Kisangani, August 24, 2003

 me-and-sumi.jpgThe blast in Baghdad shakes the MONUC; a petrol station opens and the cars come out of hiding; the “men in uniform” still fill their pockets but not the RCD tax collectors; 40 kidnapped women are not worth a headline. 

The shock waves of Baghdad have come all the way to Kisangani.  Security has moved all the people away from around UN HQ here.  We had a nice little market on the bank of the Congo River where the pirogues would bring people from the West Bank with fruit and vegetables.  There was a lot of coming and going.  The students would sit there at night and read in the UN flood lights when electricity is in short supply in town.  Now we have a barbed wire fence on the other side of the road.

I have been told I am “a soft target” and that I should check my vehicle every time I leave it somewhere.  We are so spread out here I am not sure the measures will do anything to increase our security but they will make a lot of Boyamais (inhabitants of Kisangani) very angry.  In typically Congolese fashion, they already think we are not doing enough for them.  God help us, should they do something for themselves.  I am afraid the security measures will help the anti-UN people in the RCD-Goma whip up hostile feelings towards the “internationals”.

It was strange to watch African UN workers compete with each other to see who was the most devastated by the Baghdad bombing.  A sort of mourning game they had to go through as a sign of prestige, seriousness, commitment and belonging to the family: loud emotional speaking, high pitched voices feigning near crying, words from the Apocolypse, the same clichés over and over. They all claim to have known people who died in the explosion but, of course, the Special Representative for the Secretary General, Sergio Vieira de Mello, had to be the most regretted.  If they had seen him once at an Air Port, then they felt they could present themselves as intimate friends.  They reminded me of the professional wailers hired for funerals.

I regret Sergio Vieira de Mello’s death.  He was one of the better ones who knew how to leave diplomatic language aside and address man’s horror in blunt terms.  He would have been much better than Kofi Annan at the head of the UN.  But I am afraid I understand why the UN had become a target in the eyes of many Iraqis and my first reaction is that the Arab street probably identifies with the bombers more than the press and the diplomats care to admit.  It also points out why sometimes UN salaries are astronomical.

Painful Rebirth

Kisangani has metamorphosed since the arrival of the barges on August 3. Buildings are being repaired and repainted at an astonishing rate, mostly in the colors of the new companies setting up businesses, especially the cell phone operators who have converted the streets into chatter-boxes: orange and dark blue for CellTel and light blue and white for SuperCel, which has made the small Greek community very happy; shelves are being filled with produce not seen in five years.  But the most astonishing change came with the opening of the Fina petrol station 20 days after the barges arrived.

After two weeks of intensive labor, day and night, the new pumps were installed, the station painted, concrete poured and a couple of dozen Fina flags set up along the perimeter.  On the morning of the 22nd, cars, which had been so well hidden during the war, appeared out of no where and were lining two hundred meters down the street waiting for the first fill in five years and dozens of small motorcycles and men with Jerry cans grouped disorderly around the pumps.

During the five years of isolation, fuel was flown in from the East and sold on the streets in little bottles by vendors called Gadhaffis.  The price averaged from 500 fc (Congolese Francs) to 800fc a liter (a dollar is worth 350 fc in Kisangani this week, up from 330 fc before the opening of the city to commerce with the West) and their clients were mostly those who had a small motorbike.  The cars were hidden because they knew the RCD-Goma people would take them and send them to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, and make a little money on the side.

When the Fina barge arrived with 1000 cubic meters of fuel, flights of petrol from the East ended and even the Gadhaffi had little to sell.  The price soared to 1500fc a liter.  But the Gadhaffi are not worried about their future. 

Mariam Pendeza stands in front of her street vendor station, very pregnant but still manning her two ancient hand pumps.  The woman of Indian origin is the President of the Associaiton of Vendors of Petroleum Products, otherwise known as the Gadhaffis.  She says there is room for everybody.  We will just buy from Fina and continue to sell on the street.”

Fina opened Friday selling at 372fc a liter.  It remains to be seen if the city’s monopoly will keep the price there.  Before the war, there were also Shell (now rented by the UN), Mobil and Texeco stations.

Among the cars waiting for gas were Kisangani’s taxis.  We’re back in business,” says Edouard Amboko, a stocky man of about 35, standing next to his 1986 white Nissan Bluebird.  The only question is the clientele.”

During the war and the blockade, people used the Toleka bicycle taxis, which cost from 20fc to 60fc a ride, less than the taxis, which operated before the war.  The Toleka have another advantage: they can go right up to the door on the poor roads which the taxis cannot do.

But the dozen taxi drivers huddled around Edourd’s Nissan all agree: “The day of the Toleka is finished.”  They say there have been too may accidents.  There certainly will be more given the way these people drive.  I understand the mayor is going to ban the Toleka inside the city now that the taxis are back.  He can collect more tax on the cars than on the bikes.

The drivers told me there used to be about 100 taxis before the war.  That is likely an exaggeration.  Most are not running because there are no spare parts.  I have not noticed any garage being prepared to open for business either.

I should say a word about road rules.  Congolese drivers do not slow down at intersections, speed through streets crowded with people and never cede to the other unless he is a much bigger vehicle.  The Toleka yield the way to a car, while still peddling, timing the car’s turn so that they do not have to stop.  Accidents happen when you stop to let the Toleka pass or slow down out of fear.  He cannot understand the signal.  So, you go about your drive, slower than the Congolese but not worrying about the Toleka who are managing driver-safety for you.  Any attempt to drive with sanity here would end up in a catastrophic and bloody accident.  This said, there are many accidents given the small number of vehicles.  There are also financial benefits to being hit by a UN vehicle and some are specialists at it.

