Gbodolité, June 1, 2003

children.jpgMore than three weeks without the Internet, UN phones often down, power failures more numerous, radio equipment out of order and growing insecurity, not to mention the great injustice I feel I have suffered from the Fondation have marked the past three weeks of silence.

MLC rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba is still in his mansion on the hill over looking Gabdolite but what he sees below is a crumbling Kingdom.  Faced with growing insubordination and rebellion, Bemba had all his soldiers in and around Gbadolite disarmed while he brought in specially chosen troops to assure his security. 

In the West of the MLC zone, Bemba seems to be losing control of his troops.  The Simba battalion led by a certain Commander ‘Antonov’ has gone into rebellion and is pillaging the population.  Bemba sent two battalions after the Simbas.  Meanwhile, two Beyamalenge battalions, left over from the war against Kabila, have decided Bemba is a traitor and are said to be marching on Gbadolite.  Their leader is a long time MLC man called Zanga, one of Mobutu’s sons.  He is reported to have gone to Bangui last week to meet with the Chadians and the new Central African government leader, General Bozezi.  In Zongo, unpaid soldiers have replaced the customs officers and are pocketing the customs duties on goods to and from Bangui.  Administrative workers have ceased activity.

Of course, given the circumstance and political developments in the country, Bemba has put off his first official visit to Kinshasa as one of the Vice-Presidents of the transition government.

Gbadolite’s civilian population are suffering as well.  We have discovered that five to ten people have been dying from Typhoid every day since the beginning of the year: Most of them children.  The doctor at the hospital says roughly thirty percent of the city’s fifty thousand people are infected to one degree or another.

No Power To The People 

The last generator at the Mobayi dam may be out for good.  The oil and spare parts are in Kinshasa and the government agrees to give them to the MLC but nobody can seem to find a way to get the supplies here.  They want the UN to do it for them but the UN say they are not here for handouts and free rides.

Without electricity, the already deficient water treatment plant and pumping systems are completely down, which will certainly improve conditions for Typhoid to spread.  I am living in the super ecologist’s dream world of no electricity, no telephone, and no television; just me and nature and all of its ancient, but down to earth, ravages.

As I have pointed out, most of the ravages here are man made.  Sometimes foreigners will egg the Congolese on to make matters worse. This is what happened last week in Businga when two NGOs thought they would help and made matters worse. 

First, numerous people arriving in town tell us the French NGO Premiere Urgence intended to distribute clothing and a hoe and ax to anybody who could show they had a plot of land to farm.  So, the population immediately went out and burned down the forest to show they had a plot of land and thus get their ax and hoe.  What was two weeks ago a beautiful luscious green tropical forest is now miles and miles of charred lunar landscape.

At the same time the World Food Program wanted to distribute food and seed to the population.  They hired some Congolese to distribute little tokens, against which people would receive their packages.  Well, the Congolese gave all the tokens to their families and friends.  The result is the vast majority of people got nothing.  The population were in an uproar.

I met the artist who sculpted Mobutu’s cane.  Muyimona Symphorian Wa Kanyinda Victor, known as Tshiangawe, is in his mid fifties, a bit round and posed with a barrel but gentle and articulate voice.  He has a gallery in town with hundreds of masks, some well over a hundred years old and many badly eaten by worms; carved ivory as long as the huge tusk and weathered yellow with the years; paintings by some of Congo’s most famous artists, which were looted from Mobutu’s palace and which were seriously damaged sitting in the peasants’ humid mud huts until Tshiangawe found them.  Nothing is protected from decay in his treasure trove gallery but it is clear that dealers in Paris, London or New York would make a fortune with what the man has collected over the years.

Tshiangawe was born to a family of artists in Kasai.  He went to Kinshasa to study art but ended up quite a successful singer with his own band.  He learned sculpting from a friend in Zongo and was discovered by Mobutu who brought him to Gbadolite-the-unreal.  Since Mobutu’s downfall, Tshiangawe’s life has been on hold.  Worse, unscrupulous people have robbed him.

greek-ambassador.jpgThe Greek Ambassador by Tshiangawe

A few months ago a European Union commission came through Gbadolite on a fact-finding tour.  The Greek ambassador was part of the commission.  He had an MLC man take Mobutu’s cane from the gallery and then promptly left with it, without the artist’s permission and without paying a penny.  Would it not be nice for this story to get out so that the world can see how the Greeks, who cry over the Elgin marbles sitting in London, will pillage the art works of others?

The former Zaire ambassador to Paris took “two paintings worth twenty thousand dollars” from him and never paid.  This ambassador made himself famous back in the 1990’s when he hit and killed two (?) children in Cannes while speeding and drunk driving, then claimed diplomatic immunity to escape punishment.  Tshiangawe has no way to contact anybody outside the MLC zone and is looking for help.

Out of my personal soft spot for artists I thought I could help.  First by telling the Greek embassy I was doing a story on the pillaging of Congolese art and would they like to comment on the cane.  UNESCO and the EU could also be questioned.  Then I said I could call the former ambassador once I got back to Paris with the same approach.  I also told him I could show one of the reporters how to look up galleries on the Internet so that he might eventually contact them about his collection.  We also did a story on him, which was aired nationwide.  Really, none of this has anything to do with what I am paid for and it has been pointed out to me that I could get in trouble with my employers for such activity.

