Monday, February 21, 2011

Cup of Noodles

          Driving south from Butembo to Kanyabayonga on the back of a moto-taxi is breath-taking, contemplative, and probably the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever done in my life.  I imagine it would be similar to sliding down a set of stone steps on a thin piece of plywood.  For five hours.
          Dusan is called urgently into the bush, where there are 12 dependents that need to be extracted.  Dependents are family members of ex-combatants.  When a demobilizer is able to arrange the extraction of a militia general, lieutenant, or soldier, his family must be extracted as well.  The original plan was for me to travel to Kanyabayonga with Dusan, but I can’t go with him to extract the family members and I’d like to get to Goma without paying $200.00.
          I pack my things and leave Musienene quickly.  I’m supposed to go into Butembo before I leave in order to bring funding for a petite-commerce project and to try and see Anuarite.  I convince myself I don’t have time.  Hangie drives out on the COPERMA motorcycle for the money and I leave.
          It’s pure cowardice.  I’m afraid to see Anuarite.  I tell myself there’s nothing I can do but I know that’s not true.  Anuarite would appreciate it even if all I did was show up, ask how she’s doing, show her I care.  But I don’t do that.  What exactly I’m afraid of, I don’t know.  Between the two of us, she’s the only one who owns the right to be afraid.
          On the motorcycle ride I work on letting go of all the things I’ve been holding onto.  I imagine sand falling off of my body, a gritty veil streaming behind me as we speed across the mountains. 
          I arrive in Kanya just as night is falling.  Dusan would have been furious if I arrived any later, the road is not safe and I’m meeeting them in Kanya to join a UN security convoy that will continue down to Goma.  In the past week the UN worker was attacked, Dusan received a message indicating the attack was meant for Dusan and one of his team members.  It turns out Sean, a friend of mine and UN worker, had a price on his head because of various shifting political factors among the rebels. Then a few days ago a car full of German humanitarians was attacked on this road and one man was shot in the shoulder.  Speculations about which rebels are doing this move around like puzzle pieces.  It’s said to be part of FDLR, but it’s also possible it was soldiers sent by Kagame from neighboring Rwanda.  Kagame is big brother here, and a cruel one at that.
          In Kanya, the UN base is full.  There are now six UN workers total and when Dusan gets back from the bush we all sit down to dinner.  We make an interesting little melting pot of a family.  Anoch is from India, Harris-Bosnia, Dusan-Croatia, Major Mamadu-Mali, Hammid- Tunisia, Major Johanna- Kenya, and then little ol’ American me.  I’m the only woman and the only non-military.  They talk about things going on, 30 women reported raped in Bushalingua; German guy shot while working in the field; seven raped in Kanya the last week.  I listen but try not to let any of it touch me.
    -Do you ever eat coos-coos? Dusan asks Hammid from Tunisia.
    -Yes, and I will be very happy to make it for you if you will come again.  For you too.
          He leans around Dusan and smiles kindly at me.  The men pass everything to me first and beg me to eat some pineapple for dessert.  I put my elbows on the table as I eat before realizing I am the only one doing so.  I don’t know how it works, but it seems the more hardened the men, the more kind and respectful.  They share stories from war, but mostly talk about simple things like what they like to eat most when they are at home and that the word for pineapple is the same in French, Hindu and Croatian --ananas.  How is my culture different from yours and how are we the same? 
    -We have four continents here at one table, says Dusan.  This is thing I like about UN. 
    -Yes, you meet such an array of people and everyone is so interesting, says Anoch, a skinny Indian man who moves as if he doesn’t have enough muscle to keep his bones in line all the time.
          Three continents leave the table to step outside and smoke.  Dusan is, of course, the initiator of this transcontinental exodus.  As we chat in the darkness in the hum of the generator and fluorescent lights, the men talk about communism, revolutions and the negative impressions they have of Americans. A group of Americans was just caught in the bush arranging mineral trafficking.  They had six million left over from their purchase, which was all absorbed by the FaRDC.  I hope each one of them was hit in the face with the butt of a gun, just once; no less and no more.
          In the morning we leave at zero eight hundred hours.  I ride with Harris and Major J as Dusan’s car is filled with the twelve people, mostly children, he extracted from the bush.  Dusan driving a car full of young children is a wonderful sight.  He opens all of the windows before driving off to combat the smell of vomit he is sure will occur. 
          Sandwiched between two trucks full of baby blue helmeted UN soldiers and machine guns, we make our way south.  I watch the back of Dusan’s car as we drive and think about the turning pages within.  Not tabula rasa, because you can’t erase the past, but at least maybe a new chapter.  They are all from Rwanda and will be put through a 45 day repatriation program with the UN before being given small support so they can restart their lives.  If Dusan didn’t extract them they more than likely would have been killed.  Their simple connections to men once in war make them a useful weapon.  Kill wife and kids, injure husband. 
