Gbodolité, May 11, 2003

cemetery.jpgThe cemetery of Belgian missionaires 

“Lets get out of here!”  The most used phrase in Hollywood films.  

I am told the runway at the airport here is the longest in Africa, although I am sure the officer with the local rebel army was exaggerating when he said: “it is seven kilometers long”.  When Mobutu was in power, many Western presidents flew in here and even the Concorde landed a few times.  The runway is still in great condition but, except for the heavy machineguns on the roves of the terminals, nothing else is in operating condition.  The windows are gone, even up top of the control tower, and everything, including what was nailed down, was looted in one of the two soldiers’ rampages: the first, the minute Mobutu fled his palace in 1997 and the second, when Laurent Desire Kabila and his Chadian backers were defeated in 1998.

The zone is run by Jean-Pierre Bemba, an overweight and staunch Mobutu supporter whose family made their fortune sucking the country dry along with the former dictator.  Bemba is to be one of the Vice-Presidents in the transition government and will certainly try to amnesty himself of all his wrong doings.  His soldiers are the ones who committed cannibalism on the pygmies in December and January.  When it was made clear that these would be other crimes added to the long list that could bring him before an International Penal Tribunal, Bemba had several soldiers tried for misconduct: not anthropophagi, nor murder, nor rape, nor willful mutilation.  The harshest sentence handed down at the end of February was one year.  It is hoped that, even if Bemba gets himself an Amnesty, such crimes against humanity and war crimes will get him indicted outside the country, that is, of course, if this transition ever happens.

Gbadolite was Mobutu’s home village.  He decided he would make something of it so he invested billions of the country’s dollars to create what can only be called an African Hollywood production.  There were banks with international connections, satellite telecommunications centers, two superb palaces, an international airport, a hydroelectric power plant and some of the best roads I have ever seen in Africa.

I am staying in what was once a first rate, five-star motel with well over 100 rooms spread out through some 50 completely fitted bungalows, swimming pools, fountains, international conference centers, restaurants and outdoor grills with live bands.  Today the motel would be considered a regular fleabag joint with nothing left in it, except the windows.  Yet, of the once 250 member staff, 125 are still working, or lets say present, hoping that the Mobutus will come back and pay them when the war is over.  They have stayed on for five years with only this hope to drive them on.

The Director of the Hotel was a top manager brought here by Mobutu himself.  He says in all 6000 people who worked for the Mobutus are waiting for their pay and many of them are still showing up at the workplace in the belief this will happen.  They worked at the plantations, in the palaces, at the motel and the Coca Cola factory as well as the damn and in the administration. 

The Mobutus have to come back and pay us,” says the Director.  When they do, I am going back home to Bas Congo and start my life over.”

The Director studied catering in Europe; worked in Vienna, Brussels, Tunisia and Morocco and managed a natural park in the East where tourists would come to see the gorillas.  Somewhere along the line he obtained a large half moon scar, which comes down the middle of his forehead, swoops above the left eyebrow and heads back up into his vanishing hairline. 

You can’t imagine what a luxurious place this was,” he says with a sweep of the hand and a look of disgust.  They took everything.  What you see here is what we managed to scrap together.”

What you see are a few mangy 1970’s style, once red, velvet couches and chairs and a couple of once white plastic patio tables with a mix batch of plastic chairs.  The fountains are empty.  We had crocodiles and turtles.”  The pool is empty.  President Mobutu would come here for a swim.” The lights are gone as are the carpets, chairs, tables and tableware, air-conditioners, doors, electric sockets, freezers and refrigerators, … everything.

The Director seems not to understand how this could have happened any more than he can fathom that perhaps the Mobutus will not come back and pay him.  I’ve been keeping this place for them. They have to come back.  They have so much here and all these people need to be paid.

Of course, even when they could make a little extra by investing just a fraction of what they get from the UN for lights or something, they prefer to pocket every penny.  They are trying to cheat you every step.  Just to pay a bill is time and energy consuming, especially as they will give it to you once in CFA francs, another time in Congo francs and then a third miscalculation in dollars.  I have stopped going to their restaurant as have the other UN personnel.