You would think mister Tshiangawe might find my suggestions quite a service.  Well, apparently not enough.  The other day he came to my office and had me drive to his home so he could show me the wall, which fill down in the last heavy rain.  He insisted I buy something from the gallery so he could build his new wall.  This made me very angry and so, for the moment, I have decided to do nothing.  Not quite true.  Although I wrote him a nasty letter, I did give one hundred dollars to one of the journalists to get me something from the gallery but I have no desire to speak with Tshiangawe myself.

It is a bit the same with the reporters.  They never say ‘thank you’.  I will drive them home after a late night at work and they just get out and say nothing.  It is the same all over Congo.  I don’t think it is simply a cultural thing.  I believe it was learned from the Mobutu period; the same period, which led them to divorce money from labor.  You give a little, they want more.  You give to one and those who did not get, become violent with you when you refuse to give them something too.

Last week I drove two reporters to Kota Koli, one hundred kilometers East of Gbadolite.  The MLC was nice enough to impose an armed officer to accompany us and whom I paid ten dollars for the ‘service’.  The Congolese were impressed that I made the trip back and forth in the ‘Four Runner’ given the deplorable state of the road.  Sometimes the water-filled mud holes were above the tires.  The other problem is these are ‘war roads’ and driving outside the tracks of those who went by before can put you on a landmine.

Any way, I saw my first raw diamonds.  There are still six diamond dealers open in Kota Koli but the war chased all the European buyers away so they have nobody to sell to.  Of course, I was offered some splendid stones at ‘rock bottom’ prices.  As it has been pointed out to me before, and as I admit myself, I always get caught.  So, with the knowledge of the diplomatic consequences it could have for the UN, and with the armed officer as added dissuasion, I politely declined the offer pointing out it is illegal.  After all, they are considered ‘blood-diamonds’.

me-and-diamond-house.jpgDiamond houses in Kota-Koli, the only way in is by small planekota-koli-diamond-houses.jpg

It was also in Kota Koli where I got an added taste of the near insurrectional mood of MLC soldiers.  Ignoring the officer’s and the MLC Administrator’s orders to desist and disperse, a soldier aggressively demanded I give him money. “I don’t want to have to loot the population,” he said.  Like all soldiers here, he has not been paid a penny in three years.  Fortunately, he was unarmed.  I suppose his garrison will join the insurrectionary battalions when their march brings them this far East.


kawele-foyer-fountain.jpgthe entrancekawele-ballroom-up.jpgthe ball roomkawele-ballroom-up-out.jpgthe garden

We decided to do a report on Mobutu’s looted palace and what became of the looted treasures.  The visit to the palace is amazing.  Everything was taken including the roofs, and the huge frame of the building stands empty, like the car garages and swimming pool.  But there is one thing nobody took and which demonstrates once again that the people have no idea of objects and their value.  They left all the marble.  The blue, rose and white marble floors remain intact and beautiful under the debris, the marble, which is not still on the walls is lying on the floor. There must be tons of fine marble.

The sinks and faucets and electric sockets and doors and … were sold rather quickly at ridiculous prices, mostly across the river in the Central African Republic. So, what happened to the antique furniture, highly priced and rare paintings and other museum pieces of art?  While trying to find out, we came across some peasants who still had ‘souvenirs’.  One is an ancient 35-centimeter high carved in white marble head of Buddha from somewhere in Indochina.  It is a treasure hidden by a man who lives in a mud hut a mile from the looted palace.

buddha-head.jpgThe 1000 year-old Siam marble stolen from Mobutu’s palacelooted-goods.jpg

I informed the UN and UNESCO to see if they want to do something to rescue what I consider a world heritage piece and which you could probably easily buy from him for 100 dollars by just telling him it is slightly chipped and therefore worthless.

I Get Fired, Then Rehired

Despite the deplorable conditions at the radio: receiver-transmitter down, computers and studio out of order for over two weeks, basic material lacking and so on, we managed to bring off their first local news bulletins; something everybody had been waiting for, for a year.  I expected congratulations but was I in for a surprise.  On the last day of my three month trial period, I received a phone call from the head in Kinshasa saying the Fondation was unhappy with my work, that I was “too hard”, that the “message did not get through” and that my “French syntax is faulty”.  Five days later, in a short spell of Internet luxury, I read a letter from Lausanne saying they had obviously “over estimated your capacities to carry out the mission in conditions of hardship”.  They decided to end my contract and offer me a new two or three month contract to be station chief in Goma.

I worked 12 weeks without a single reproach and what I thought was a great deal of success.  What’s more, if I am no good why offer me the position of station chief?  Thanks to Sonja, I was able to write a reply, which will make it harder for them to do what they have obviously decided to do any way for reasons, which I have yet to fully grasp.

Sonja is smart and well experienced in making the lives of bosses difficult.  She really knows how to work the system and is very good at bringing me back into the real world from my idealist fantasies. That letter will be my saving point at some time in the future.  It is so tough for them to deal with that they have yet to respond to it a week later.  In the meantime, I am still working although I don’t know under what contract.  I will leave in a week for Kisangani to take over the station there when the UN woman goes on leave and this much to the joy of the reporters who thought I did a fine training job in March.

As in all the stations I have been to, the reporters in Gbadolite want me to stay and have told Kinshasa so.  The town’s people have come to the radio to thank me for bringing them a local news program and the UN chief here has asked me to stay and suggested I apply for a UN job.  I think there is either something, which escapes the Fondation, or there is something, which escapes me.



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