Mbandaka, July 20, 2003

 congo-river-from-heli1.jpgThis week: there is always some place worse; Uruguayan soldiers teach local kids bad English; and Eugene Yololo is a one-man press agency who makes sure Makanza knows. 

I traveled quite a bit with the Military Observers to both sides of the cease-fire line but never stayed in one town or village long enough to find out very much. I could see there are still a lot of trees in the jungle. I could also see soldiers are still manning their positions although their main preoccupation is hassling the people; hitting them up for money non-stop.  Most of the places are lost to the world; the people are at the mercy of the local commander and his troops who may or may not have been forgotten by their respective leadership.

I feel very sorry for the Military Observers posted in the remote jungle bases with absolutely nothing. The worst I have seen is Bolomba where three MilObs are stuck in the middle of a FAC army camp, which is in the middle of the jungle, on a strategic dirt path, with no electricity, no water, no TV, no local bar…no nothing. The MilObs cannot even use the internet except for one hour a day for official use because it costs the UN two dollars a minute for the telephone satellite connection.  The mobile earth station they need is sitting at Mbandaka HQ.  The UN is reluctant to pay the $140 000 to get the MI-26 helicopter from Kananga to Mbandaka to pick up the big dish and then carry it to Bolomba and get the helicopter back to Kananga. The six months the MilObs spend there is enough to drive anybody nuts.

The MLC controlled city of Bumba is a port on the Congo, halfway between Mbandaka and Kisangani.  It is considered the bread-basket of Equateur province.  There are well over five-hundred-thousand people in the immediate area.  According to the captain of the Port, hundreds of thousands of tons of rice, maize and beans are loaded onto barges every month.  A claim I find hard to believe.  The food is taken to Kinshasa and Kisangani on the Congo River and to Zongo up the Ubangui River.

The power plant is out of service for lack of fuel and spare parts.  The same goes for the water treatment plant.  Thus, there is no power; no clean drinking water. I could tell the population is infected with parasites by the bloated bellies on the children.  I am sure there are many other nasty things killing them off.

Despite the lack of power, the cell phone operator Vodacom is to begin service in the town this week.  I have no idea how they are going to recharge their cell phones.  Perhaps  the guys who use car batteries recharged with solar panels as I have seen in other cities can recharge the phones.

The people in Bumba can hardly go a hundred meters without unpaid MLC soldiers hitting them up for money and food.  Life is a nightmare.  The people say they want the formation of a transition government to put an end to the constant harassment.  While the members of the new government, former warlords and corrupt politicians play children’s temper tantrums in Kinshasa, the people in the countryside, towns and cities hold very high hopes.

Life is worse for the people in the rebel zones where soldiers and police have not been paid in five years but there are also problems in the government zone.  In Mbandaka, people are stopped, arrested and racketed at night from ten o’clock even though the governor, Jean-Bertrand Ewanga, assured me there is no curfew and that people can circulate freely whenever and wherever they want in the city.  One soldier even went into a house and stole a pot of rice.  When the women began running after him, he fired his weapon to scare them off.

On the one hand, people’s hopes are dangerously high.  It is hard to tell what will happen if they are dashed again.  In Bukavu Friday, the population took advantage of the change of flag, which came with the swearing in ceremony in Kinshasa, to express their hatred for the Rwandan backed RCD-Goma rebel movement.  They tore off car license plates imposed by the rebel movement, a symbol of tax harassment, and attacked a pro-RCD journalist.  Cars were burned, shots were fired, people were hurt.

On the other hand, the unpaid soldiers and police are watching Kinshasa with a weary eye, worried that they will be sacrificed by the warlords they fought for and, as usual, if they get angry, they will take it out on the civilian population.  There is a very tense mix on the ground and I am not sure the International Community took it into consideration seriously enough.  Kinshasa is a long ways away.  Things can get out of control very quickly in the rest of the country.

In Mbandaka, the people have the most hostile attitude towards internationals I have come across in the Congo.  They will not get out of the way for your car; look at you as if they are going to spit on you; and as you pass by, shout things in Lingala that cannot be nice.  One of the Okapi reporters explained that the people here think we are rich (we are) and that our money is coming from the Congolese budget and that we should share it with them.  The Congolese budget?  That is a new one for me.  Nevertheless, it is quite clear that they would need no pushing to lynch us all.  Yet they grovel before the most outrageous oppression and corruption by fellow Congolese.

I often think it may have been better to just leave the Congolese alone and let them go at each other until they have enough or until there is nobody left to kill or until they advance a few hundred years out of whatever age they are in. I am not sure we are really helping.  And I still wonder whether the best solution was not for one of the factions to win the war.   I do not share the Congolese confidence in the new transition government.  I think this is probably the most dangerous moment since I arrived in the country and my feelings are shared by many of the officers here.

Another town lost in the jungle, which I visited this week is Befale.  The UN is financing the building a new five room school house to replace the one they destroyed.  In June 2002, the MONUC helicopter blew off the school roof.  The rain finished the job and the walls crumbled.  A little over a year later, the UN finally forwarded $3,700, enough money to replace the roof.  The MilOb team Leader, Lieutenant Colonel Mohamadou Baraze (Niger), watches the masons with pride saying the school will be finished in two weeks.

