01 October 2013

Knights in not-so-shining Land Cruisers

Though fighting continues, the situation in Irumu has cooled sufficiently for our security experts to finally give the go-ahead for expats to venture into the field. It’s not that expats are necessary for the field work to continue, or even particularly helpful, at least in this instance. The programme manager is a Congolais doctor who is terrifically proficient when it comes to conducting needs assessments. He also speaks most of the local languages and has been working with some of these communities for years. One might be forgiven for wondering why we would ever dispatch the international staff to these project sites. Frankly, sending expats is more of a PR move. It signals to the IDP and host populations that a) this situation is stabalising, thereby hopefully reassuring them (which might be a complete lie); and b) that the broader INGO community recognizes their situation. We actually are often thanked by the beneficiaries when we go to the field (not thanked for anything in particular, mind you, but just for being there while white. It’s more or less the inverse of DWB and it’s super disconcerting).

We specifically wanted to go to Soke, as it is safe while still being reasonably close to the front line and has a tremendous amount of IDPs. It is about a two hour drive from Bunia with a route that passes through Bogoro That is where, in more peaceful times, we were want to go to the waterfalls for a relaxing weekend picnic. Now, both it and the surrounding villages have been flooded with those fleeing the fighting between the FARDC and FPRI.

The team, which, in addition to the Doctor and myself, included two national and one international staff, made our first attempt early last week. After a series of typical office snafus delayed our departure by nearly two hours, we were set back even further at the military checkpoint newly installed at the southernmost entrance to Bunia. The lengthy detention seemed less rooted in bureaucratic necessity or a specific security concern than in sheer boredom. The soldiers waved motorbikes and less interesting cars through as they inquired about our work with what bordered on genuine curiosity and expounded on the glorious successes of their FARDC brethren against the villainous Cobra Matata. All the time they were speaking to us they were grooming one another. One soldier was almost meditatively combing the bangs of his colleague’s wig. It was sweet, if bizarre.

With well-wishes still on the lips of the troops, we took off down the dusty path, our logo pennant proudly flapping in the wind like the standard of some knight errant. Almost all the NGO land cruisers fly them. I keep waiting for us to joust along the main street. Instead of the favours of fair maidens, we would be trying to win funds from the UN, EU, and USAID. And, after the tourney, we would sally forth, not to do battle, but to deliver mosquito nets, hygiene kits, and NFIs. Given this level of absurd whimsy, you might expect me to love the pennants, but I might actually hate them. They’re dingy and self-serving and obscure the view of the journey. MSF vehicles tend to have two or three, which seems about right.

At any rate, we had been traveling merrily along, singing along with a tape of Congolais worship songs. I can only join in when they invariably come to a repeated series of Alleluias, but then I do so with gusto. This is partly why I, along with most of the team, failed to notice when our driver began to express some unease. The fact that he did so in Hemma, which is only comprehensible to the project manager, certainly didn’t help. He was unnerved by the sheer volume of motorbikes coming towards us (they’re like rats on a sinking ship - good indicators of militia activity, given that many of them are more or less militia reservists). When we were finally passed by a truck stuffed to the gills with people all waving at shouting at us urgently, barreling so fast down the road that we had to drive partway into the ditch to make room for it, India (the expats all use his call sign, India Zulu, as his given name is a humdinger) didn’t even wait for input from the PM before K-turning out of there. The PM made a few calls and we stopped to chat with some of the motos who had been fleeing. Early reports were that the militia had just begun shelling UN and FARCD positions in and around the town. Just, as in ten minutes before. That was when reinforcements from the military checkpoint we had passed less than an hour before went thundering down toward our former destination. The only IDPs I would talk to, then, were the ones who prevented us from waltzing into a fire fight (or so we thought). Even so, the morning wasn’t complete loss – the team shared road-bought bananas and sugar cane and mango Tang on the return trip, and I made it back in time for my French lesson. As the PM said, c’est ça le Congo!

With time and a little more intelligence, however, turns out that no one was shelling Bogoro. They were shelling Kasawara, which is a bit farther afield and where the ‘war’ is raging in earnest. What sparked the panic in Bogoro was that MONUSCO deployed a tank unit to go assist the beleaguered FARDC forces (as they’re supposed to be working together and whatnot) and for reasons unknown to just about everyone but the Congolais troops themselves, the checkpoint guards outside of Lagabo turned them back. Yes, the FARDC dismissed a UN tank. When the good people of Bogoro saw the UN troops coming back their way, they assumed that they had been recalled for military reasons and split. Though making for a rather anti-climatic end to my mission, it does give a decent idea of how jumpy everyone around here has gotten (even so, I’m not entirely certain what one mistakes for the sound of mortar fire).

The following day dawned with a heavy feeling in the air. Undaunted by the sultry weather and armed with the knowledge that we would be at least 10km away from the active frontline, we opted to try for Soke again. We somewhat sheepishly passed through the same checkpoints, but the soldiers that were still awake were too lethargic to do much more than muster a listless salute. Under the cloud-heavy sky, even the pennant was subdued. India navigated up through the handful of villages betwixt Bunia and Bogoro, passing the usual motley collection of children, goats, road-side vendors, and even a few hand-cranked wooden bikes ridden by double amputees.