A Congolese Disneyland In Ruins

So, Gbadolite, the ruined hulk of a Congolese Disneyland, stands but is gutted.  The architecture of the buildings in town, some of them three and four stories high, is amazing post-modern with a Le Courbusier touch of marrying steel, concrete and large spaces of window while avoiding as much as possible straight lines and sharp angles.  Several large complexes were under construction when the country finally caved in.  The rusted cranes still stand next to a couple of unfinished buildings, including what was to be a large hospital with an Arabic touch.  The scaffolding has collapsed and the vegetation has taken over.

This is Jean-Pierre Bemba’s kingdom.  He is still a very wealthy man thanks to the diamond trade, coltan, gold and a few other goodies.  It has allowed him, along with the taxes he imposes in his zone to maintain a 25 thousand-man army (well, almost, given the large number of child-soldiers) well equipped.  But his kingdom seems to be falling apart at the seams.  His problem is a big one.

For starters, he is going to Kinshasa for the transition with a small number of carefully chosen mates.  All the other members of his Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo, MLC, fear they have no future and that Bemba is abandoning them.  His administrators have stopped working and his tax collectors are keeping the money and no longer sending it in and all those left out are complaining about the ones kept in.  This, in and of itself, could be contained if the MLC members were to revolt but they are not alone.

Bemba’s soldiers have not been paid a penny in three years.  They are saying loud enough for all to hear that if Bemba goes to Kinshasa, they will pay themselves by looting and rampaging the population.  They have also made it clear to Okapi reporters that we at the UN are their first targets as there is obviously very little left in the zone to pillage (more on this below).

The MLC are taking this so seriously that they say they have changed their plans.  Everybody was supposed to go with Bemba on the 22nd.  Now, they say, the Chief-of-staff and other commanders will remain behind to keep a lid on things. Well, this is exactly what was said when Mobutu put his tail between his legs.  If those at the top, who have made fortunes with Bemba, see the wind turning, like those before them, they may decide it wiser to take their treasures and leave Dodge.

The MLC leadership is telling the soldiers they will be paid when Bemba comes back from Kinshasa and assuring the MLC members that there will be positions for all of them in the transition government.  Unfortunately for us, they do not seem to be buying the promises.

okapi-station.jpgOkapi – Gbodolité, shut in August 2003 to satisfy J.P. Bemba- the tyrant

okapi-reportage.jpgAn Okapi reporter on the job

The UN here occupies two bungalows at the motel.  One is the offices of the four UN civilian personnel and of the eight unarmed Military Observers who spend their days in front of the internet and twice a week run out to the airport to collect supplies flown in from Mbandaka.  The other bungalow houses Radio Okapi, along with me and eight local reporters.  The UN has no soldiers here to protect us.

I brought up the threats in the morning briefing and three of us (civilians) insisted troops should be sent to protect us.  I asked what was the evacuation plan?  Senegalese Colonel Tine Paul said there is no evacuation plan.  We die here,” he added in military bravado.  The station chief, a Nigerian named Ganni Are, and who does not seem to be willing to “die here”, did file a report.  The UN said no troops are available and no evacuation would be possible.  They added that even driving the five kilometers to the airport would be more dangerous than staying put and that a plane, which would take hours to get here, would not be able to land in an unsecured zone.  So, their solution is we all regroup in the Military Observers room and negotiate should the MLC Army revolt and come for us.

This ‘option’ presupposes two things: 1. We have enough warning to get to the MilObs room; 2. the rioting soldiers and those who join them are in the mood to negotiate.  Of course, it is taken as read that we let them steal everything they want and ask them politely to leave us unharmed.  Needless-to-say, I am not convinced.

Nor is the useless Humanitarian Affairs Officer, Austin Amalu.  He is the stereotype of the arrogant African UN bureaucrat collecting a fat salary and 138 dollars per Diem.  He parades with self-importance, spends little time in his office and does no field visits although he can be often seen at one of the local churches.  He has fancy suits and dress shirts, which he wears to show off his solid gold cufflinks in the form of ingots with numbers stamped on them, his big gold watch and chunky gold rings and the double-barreled Montblanc pens in his breast pocket.  He has conveniently found a workshop he just has to attend in Kinshasa, which only starts next Friday, “but because we don’t have a plane until Thursday, I have to leave Monday to be sure to get there on time.”  I am sure he will have a very good reason to delay his return, which will probably correspond to the end of our security alert, if nothing happens.

