Dusan, a friend who works for the UN, and I go on a trip for a few days. He's traveling up to Beni for a night and I want to go over the progress I've made on the soldier sensitization classes with him. He shows up several hours late, which isn't a surprise in Congo. When he arrives and unfolds his lanky body from the white UN car the first thing out of his mouth is a question about the twins he's decided I'm carrying.
-They're good, I say and pat my belly.
Before I went home Dusan insisted I was pregnant because of the weight I gained from the Congolese food. Now he looks me up and down and we both laugh.
-I'm only joking, you know this. I am impolite.
He walks over and gives me a hug.
-Yeah, yeah I know. I'm used to it by now.
The Crosiers always seem a little uncomfortable around Dusan, partly because of the language barrier and partly because of his seemingly stern demeanor, so we don't hang around. When I open the car door at least eight packages of cigarettes fall out; I laugh to myself as I collect them from the ground and toss them into the car.
Inside, the car is gray with the smell of musty nicotine, but I kind of enjoy it. It reminds me of this strangely compassionate man who fought in one of the most ruthless wars of the century and now spends his life trying to stop violence. Dusan only references his role in the war for the former Yugoslavia when explaining weapons or ways to die. At first, listening to so much talk about death was too heavy for my brain and I could only take an hour or so at a time, now I almost relish it.
We chat briefly about my trip back to the States before he starts up my regular International Relations class. The "classes" are always a roundabout diatribe but there are always extremely valuable nuggets of information amidst the rubble.
-Do you think, when you look in mirror, there is something on other side of mirror from you? He asks, looking back and forth from the road to me as we hurtle across the potholes.
-Uh, I'm not really sure what you mean. Do you mean something tangible that's not just a reflection of myself?
-Yes, something on other side that is actually existing.
-I dunno, I've never really thought about that before.
-Oof, you are never thinking about this because you are not genius like me. There is something on other side of mirror. This is International Relations. You are not believing it is there, but it is there, always something further than you are thinking. Trust me in this.
-So how are the International Relations here?
-Not good but not as terrible as can be.
He picks up a cigarette and lights it without slowing down. He briefly explains that Nalu rebels from Uganda are becoming even more prominent but FRDC-governmental soldiers-are also getting worse. The FRDC have always seemed to me to be one of the biggest problems and this is the first time someone else has really acknowledged it.
-It is still mostly same people, same problems and same killing of innocents. Killing is not problem for me, eh?
He looks at me and waits for me to fight him, I don't.
-Killing of innocents, this is key thing. Killing is not always bad. Killing of innocents, this is what makes me angry.
I'm not quite ready to go into the philosophical implications of killing so I shift the subject.
-I've had a few conversations with people about the soldier sensitization project and I've done a bit of research, are you still game?
-Yes, yes. I think this is great idea. You are here for results, not money, so this is great idea. I spoke with one of my bosses in UN mission and he is interested in this project. He wants to hear a presentation on what your plan will be.
-Really? That's great, do you think they might give me funding? It would be so much more effective if I had some support from them, even if it's just security support or even brain-storming.
-This is not certain because of budget and yuck-n-ya-n-yuck-n-yoo, but UN is needing new approaches. I am telling my boss that you are junior genius, but not genius yet. So, you can give presentation and see if this works. I am going home for holidays so presentation won't be until January or February.
-That sounds perfect. That's plenty of time.
I take one of his cigarettes and light it.
When we get to Beni, a pack later, I am soothed once again by the asphalt on the main road. We go directly to the UN Headquarters where I notice the stone wall statue indicating the "alert level" has moved from three up to four out of five. Dusan walks around and speaks to different people in the various trailers scattered throughout the courtyard. Lining the courtyard are the usual stations of sandbags, machine guns and camouflaged men wearing baby blue helmets. I wander around and smile at all of the people peeking their heads out of their offices, wondering who the new person is.
Once Dusan has finished his work we sit down in the compound cantine to eat fried tilapia fish, vegetables for me, and pasta plus an omelette and fries for Dusan. Within only a few minutes a man walks up to us to greet Dusan. He is very dark skinned and a little over weight. The accent in his English tells me he's probably not Congolese.