The local masons however, who have neither wheel-barrows, nor buckets, and must carry everything on their heads, say they will be lucky if they finish by the beginning of the school year on September 2.  They also say the money, which was enough to replace a roof, is not sufficient to build a school.  But Lt. Col. Baraze will not be daunted.  He is even thinking of redoing the school latrines.

I should remind you that not all children go to school.  Only those whose parents have the money to pay and as the teachers have not received their salaries in years, the parents pay directly to either the teachers, or the school superintendent who is sure to rake off a sizable share for himself before giving the rest to his political masters. The superintendent is almost always a man of the faction in power in the area; a political appointee.  But there is no superintendent in Losombo. The one teacher is paid in chickens and other produce. The village is so lost they do not even have a road to get out of there.  From Losombo, it takes seven days to reach Mbandaka by pirogue.  Oh, but their are troops in Losombo.  It is a barrier on the Lulonga River. 

On Saturday night as I went to the Uruguayan pizza and beer party, five or six kids, about the same age, asked me for 100 francs.  I told them where to go and one six-year-old said in English: “I fuck your mother.”  I thought I almost detected a Spanish accent in the kid’s pronunciation.  Alright, the kids are learning to beg, like their parents, and there is probably no chance they will ever go to school but the internationals are not helping because, I am sure, the soldiers are not only teaching them choice phrases in English but are also certainly “fucking” their mothers.  Six and seven year olds take the soldiers home to their sisters and their mothers:  You come home.  My sister/mother very pretty.”  The problem is, many people think, when they see the internationals walking home with little boys, that they are having sex with the boys.  Yes, there are reports that in some cases they are.

Another witchcraft story made our headlines earlier in the week. A man was almost lynched by his own children and neighbors who accused him of witchcraft.  One of his sons died after a three-year illness.  He was the sixth of the man’s nineteen children to die.  The police intervened to save the father, which led to a pitched battle with the neighborhood youth.  The strange thing is the man confessed to witchcraft in his son’s death although he denies any involvement in the deaths of the five other children.  The father says the tools his father left him are cursed.  No autopsy was practiced to prove that the thirty-year-old died from something, which was not witchcraft.  They do not do autopsies in Congo.  Christ, they do not even have money to care for the living.  Any way, everybody knows science proves nothing when it comes down to witchcraft.

On a brighter note, apparently, during all the looting and wanton destruction, the rampaging gunslingers never once raided a brewery.  Every brewery in the country is intact.  The Congolese love their beer.  The only reason the Bralima brewery in Mbandaka is not operating is because there is not enough electricity.  There could be if they paid for it but why set a bad precedent as they never paid for it before.  Any way, the Bralima director here, a mustachioed fat man who has trouble finishing his sentences because he forgot where he began them, is still living a very comfortable life thanks to the funds of the state owned Bralima breweries.  He lives on the Bralima Estate, which has power 24 hours a day, just not enough to run the brewery.

However, the UN people living in town are forced to pay $100 a month for power, which is only on from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.  the Congolese also pay a hefty sums. The governor says they only get five hours power per day because they do not have enough fuel to run the power plant.  The UN people say it is in large part because the governor is corrupt and filling his pockets.  At any rate, City Hall, which consumes 56% of the power supply, has never paid its bills.  Why set a precedent with good and transparent management?

I wish I had more good things to say about the Congo, or even about the Congolese.  I promise you I am looking (see AMAP below).  Very often when I come across something which looks positive, I discover it was a game to make me happy because the person wanted something, or in the best of cases, just wanted not to upset me.  I read that pygmies will always say ‘yes’ at first because they want to make you feel at home, but the real answer is ‘no’.

Most Congolese use the pygmies as their punching bags. The pygmies are considered somewhere between the monkey, which is food here, and a human, but not quite human.  I was surprised when they told me that “a pygmy will break his plate after eating because he cannot understand he will need it again tomorrow.”  This is how I see all the Congolese.  Maybe it is time I leave the Congo for a while.  The amazing thing is people who remain in Kinshasa, even if they make short visits to the provinces, do not see this side of the Congo.  However, I feel reassured in the fact that so many of the UN people in the sticks and the zones, both Black and White, have come to the same conclusions as I have and with the same self apprehensions: “Am I becoming racist to say such things?”

Not really.  Here’s a positive note. Makanza is a city of some 20 000 people 220 kilometers up river from Mbandaka.  There is nothing here.  The last time the hospital was supplied was when a Unicef barge brought in some medicine in November 2001!  The hospital is basically a brick building with small rooms fit for pigs; no water, no windows, no mattresses…no nothing.  But Dr. Bernard Yola, another hero, still operates, day or night, using only natural light and without an anesthetist. 

There is not one NGO in the whole zone.  The people ask us why they are being ignored when others are getting help.  Part of the answer is in the racketing and thievery of the MLC rebel soldiers who, I must say again, have not been paid in five years.

Makanza is so isolated, the people receive no Congolese radio stations on their battery powered radios, when they can find batteries and if they are lucky enough to have a radio to put them in.  There is no electricity of course.

But the people of Makanza know exactly what is going on in their country thanks to Eugene Yololo who founded AMAP, Agence Makanza de Presse.  AMAP is Eugene.  Every day he listens to the BBC, RFI, VOA on short wave… and writes the news down on a blackboard which he then takes to the town market for all to read.  Eugene does this several times a day.  He is calling on the international press to show solidarity by sending him some batteries.  He could also use some chalk and an eraser.

A bon entendeur, salut!


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