church. Mr. Pius is what they call the school Prefect.  When I told him how quaint I found his town he complained it would be better if they had something to eat.  What food there is cannot be bought, because nobody has any money.”  This surprised me as I saw many, very healthy pigs and quite a few goats.  

Kalima is held by a battalion of the 8th Brigade based In Kindu.  Three weeks ago, a relief column from Kindu was ambushed by the Mayi Mayi and very badly mauled.  The 100-kilometer track to Kindu is anything but open.  

Captain Simeon Mwera, a Malawi chief of Military Police and one of eight UN Military Observers based in isolated Kalima, was himself taken prisoner by Mayi Mayi a few weeks ago just five kilometres out of town.  Not one of them was over 15,” he said.  I was scared to death because kids don’t know right from wrong.”  He says there are many child soldiers on both sides at Kalima.  

The airport is a short grass and dirt runway about 10 kilometres from the city centre with no buildings and a small RCD checkpoint. A Ukrainian helicopter is the only link to the world for the UN soldiers there (if Kindu can be considered the world).  However, there are flights from Goma, which fly in goods at exorbitant prices, and fly out the precious metal Columbite-Tantalite the locals mine.  This is a very strategic metal used to strengthen steel in missiles, aircraft engines and practically any electronic device you buy.  The local miners are paid one dollar a kilo,” Captain Mwera said.  The market price can go as high as $300 a pound.  It is no small wonder the RCD-Goma want to hold on to Kalima.  

How many of these people realise the role they are playing in the killing of Iraqis?  There would be neither cruise missiles nor F18’s without Columbite-Tantalite. Thanks to them, I can keep track of my son, Demetre, on Saturday nights by using a cell phone; something they have never seen in their lives.  Kalima is keeping up a Congolese tradition.  The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were made with uranium mined in the Congo.  How much of this uranium is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Gulf War veterans who were exposed to depleted uranium ordinance?    

How interesting it is for a town without television to play such a major role in the high tech world, right up to Outer Space.  This is a town where people don’t eat, where the 30-bed hospital has no medicine and the majority of people cannot read nor write despite the efforts of the Catholic Church.  The next time you dial your cell phone, think of the little girl whose hair has turned red from malnutrition, with bulging eyes and bony limbs because a dollar for a kilo of Columbite-Tantalite was not enough for Daddy to feed three wives and twelve kids.  Of course, Daddy probably spent most of the money on himself and some lover before he brought any home to Moms.  

If it were not for such resources like Columbite-Tantalite, it is possible there would have not been a war in the Congo.  A war, I remind you, which has left three million people dead.  They suffer from the war they feed.  

Captain Mwera has no idea what is the market price of Columbite-Tantalite.  Nor does he know what it is used for. The Captain is a down-to-earth man; gentle, chubby and very proud of his military police training courses in the United States.  A practicing Catholic, he is appalled by the behaviour of the Congolese.  “They have three wives and up to 15 kids.”    

How do they feed them?” I asked. 

They don’t.  Child mortality is very, very high.”  

I could see the signs of hunger throughout the city, especially among the children.  But enough survive to cause stress to the environment.  There were 15 million Congolese at independence in 1960.  Today, there are 55 million.  How do they do it in this heat?  

Women always suffer the most. All along the road from the air strip women were carrying enormous loads of wood or water or stones (?) and babies and looked as if they were ready to collapse, as were the girls.  I saw no men and very few boys doing hard labour.  Almost everybody, except the soldiers and the students, were barefoot and so many were dressed in rags.  I see this in Kindu too, but all considered, Kalima is a much better place to be stationed if only for the electricity.  

Along the main road, I saw three men sitting on porches with old Singer sewing machines making clothing.  There were many small shops but practically nothing to buy.  It was striking to notice that there were no stalls selling things to eat: no foufou, no bananas, no nothing.  

The hills around Kalima are soft and rolling with palm trees here and there.  Here and there?  Isn’t this the heart of the tropical rain forest?  The truth is, on my helicopter ride from Kindu, I cannot say whether there were more patches of trees or more patches of meadows for all the destruction of the forest through burning for charcoal.   Backwards farming habits such as burn, plant and move on also destroy the forest and deplete the soil.  I saw the same thing on the flight from Kisangani to Kindu.  You can really see the destruction from above, not from the rivers or tracks, which are lined with trees and give the false impression of dense vegetation.  It seems to me the forest is at the brink; either it can be saved now or very shortly will go to the other side and disappear.  Without the forest, the Congolese may die of hunger and thirst for the water resources could dry up.  

The areas around the old Gecamines are barren from the poisonous chemicals that were used. The heavily polluted reddish or greenish water ponds slowly seep to the water table and to the valleys.  Everywhere, there is enormous erosion, which, from the air, looks like giant light brown lava flows.    

The Good Lord gave the Congolese everything they needed to be prosperous and happy,” says Moustapha, a Mauritanian with the UN: vast amounts of water, forests everywhere, precious metals and minerals, soil which can grow anything, wildlife, the roads and the railroads the Belgians left behind, electric power, industry, virtually everything.  

Today the water will kill you.  People are starving and the soil is depleted.  The forests are disappearing.  There is little wildlife left.  Only a few areas still have electric power.  The industrialists fled the country and the machines are in ruins.  The roads are only a memory and the train tracks have disappeared under the earth.  The question is, once the war ends, will there still be time to save the Congo from its ecological disaster?  The bigger question is, will the Congolese be saved from themselves?  

When you start asking yourself such questions, you know it is time to get out of Dodge.  I wake up every morning at around five and sit on the porch listening to the skirmishes taking place along the perimeters of the city.  I also watch the orange and purple sunrise over the hazy grey tree lines and the men in their pirogues on the smooth, silvery Congo casting their nets with grace.  If the shooting gets too close, they panic and often capsize.  But the shooting has not been very close for a week now.

 It is amazing how there is not even the hint of a breeze at night.  You can lie under your mosquito net and gasp for air or sit on the balcony and drip with sweat.  The humidity can be seen in the floodlights of the Uruguayan post at the port, an immobile brownish fog.  If there are no clouds, you watch the Southern Cross slowly sail from one end of the horizon to the other through a sky with no known references for a man from the Northern hemisphere.  There are so many toads it sounds like someone forgot to turn off their generator.  For the past few nights, one of the many religious sects have been beating drums and wailing some sort of trance-song until dawn.  I wonder if these are not ceremonies for the many who die.  Last night the Uruguayans partied until one in the morning, competing with the sect for acoustic control of the river.  

Kindu is dark and foreboding.  The soldiers, worried about their future should the peace accords go into effect, have been robbing people they find outdoors after eight. There are casualties from stray bullets every night. A local who works at HQ lost a sister yesterday.  You can quickly lose count of the number of rapes.  Back in Kalima, the lights are still burning.


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