I have informed my direction.  I have asked that the reporters here be given Motorola radios to warn us if something happens in town.  I have stressed we need protection.  I have made it clear that I do not get the UN 138 dollars per Diem and therefore have no incentive to get hurt, nor lose my belongings.  I have received no answers yet.  Am I nervous?  Yes!

My one hope is Bemba.  The man may be brutal but he is not stupid. He must know that if he suffers a coup within the MLC and he cannot come back, there is no longer any reason to keep him in the transition government and he will be quite literally finished.  Bemba should be even more nervous given he also lost his rear base and a certain number of men last month when his pal, President Ange-Felix Patasse, was defeated in the Central African Republic by the rebel General Bozise backed by Chadian troops.  These guys are angry at Bemba for sending troops to fight them in the Central African Republic and for what the MLC did to captured Chadian soldiers who were here fighting for Kabila in 1998 (apparently the Chadians got even with captured MLC soldiers in Bangui last month) and they like the President, Kabila junior, in Kinshasa, and they are now sitting just across the Ubangui river from Bemba’s residence.

Bemba still has support from Uganda but the Ugandans are pulling their last troops out of Eastern Congo and have enough on their plate with the Rwandans.  Other than the plane loads of fuel and other military supplies the Ugandans fly in on rented Ukrainian and Russian planes, it is hard to imagine Kampala could send troops to bail out Bemba.  I am sure the Ugandans figure the next guys can be convinced to continue to allow Kamapala to ‘market’ the natural treasures flown out of Gbadolite.

I am the only guest at the motel restaurant, usually. The other UN people eat at home. Most of the Bungalows are occupied by MLC army officers and their families.  Of course, they don’t pay.  I have very little choice on the menu, if any at all: dry capitain fish, leather tough red meat or rubbery chicken.  Anyway, whatever I eat makes me ill.  But if I don’t eat, they don’t have any money to buy food to cook for me the following day.  To get to my room I have to open four locks put on flimsy, hole-ridden, doors, which had been repaired after the previous locks were broken off and the doors forced open. 

The man I am replacing hires two night sentinels and a cook who will probably be in trouble when the Public Information Officer gets back.  The cook, Joseph, I am sure has been ripping me off and misleading me, having me pay him for a month ($45) on May 9, when his pay is not due until the 25th.  Joseph is a small, wiry, man in his fifties and has eight children, including a baby.  He complains he does not have enough money to send them to school and care for them.  C’est la guerre, Patron!  I believe he was referring to the lack of money and not the abundance of children.

jospeh1.jpgJoseph, the cook

One of the night guards asked me for money to buy a casket for his ten-year-old brother who had died Friday.  Now, had I done that, there would have been no end to my woes with people insisting on handouts.  If you give to one, the others get aggressive, even violent, if they do not get what they are asking for.  This is hard for many of you to understand.  I am not without a heart, I assure you.  I just cannot help these people.  And by the looks of the ethnic fighting going on now in Bunia, following the Ugandan withdrawal, the Congolese are not ready to help themselves either.  The war has killed three-and-a-half million people already but, for some reason, I feel they have only just begun.

That is the other point.  The Congolese who are so friendly to me today could kill me tomorrow. They will try to be the first to get into my office and take my computer screen thinking it’s a television, as the looters before them had done in the banks and offices. It seems that somewhere in their heads a spring pops and they go mad.  Afterwards, they lament, literally cry tears, over their “poor country which is so rich” and all the violence and “how nice things were once” and “how can this happen” and “what can we do, Patron? C’est la guerre”.


p.s.  Just to prove I am looking for something positive to say, I hope to write you a small piece in a couple of days about the five heroes of the General Hospital at Mobayi and the artist who made Mobutu’s cane and still has a gallery open to the public.



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