Mudimbi village, April 18, 2003

Don’t ruin the state by stealing a lot.  If you can, take a little…steal enough but not too much…” advice to the Cabinet by Mobutu Sese Seko, Dictator and Chief Thief of Congo for over thirty years. 

This is another story about the Army robbing and raping and why it took two hours to drive out 40 kilometers but six to get back.

The Human Rights activists had heard reports of an Army checkpoint where people were being robbed and women raped at the Muamzamgoma River crossing forty kilometers out of town and they asked Radio Okapi to verify.  So, with me as the driver, two Okapi reporters and two Human Rights representatives piled in the Four-runner and off we went to investigate the Army.


The first problem was that the government forces had said they took down all roadblocks after the last story Radio Okapi did on the hassles of travelers in that section.  No sooner did we get passed the airport than we came across the first checkpoint, which our white UN vehicle had no trouble negotiating.  So much for the word of the local government.


Twenty-five kilometers out was a village where the 72nd Battalion is based.  They were correctly sent to the area to stop fighting within a tribe over who should be chief.  These things can get very nasty, and the rules are extremely complicated.  If ever I figure out how it works (the Congolese with me could not agree) I will try to explain the tribal rules to you.


But back to our story.  A further ten kilometers from the 72nd Battalion HQ, our dirt road became a dirt path.  It was dense with people pushing ancient bicycles with wobbly wheels full of heavy bags of charcoal, or roots, or grains or whatever they could stuff in the bags.  There were bags piled on the back, on the seat and on the cross bar.  Very often, tied on top of the bags on the back was a live goat.  Live chickens were also often hanging from the handlebars.  It reminded me of the Vietnamese using bicycles on the Ho Chi Minh trail to bring cannons, machineguns, ordinance and other supplies to the South. 


As we descended towards the valley of the Muamzamgoma River, the path began to look like it had been hit by B-52 carpet-bombing adding to the Vietnamese flashback.  I asked the Congolese if they were sure this was a road.

Oh, yes.  This is a very good road.”

“Is it on the map?”

“Of course, it’s on the map.”

Well, possibly at one time, ages ago, there may have been a road here but I was now in a gully, carved by the heavy rains, getting stuck and bouncing off the walls of the ravine.  Fortunately, there were walls or we would have easily capsized.  Finally, the four Congolese had to admit we could go no further.  So, the remaining five hundred meters were accomplished on foot, leaving the Four-runner so as to make the job for the struggling bicycle pushers that much more difficult.


There, at the River, was the Army checkpoint the 6th Zone commanders said did exist.  All along the route we had asked travelers if they were hassled and all said ‘yes’.  But the toll charging policies are as complicated as any pay highway in Europe or the States. 


There are basically three categories of toll:  1. Those who are going out into the woods or fields to collect things they need, will have to pay 100 or 200 Congolese francs upon return ($1 = 410 CF in the government zone); 2. The traveling sales people taking meal, or Cassava or Manioc etc. for sale in the markets pay 500 francs; 3. The unhappy people coming from zones occupied by the rebels have to pay four or five thousand francs and the women are systematically forced to yield to the soldiers’ sexual pleasure.  I call this rape but the Congolese, as I am learning have different value judgments than I have.  (More on this later.)  Even worse; the people say all the money and food and charcoal looted is taken back to Battalion HQ and handed over to the commander.  Of course, with this system, any real rebel spy would simply pay the price to get by the checkpoint, and so they have done on numerous occasions, as defectors have testified.


It was time to go back to the 72nd Battalion and ask the commander why he was hassling the people.  (I will spare the story of how we turned around and got out of the gully.  I still have not figured it out myself.).  As is always the case, the commander was not there to answer questions.  But I have to say that you can only do this in the government zone and only because Radio Okapi is covered by the UN.  You would be shot on site for attempting such an investigation in the rebel zones.


There were a few officers on hand to lie about how the checkpoint had to be put back up to protect the population from robbers. One officer said, “We’re not here to hassle the people.  We’re here to serve them.”  This would be the first time in the history of this country that somebody in uniform ever served anybody but himself!  Of course, we could not have a look around to see if stolen food was stock piled in the huts.


The officer’s statement reminded me of the US soldier in Baghdad, who, when facing angry demonstrators chanting, “America go home!”, yelled back in their faces “We’re here for your fucking freedom!”  The only difference is that the GI probably believed what he was saying.