-Dusan, sorry I didn't fix this problem sooner. I was in a Geneva conference about this problem specifically. I have it worked out now.
-Thank you, Dusan shakes the man's hand. This was big problem, big problem and I couldn't handle this problem, it's not my field of work. But it is important so thank you.
The man seems to notice me and reaches out his hand briefly before walking off.
-What was the problem?
I can always ask Dusan anything I want because if he doesn't want to tell me he'll just say something like "the things" or "whatever whatever."
-I have problem with police captain in Lubero raping his friend's young daughter. Very young girl. People in Lubero were angry, as should be, but with political tensions and military around, yuck-n-ya, I need help with this problem. I am genius, but this problem is too difficult for just one genius. People were thinking of shotting on him.
-That's kind of surprising. All of the rapes I've heard about in Lubero didn't cause even a ripple in the community.
-Yes, well this is political and more complicated than this and you are still only junior genius.
He pauses and chuckles to himself; this joke never gets old to him.
-Police captain is Tutsi, he continues, and people are thinking tribal things. It is all International Relations, I am telling you.
When we finish our food we head to Mario's bar where the music is still excruciatingly loud and Mario is incomprehensibly friendly. He makes me think of a mob underling running the local hang-out spot. He has to make nice with everyone. After a few drinks and a greek salad for Dusan, we call it a night.
We leave Beni the next day after a quick stop at Headquarters. Dusan decides it is best for me to come with him to Lubero to see the house he has just bought. Dusan and I met because we were both living in the monastery; community life is a fascinating experience but is not always easy for someone who's not actually a part of the Order. And Dusan isn't exactly a community kind of guy. I'm just about ready to go home but I don't feel like arguing and I don't have any commitments planned for the next day.
Dusan's house is perfectly located in Lubero town and I immediately remember how much I love Lubero. Lubero is a slightly larger village than most; it's small enough for everyone to know everyone so people are a lot less shocked by the blinding muzungus, and thus a lot friendlier. I spend the entire day in the UN office watching all three of The Godfather movies while Dusan works at his computer. Some of the other UN guys join me and Dusan explains to us that these movies will teach us the most important lessons we'll ever learn.
We end up spending two nights in Lubero as a result of a rain storm and seven broken down trucks in the road. Even though I know there's nothing we can do, I'm visibly irritated and completely tune Dusan out. I'm supposed to go to Isale they next day to check on the ladies and although I think the man is a gem, Dusan speaks more than anyone I know and I'm worried I might try to strangle him if the litany continues. Which, would only be a bad thing because he could kill me with a toothpick.
When we get back to his house I calm down and remember something I need to do in Lubero. I head out alone down the main dirt road, without explaining to Dusan where I'm going. After about five minutes I make it to the hut where Lydie, Lyssie, Sylvie, Naema and their mother Devote live. They are the family of Kyakyimua "Kahambu" Wenderaki, the first survivor of sexual violence I worked with, who passed away a few months after her rape. The twins, Lydie and Lyssie, both two years old, are overjoyed to see me. All of their initial muzungu-terror has worn off and they tug on my pants, check my pockets for sweets or money and insist forcefully to be allowed to sit on my lap. Before leaving I was able to find funding in the States to pay for Sylvie and Naema's schooling for the year. Neither of the girls had been enrolled in school for several years and somehow I feel a connection to the little family. They remind me of why I'm here.
Through a translator Devote tells me both of the girls are doing well in school. She pauses periodically to scold one of the twins for pulling my hair or chattering too loudly in Kinande. The older girls both smile at the scene from a few feet away.
Everything about the moment feels perfect; the little firecrackers on my lap, Devote holding my hand with a smile, Sylvie and Naema laughing at the twins' antics. The sun is high in the sky and there are no clouds to be seen; all of the weight from Isale that was making me feel suffocatingly empty evaporates and all I can do is smile and laugh and feel good about the world.