Highway robbery goes on

The RCD-Goma continue to lose their grip as people believe the transition government is for real.  The RCD sent a delegation to Kisangani from Goma to collect the taxes from the many services in town whose job it is to make sure Congolese pay.  The delegation were forced to stay in flea-bag hotels and went back to Goma empty handed.  Not one tax collector accepted to give the Goma people a penny.  They all said they now answer only to the government in Kinshasa.  (This does not mean they are sending the money to the government.)

Of course, we covered the story but were unable to contact the delegation who did their best to avoid us.  They even sent us an offer for an interview with them scheduled for … the day after their departure!

RCD-Goma men in uniform (I cannot call these thugs soldiers) continue to racket the population every chance they get.  We are getting reports of heavy tolls being imposed in the countryside but we cannot get to the check points to verify.

Lokombe Onyumanga is the director of a primary school in Bafwa Balenga, 233 kilometers from Kisangani on the Ituri road.  Everything was destroyed by the Ugandans and what was left, including the dispensary, was pillaged by “men in uniform”.  No NGOs work in the area because of the insecurity. Mr. Onyumanga’s people, who have not been paid in five years and have no equipment, teach under trees.  Although located in the MLC controlled zone, the mild mannered man rode his bicycle four days to Kisangani to meet with the RCD-G governor of Province Orientale and ask for aid.  He was racketed by RCD gunmen for more than ten dollars along the way; an astronomical sum in the Congo.

The Armies are supposed to be unifying under a common command during the transition but nothing has changed along the fronts and none of the ‘soldiers’ have been recalled to barracks or disarmed.  As a matter of fact, the RCD ran a new group of recruits, many of them very young, in front of UN HQ.  This is pure provocation as the goal is to downsize the number of armed men in the country.  Child soldiers have still not been sent home and can still be seen walking around town with their Kalashnikovs.

There is still a lot of violence.  These so-called armies never really fought each other unlike the, Angolans, Chadians, Namibians, Ugandans, Rwandans, Zimbabweans and others who fought in Congo.  The Congolese mostly just looted, raped, pillaged and murdered their own peoples whenever they could.  This is still going on.  They are continuing a long tradition of predator armies.

One of my reporters proposed a story about a man who had both ears cut off by the Mayi Mayi in an attack on his village 150 kilometers outside Kisangani.  I read the story: the Mayi Mayi attacked at four in the morning, beat up the man and cut off his ears.  This was followed by an interview with the victim in hospital.  Then in the closing lines he writes: “within an hour, the Mayi Mayi had looted the village, cut off Mr. X’s ears and kidnapped 40 women.”  KIDNAPPED 40 WOMEN!  I hit the ceiling and moved the story from fifth, a mutilation, to the lead, the kidnapping of 40 women.  The journalist could not understand, even after I explained it to him, that kidnapping 40 women was more important than the man losing his ears.  I understand.  Even raped, a woman is still a woman,” he said.  He had not even asked if the women had been released.  The Brigade Commander did not know either.  He said his men had secured the village, that’s all.

I have said it before: rape is as common as theft in the Congo and is equated with it in the Congolese mind.  Not much has changed since the Belgians who would hold a man’s wife and daughters to make sure he came back with the rubber he was sent to the forest to collect.  This is still standard practice.  The rape is an extra, a premium which comes with the uniform.

Another form of robbery is taking place here in the East.  The RCD people wanted to keep the franc artificially high at 330fc for a dollar while in the Western government zone it is at 430fc.  With the formation of the transition government the RCD was forced to accept the 100 franc notes used in the West.  Up till now, they had imposed the use of the old 20, 10 and 5 franc notes no longer available in the West.  Of course, sharks were quick to understand that if they bought francs in the West with dollars at 430fc and bought back dollars in the RCD zone at 330fc, they could make $25 on every $100 invested. The same thing goes for produce.  This is ruining people and sapping the whole economy.

Another thing people cannot understand is the fact the prices, which at first fell with the arrival of the barges, are now back up.  There are reports of hoarding and of the wholesalers striking exclusivity deals with certain retailers to do away with competition and make sure the prices stay high to increase profits.

On Sunday morning I was having my coffee on the terrace at the UN Welfare Club and at a table behind me were two RCD parliamentarians from Goma who had missed their connecting flight to Kinshasa for the opening session on Friday.  One starts yelling so loud into his cell phone, one would think he wanted Goma to hear him without the phone. 

            “Why are you yelling,” I asked annoyed.

            “Does it bother you?”

            “Yes, it does!”

            “What about Liberty?” the idiot asked me.  This parliament is going to be really interesting.

A certain idea of Okapi dies

I am not allowed to talk about this so it remains between us.  That means confidential.

I have renewed with Hirondelle for another two months even though Okapi is no longer the radio I came to work for.  The conservatives won and it looks like Okapi is becoming the voice of the UN. It could be worse.  I thought it was a good idea to give the Congolese a radio with Congolese reporters giving Congolese news using the rules we teach in school.  It created a need among the Congolese they did not know they had.  But radical new ideas rarely work the first time.  Eventually, people will understand that education and access to complete and well-rounded information are the only things that will help people like the Congolese eventually get out of the dark ages.  Granted, with the Congolese, it will take much longer than with most.

I think they have it backwards.  What the Congolese do not need right now, and are a long way from being prepared for, are democratic elections.  They do need Radio Okapi as it was conceived to be: a voice to expose the wrong doings of those in power and the accomplishments of honest brokers; a voice which showed that all Congolese are equal and accountable for their acts.  This is especially true given that the transition government and the parliament are composed of the self-appointed murderers and their hand-picked favorites who all now compete in Western eyes to be sons of democracy. It is strange that the transformation of Okapi comes with the setting up of the new government.  It is probably just a coincidence.

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