          Halfway to Goma we have to stop at a bridge that is being repaired.  It is in the area where the UN worker was just attacked, but there are more blue helmets and hats around than banana trees so I feel totally comfortable.  FaRDC troops are there as well, watching angrily, like little children who’ve been told to stay in time-out.  Standing in the hot sun I watch the river flow under the bridge as UN workers weld the metal above.  The water is perfectly calm on the right of the bridge and furious on the left.
          Everyone, except my group and me, is carrying a gun longer than his arm, even people in plain clothes.  Some FaRDC soldiers are carrying rocket propelled grenade launchers or satchels full of grenades with plastic feathered tails.  All of them stare at me distrustfully, even though I’m the only one not carrying a weapon. 
          It takes six rather than four hours to get into the city.  Goma is a different world for me; brown turns to grey, mountains to lake, Kinande to Kiswahili, locals to a plethora of wazungu.  Last time I was here I didn’t like the stew of NGO workers and UN, all seeming to try and prove who is making the biggest difference.  This time, I have a little family.  Dusan takes me to the house where he normally stays.  It is a two level mansion overlooking the lake and filled with some of his countrymen.  Milosh and Dragan are from Serbia, Harris is still here, Antonio from East Timoor, a Russian guy who never speaks to me but walks around all day drinking and smoking with no shirt on; and then there’s Ivannah.  Ivannah is a Croatian woman and quite clearly the Queen of the household.  She’s about my height with strawberry blonde hair and a forward but very kind demeanor. 
    -Eh, sister girl, what are you doing here?  Go home, marry a rich husband and make lots of babies, she says immediately after Dusan introduces us.
          I laugh at what she’s saying even though she’s being completely serious.  We are sitting on a white linoleum patio looking out on Lake Kivu. 
    -I am not joking, baby.  What is this stupidity you are doing?  I don’t’ know why anyone would ever choose to be in this place.  You are too young and too pretty.  I can arrange for you a rich husband. 
    -No thank you.  I want to be here, if you can believe that.  And I actually like it most of the time.
          She looks at me like I just said I enjoy licking the floor of a public bus.
    -This is stupidity, sister girl.  Let me tell you.  I will pay for ticket home and you will be in New York tomorrow.
    -You’ll pay for my ticket?
    -Yes, if you will go home and make babies with a rich man.
          I laugh.
    -That’s very kind of you but I’m not quite ready to pursue that aim.
    -Okay, but this is stupidities.  You let me know and I will buy you that ticket, and arrange for a rich husband to meet you.
          Her initial negativity throws me off for a minute but then I realize she’s just caring; and maybe a bit tired of being away from her home.  She has work to do so she takes an old IBM lap-top inside to work without distraction.  I stand up and look out at the lake and think about nothing, simply stare.  You can lose yourself in a lake.  The mountains ring the other sides of the water, always hovering on the horizon like evening or dawn.
          For two days I fend off jokes about taking group showers, while drinking either Heineken or whisky, Red Label and going to UN “happy hour” parties.  Dragan is intimidating at first, a large, slightly gruff Serbian.  But when I ask about the lake he walks me down and explains the problem of gas under the water from the volcano.  When there’s water in the tank Milosh and Dragan tell me to take a shower first so I can have hot water.  Ivannah concurs, so that the “premadonna” men won’t use it all up. Nobody will let me pay for anything, no matter how much I insist. 
          It’s wonderful.  Ivannah wants to make me homesick enough to leave so she makes me a Cup of Noodles for dinner and gives me her last two roles of Charmin toilet paper.  The Cup of Noodles is filled with chemicals and tastes like home.
    -The simple pleasures, sister girl.
          One day at lunch I explain to Harris that I felt like a rubber band twisted a little too tightly.  It feels good to unwind.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Octagon


          At 6:30 a.m. I receive a text message from Baloti, the Founder of the Association of Women Living Alone in Butembo.  I’m asleep on a wooden cot in a medium-sized UN house where there is a Military Observers base.  Dusan and I drove down to Kanyabayanga the day before, in order to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the city soccer team where he’s from.  We bought a live goat on the way out, for which I resisted my usual impulse of naming, and the plan for the day is to roast her on a spit, drink beer and be among friends.
          I always answer my phone and check messages when people call too late or too early.  I always expect the news to be urgent and ugly and for the first time it is.
