Kisangani, June 15, 2003

pirogue-1.jpgIt has been an interesting and more or less relaxing week for me with a near diplomatic incident due to an Okapi reporter’s blunder, the UN finally learned of smuggling of goods on their barges from Kinshasa and the Welfare Club held a good-bye party for Scotland’s Mike Dora, Kilts and all.

I was extremely enthusiastic when a reporter came back from a public meeting in which the RCD-Goma mayor (appointed) of Kisangani supposedly admitted Rwandan troops are in the Congo.  Despite all the testimonies that the troops are here, the UN has not been able to “verify”.  Such a verification, as I have said before, could hurt the peace process already in shambles.  I thought if we got this recorded statement on the National airwaves, then somebody would have to do something to get the Rwandans out.

I sent the recorded statement to Kinshasa for the national broadcast and we aired it on our local news bulletin introducing it as an RCD-Goma official publicly recognizing Rwandan troops are in the Congo.  Well, the mayor, a bald short and square man with an angry face and shaven head, who likes banning any public meetings but his own, including football matches, wasted no time in angrily reacting and summoning us to his office immediately.  We ignored the summons, so he came to us and said we had taken his words out of context and that he was speaking in the past.  The speech was in Swahili and so I asked other reporters to listen to the whole tape and the mayor was right!

We discovered that he was using reported speech in the present tense in a context he clearly made the past.  He said something like: “ a few years ago, the government admitted what we have been saying all along: There are Interahamwe in the country.  For the Rwandans the Interahamwe are a threat.  So the Rwandans say: ‘We can’t leave the country until the security is assured.  We have to stay and won’t go home until the Interahamwe are no longer a threat.’”

Fortunately, the national radio had not broadcast the extract taken out of context and so we avoided a major diplomatic incident, which could have had international repercussions, not to mention my future employment with the UN. Can you imagine if the UN and the EU picked up on it and said “look, the RCD-G admit you Rwandans are in the country.  Get out!” On the local station we broadcast a correction with an extract of the same thing, this time clearly in the past, of a speech made in Lingala the following day.  The worst part of all this is this reporter, who is not really very bright, still does not understand what he did wrong.

The real problem is the Rwandans are still in the country.  While all eyes are fixed on Bunia and the French troops deploying there to stop the Lendu and the Hema from massacring the population along with each other, the RCD-Goma have launched an offensive on the RCD-K/ML, allied with Kinshasa, and have taken a few towns near and including Lubero further South.  There are reports of MI-24 Russian made attack helicopters giving RCD-G troops air support.  The only ones with those helicopters are the Rwandans.  I saw a dozen of them at the airport in Kigali in April.

The RCD-K/ML also say they have taken Rwandan prisoners.  Of course, none of the international press has bothered to “verify” this information.  If they would confirm the information, then we could perhaps attack one of the major sources of the ongoing war in the DR Congo; i.e. Rwanda.

To make matters worse, the RCD-K/ML say they will not apply the Geneva Conventions to the Rwandan prisoners; that they are bandits.  What this means is they will torture and kill them and keep the spiral of inhumanity going.  And as nobody wants to “verify” the information, nobody will complain of the mistreatment of prisoners of war.

Also adding to the heat is the move by the RCD-G towards Beni (with Rwandans?) brings them closer to the Ugandan border, something Kamapala has clearly said it will not tolerate.  So, there is a good chance the Ugandans will come back into the fray.  Meanwhile back in Bunia, French Mirage fighter jets fly low to impress the drunken and stoned fighters and cause villagers who have never seen such technology to faint from fear in several cases.

The new head of the MONUC, the former American ambassador to Congo, may be able to convince Washington to stop backing the Rwandans. He may even convince them that American and Canadian mining companies will still be able to get their Coltan, Uranium, gold and other precious minerals out of Eastern Congo even with the Congolese in control.  I read in recent reports, including one from the UN, that George Bush father invested heavily in these mining operations around the time the war began.  When I get back to Kinshasa I will look up the names of the companies again.

On a lighter note, but still with dramatic consequences for the population, the United Nations has finally discovered the crews of the UN tugs bringing barges from Kinshasa to Kisangani are smuggling goods for small retailers.  You remember how I pointed out in March, that within an hour of the UN barges docking, the people were selling salt, smoked fish and other produce from outside the RCD-G zone, just one hundred meters from UN HQ and that everybody knew, including the RCD-G officials, except the UN.  Christ, I learned of it just three days after arriving.

Well, last week a security patrol spotted pirogues off-loading sacks from the barges late at night and called in more security.  Although apparently most of the stuff had already been off-loaded, the UN discovered a sizable list of things which were not on their cargo manifest: hundreds of sacks of cement, hundreds of sacks of salt, machetes, bicycles, cases of soap etc.  Of course, now that the UN knew, the RCD-G could use it as a further reason to keep the river closed to traffic and thus denying the people of Kisangani access to more and cheaper produce.