The talk in the car was astoundingly wide-ranging. What began with the expats asking after our co-workers kids somehow transitioned to the subject of canine exorcisms (using the dog to trap the demon once it’s been exorcised from a person, that is. Not exorcising demons out of dogs, though that might have been even more intriguing. Don’t ask what happens to the demon-infested dog post-exorcism) which then lead to a discussion of social security. I have no idea how that happened. It was fascinating though, to hear a Dutch women (whose home country has one of the most advanced social safety nets in the world) discuss welfare with a Congolais man on our way to a camp for displaced persons. All the talk about the value of money (it can’t buy you happiness, my Dutch colleague opined. No, but it can buy you food, shot back our logistician) and handouts vs. earned income and saving vs spending habits was a bit surreal.

We eventually reached Lagabo, a tiny village of less than 500. It’s actually too small for even the INGOs to put it on our maps. It was in this blip of a village that the FARDC suggested we stop for the day (it’s also where they stopped the tank. The Lagabo unit is tough). Accordingly, we disembarked from the Land Cruiser and asked around until we identified the village chief. It didn’t take long. Walking up to his hut, our PM shot an appraising look at the camera in my hand and suggested that I store it for the interview. The chief was reclining on a bench outside his house in black loafers, green track suit, and a houndstooth newsboy cap stitched with shimmering silver thread. He was holding court with his brain trust, a handful of FARDC soldiers (presumably these soldiers outranked those that stopped us), and a gaggle of dirty children with beautiful eyes. The site overlooked Lac Albert, so I was at least able to enjoy the view as the PM chatted with the chief and a black rooster kept pecking at my feet. The chief was not in the least pleased about the IDPs, though he was tolerant. There were just too many for his village, he explained. Lagabo doesn’t have enough resources to share.

If at first I found his sentiments uncharitable, that changed when our interview ended and India eased the Land Cruiser through the tall grasses in the direction indicated by the chief. We came over a rise, parked under a tree, and were immediately surrounded by some of the 23,000 IDPs that have invaded Lagabo. Small wonder the chief was piqued – how was this village of a few hundred, with only one potable water point and two latrines, supposed to absorb that many people? Lagabo doesn’t even have a functioning health center; residents have to hoof it down the hill to Bogoro for anything beyond bush treatments.

By and large, the IDPs hailed from Kaguma and Soke. There were so very many because, as the fighting neared these larger, more established towns, people from satellite villages fled there. When the fighting engulfed them in turn, those who were once hosts turned IDP along with everyone else and they all absconded to wherever they could (for what it’s worth, Lagabo was a terrible choice. It’s an area that is contested between two tribes who were openly fighting less than a decade ago, it’s windy, it’s cold, it’s in the middle of nowhere…). Some had walked as many as 50km in the past weeks. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like such a great distance (hardly more than a marathon in two weeks? I hear you ask. Pfft), and in the strictest sense, it isn’t. But when you’re traveling with a passel of little kids, all your worldly possessions, insufficient food and water, and in constant fear? It’s herculean.
We tend to talk about numbers of displaced in terms of households rather than persons because there are always so many children.  Parents send them away with relatives and neighbors, often with nothing more than the cloathes and possibly a younger sibling on their back.
The entirety of the staff from the Kaguma health centre was now residing within eyesight of our tree in Lagabo. All 28 personnel (nurses, midwives, technicians, etc) were still performing consultations under its generous shade. We arrived during a distribution of medicines, including antimalarials and treatments for ARI and diarrhea. The drugs might have been coming out of a cardboard box someone carried to Lagabo on her head, but the whole thing was meticulously recorded in the logs they had salvaged from the clinic before they abandoned Kaguma and duly resented to our PM for approval and reimbursement (we subsidize treatments for IDPs). The head nurse described the entire process in a shirt emblazoned with George W. Bush’s face and the words ‘Somewhere a Village Is Missing its Idiot’.
As the PM peppered the staff with questions about the morbidity and mortality statistics (which we refer to as M&Ms, rendering me both depressed and peckish), demographics, latrines, and supplies, I tried to make myself useful by taking photos. I couldn’t have felt more useless. Here I am, the intrepid NGO worker, coming to meet with the great displaced masses and…photograph their destitution. I am an inspiration. My aimlessness was all the more manifest when compared to the ceaseless activity of the impromptu camp. During the entirety of our visit, lines of women and older girls snaked through the throng, carrying messy bales of thrushes to the various buildings sites or drying racks. The temporary shelters can be erected in a matter of days and the grasses are woven so tightly that rain cannot penetrate (the thrushes have to be dry before they start for this to work, though. Which is tricky, given that this is the rainy season), but I can’t imagine it’s terribly comfortable. The peaks of the roofs only reach to my chest. Admittedly, most Congolais aren’t tall, but still.
When we finally set back out for Bunia, the IDP children chased after our truck, waving and cheering, like we were the solitary float in a pathetic parade.
For what it’s worth, the team (sans me) finally made it all the way to Soke two days later. I’m not certain if it was because they finally wore down the Lagabo guards or they were just in a good mood (one of my colleagues opined it was because none of the expats on this trip were women). The photos they took were of a ghost town. The population is a fragment of what it was a month ago and surrounding villages are utterly empty. The health post still running, though. A skeleton crew is treating all IDPs that stumble into town, late for the great flight (which is now being arrested by the FARDC with violent measures. As if these people didn’t have enough to contend with). One assumes they must be new to the area. Next time, they’ll be ready.