It was now time to go back to the roadblock two kilometers this side of the airport.  Their excuse for maintaining a roadblock was that “this is not an army road-block.  It is a security road-block.”  Well, I guess that explains it then.  Once we confronted them with robbing the people, they panicked.

It’s not us.  It is the Army at the Muamzamgoma River.”

We had further confirmation but something was fishy here.  They were too willing to denounce the others.  Andre pointed to a shoulder high bag of charcoal and asked them where they go it.


A young officer in long blue shorts, a fishnet tee shirt and great big front teeth with a large gap in the middle, began to sweat and wave his arms frantically as he spoke.


The people give us food and other things because they like us and feel sorry for us.  We’re here for two weeks straight.  We don’t get any food or supplies from command.  The people are good to us because we protect them.”


How people who barely have enough to eat once a day can find it in their hearts to feed the men who make their lives miserable remains to be explained. The story on our investigation will be aired on Radio Okapi this week without an Army statement because the commanders will be unavailable for an interview, as always.  We will run with “Army officers deny they are robbing and raping at the Muamzamgoma River barrier.”  The commanders will call and complain that we ran a ‘false story’ without giving them a chance to have their say, as always.  Now that they will be available, we will more than gladly give them their say.  We are also sure that the Muamzamgoma River roadblock will come down … for at least two weeks.


But I have not told you why it took us six hours to get back.  After leaving the 72nd Battalion, we came into a village with a brand new four hundred meter stretch of grated and steam-rolled dirt road.  And right in the middle of this road is where the driver of a forty-some-year-old truck decided to fix his front right flat tire.  Those who had just made this wonderful stretch of road also dug one meter deep drainage ditches on either side, which prevented us from driving through people’s front yards to get around the truck.  We had to stop.


It dawned on us too late that they could have just driven the truck with the flat tire 300 meters up the road and off it to do the repairs.  So, we sat in the shade with the village men (the women all very busy at doing hard labor) and waited.  I asked one of the men with the truck how long this would take.  Oh, half an hour or an hour,” he said.  This was very bad news, When a Congolese tells you it will take an hour, it is time to pull out your sleeping bag and pitch your tent.


First they put wheel rims under the front of the cabin.  Of course, they did not have a jack.  Then they began digging the dirt from under the front tires.  This made the villagers very angry because, even with the holes refilled, the first rain would dig out the dirt and destroy the rest of the brand-new thoroughfare.  Their road was doomed.  It was going to come to blows. As the villagers and the truck crew began heated argument, we added to the confusion by trying to convince the villagers that the truckers should be allowed to finish the job first and get out of the way.  The damage to the road had already been done.


However, it would not be so easy.  You see, they did not have a spare tire.  Painfully, we watched them take off the flat and take out the inter-tube, which must have been as old as the truck for it looked like a patchwork quilt of repairs.  They took a long time to find the hole, even longer to cut a piece of rubber, prepare it and glue it, let the glue bake in the sun and then put the whole thing together again.


A hose was brought from the motor’s air-compression system and they began to inflate the tire, and inflate the tire, and inflate the tire and just as we told them not to … POP!  They blew a new hole in the inter-tube.  By this time, we had joined the villagers and a lynch mob was forming. So, the truckers decided to do what they should have done in the first place: drive with the flat 300 meters up and off the road to do their repairs without bothering everybody.  We lost four hours and the villagers have certainly lost their brand new road.


But not all was lost in those four hours.  I got to listen to the educated (the two Okapi reporters and the two Human Rights activists), discuss how countrywomen are so much better than city-women because they work harder.  The village-women’s husbands sitting in the shade, and watching the women pass by with wood, water, charcoal and many other heavy loads on their heads, agreed.  It was also apparent to them that cooking and cleaning the house are not labor.


So, what do the men do?  I asked.


Three of them looked at me strangely while Andre admitted, “they don’t do anything.”


Just one further point before I leave you.  I began to understand that, because they are carried out in tandem, rape is assimilated more with robbery than it is with capital crime. The attitude of my friends was that the soldiers have to be ‘sensitized’ to the fact rape is wrong just like they have to be ‘sensitized’ that stealing (too much?) from the people is wrong.  When I suggested that if you wanted rapists to learn quickly, then they should be castrated in public by rape victims, they looked at me as if I was some kind of savage beast.  I still have a lot to learn about the Congo.


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