Upon investigation, the captain of the tug said the crew had smuggled the goods on board without his knowledge and begged the UN not to cancel the contract with him.  More interesting in unraveling the Congolese way of thinking is the reaction of those Kisangani businessmen who paid for the stuff to be smuggled.  They merely handed in a list of the names of the ‘owners’ of the produce with a complete list of what was on the boat that ‘belonged’ to each and demanded the UN hand it over.  The UN decided to send the barge back to Kinshasa with the goods still on board.

Once again the Congolese have shown that for them, there is nothing wrong with illegal activity, even if it jeopardizes the welfare of a whole city, in this case giving the RCD-G an excuse to keep the river shut to traffic.  The only thing wrong is getting caught.  And once again we have a further example of just how bad UN security is.

Even the reporters at Okapi who are supposed to be among the elite that will build the new modern Congo are in this ‘live in the moment, take what you can and tomorrow never comes’ mentality.  They think it is normal the UN driver uses the UN vehicle to drive them home from work, a task that takes over two hours.  I try to convince them to buy a bicycle ($ 70) or a 100cc motorbike ($500).  I remind you they make $750 a month.  I explained to them that my motorcycle cost me three months salary and took me two years to pay and that theirs would cost less than one month’s salary.  Comparatively, and given the standards of living, their salaries go much further here than mine does in Paris.  But investing in the future is something they cannot fathom, especially when they can milk the system dry in the present.

Here is another major problem.  They see the MONUC as a bottomless pit of money.  They waste office equipment as if ‘there is no tomorrow’, and cannot understand when I ask them to be a bit less wasteful.  They think the eight hundred million dollar MONUC budget is enormous.  You can tell them it is less than the budget for the New York Fire Department or less than what the UN wants to give Iraq in food aid alone, they just do not want to hear it.  This is discouraging for me.  The Okapi reporters are the elite, the people who are supposed to be setting the example for the Congo we would like to see enter the modern world where all citizens get their just rewards for their labor and where citizens also think about the collective good.  That is one reason they are paid so well and have legal contracts.  Congolese outside the UN system have no contracts and never get paid.

Lets change the subject. Often, people with the UN behave more like a university fraternity club than an international organization with a tough mission. Mike Dora, a high-ranking UN official is leaving the Congo. You may have seen him on TV. You cannot miss him. He is the Scot running around the jungle under fire in a light-blue helmet, flak jacket and wearing a kilt. The Welfare Club gave a going-away party for him on Saturday and kilts were a must.  The Irish had little trouble fitting in.  I may add, Irish kilts are much shorter than Scottish kilts, which seemed to please the Congolese women.  Nor did other Scots or those with Scottish descent have problems dressing for the occasion. But a few had to use their imagination.  One chubby and balding man wore his army sleeping bag wrapped around his waist as a big fluffy camouflage kilt. It was ridiculous.  However, the buffet, although much too much for the carnivorous to my taste, was quite good and only cost eight dollars.  Everybody was forced to sing ‘The Flower of Scotland’, which does not bother me in the least as I never liked ‘proud King Edward’, nor his Army.

I have moved into the flat of the person who runs the radio here while she is on leave.  Rachel is a small Haitian métisse who co-owns a documentary film production company in Port-au-Prince in her real life.  The flat is very big and open behind bars on both ends, with three-meter high ceilings and fully furnished, to Congolese standards that is.  Rachel has bought a whole forest in native woodcarvings and I am curious to see how she will ship it all home.  She says she has no idea yet.  If she does find a way, it will help me because I am on the path to establishing a little collection of artwork.  The locals are always trying to sell me Ivory and leopard skins and things made out of other endangered species.  I have not yet found a way to make them understand that the products are illegal and why they are illegal.  I’m not sure there is a way.

greek-church-front.jpgGreek church and Hellenic Center, Kisangani

Every day, when I go to the Hellenic Center for my good Greek lunch, it is the same thing.  The trinket sellers offer me the produce. I tell them again I cannot own such objects and why I cannot and they will offer me another object made out of the same banned material.  But I am afraid that if I come across a carved ivory chess set I may do something that could get me in trouble.

I met a couple of painters selling their touristy themes.  They have that nice African naïve style with those beautiful colors of the red earth and the jungle.  I do not know how they get their oil paints. They say it is very difficult.  I was thinking of proposing they try palm oil and local dyes to make colors. They use burlap or canvas bags to paint on.  I am hoping to go to their homes and watch them paint.  I just wish they would offer me some sort of original idea and not the kitschy man-with-pipe or elephant-in-the-sunset.  I regret that they are more interested in selling me a painting than talking to me about their lives, techniques and so on.  If I buy one, they will just want to sell me another and I do not think I would ever be able to sit down and have the real chat with them I want to have.

Just look at what happened with the artist in Gbadolite.



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