          Anuarite was attacked in her home by three men who wanted to rape her.  She called police, men were captured.  She was left naked in front of her children.
          The nightmare I was just having involved soldiers and the things they can do to women, so it takes longer than normal to separate dream from reality and wake my brain up enough to translate the French.  
          Was she raped?  I respond.
          Three men wanted to rape her.
          His response is too vague.  Did they want to and then do it or did they want to and not make it that far?  I put my phone back on the wooden table next to my bed.  Further texting won’t clarify the situation.  I need to speak with him but it won’t be a productive conversation if I attempt it half-awake.  I roll over and go back to sleep, thankful the sun is starting to come up so I won’t have nightmares.  I never have nightmares once I can see daylight seeping its way up my window.
          When I wake up fully I call Baloti.  He’s still vague about what actually happened and simply reiterates what he already said through text.  Anuarite is a woman in the Association who met with Sarah, Alana and me a few weeks ago.  She had lighter skin than most and wore white powder to push it further in the muzungu direction.  She was wearing a red sequined outfit that made her sparkle but her sadness also shone through.
    -Are the men in prison? I ask, looking out at the hills of Kanyabayanga over the stick fence around the UN compound. 
    -Yes, they are.
    -How is Anuarite doing?
    -She’s a little calm.
    -I will pay the fees if necessary to keep them in prison, at least for a while.
          One of the main reasons impunity is such a problem here is that anything involving governmental structures costs money and most survivors don’t have the means to pursue even the smallest level of justice.  I would offer to pay Anuarite’s hospital bills, but if she wasn’t raped I know it wouldn’t help.  She knows better than I do, I’m sure, that band aids and needles can’t heal shame.
          I spend the day watching Dusan and a Bosnia UN worker, named Harris, concoct a make-shift fire pit and position the now dead and skinned goat on a long pole.  There is also a Kenyan UN worker, Major Johanna, and we sit around drinking rare Heinekens and talking war.  Major Johanna worked in Sierra Leone during the brutal conflicts there.  The men bounce between the wars like hardened metal balls caught in a short loop in a pin ball machine; Sierra Leonne, violence in Kenya, the devastating war for the Former Yugoslavia, Congo.  I tune them out for the most part, reentering only when they return to the Congo pin, or ask me a specific question. 
    -This war is so complex, says Major Johanna in a heavy accent, while Dusan and Harris speak in rapid Croatian.  In Sierra Leone it was the government and the militia groups that supported them and then the rebels; two sides.  Here it’s everyone.  FDLR Foca, FDLR Rud Mai-Mai, NALU, government, CNDP.  There are too many sides!
          I have the image of an octagon in my mind.
    -I think the Congo may never see peace, he says shaking his head.
          Congo isn’t just complex, the problem is a spurious creature born of pain and greed.  Major J has only been here for a few months and he’s already lost hope.  Even Dusan told me on the drive down that he cannot see the end to this problem.  I don’t say anything in return.  I don’t think I could easily explain my theory of idealism within realism to these hardened war generals.   I’m uncomfortable, I feel like there are rats in my body trying to get out; something’s not right.  I remember Anuarite.  I feel stuck in this village four hours away from home talking about the bigger picture when I’m used to working with the pieces that comprise it. 
          I step outside and look at the mountains again.  The rolling slopes look like the body of a beautiful woman.  Every time I look at the mountains here, even the ones right in front of me, I feel as if there’s a glass window covered in mist between us.  I don’t know if it’s because of the fog that clings to them like hungry toddlers, or if the thickness of their beauty is simply unapproachable, in a divine decision sort of way.
          I know there’s nothing I could do for Anuarite even if I were in Butembo.  It’s not my place to console her or give her advice.  She knows much more about this world than I do.  But something about it is hurting me more than normal.  I’m used to these stories; they’re just words at this point. 
          On the drive back to Butembo with Dusan I realize what’s making Anuarite feel different.  I knew Anuarite before this happened.  With most of the survivors I meet, we build up an acquaintance from the baseline of what has already happened.  With Anuarite, it’s a cut rather than a baseline.
In Butembo, Dusan and I drink a couple of whiskys in Hotel Butembo and talk more about the bigger picture.  A UN worker was attacked on the road to Goma, things are shifting in the FDLR and Mai-Mai groups due to the elections, and it is “not good.”  Dusan is furious about things seeming to get out of his control and is saying maybe he’ll transfer to South Sudan.  I wonder if he really has lost hope. 
          The next day I head to the COPERMA office.  Hangie, Jean-Marie (a COPERMA worker who looks like James Dean but darker) and Laurentine are the only ones in the office.
    -I’m going to Goma and then to Kinshasa, I tell them when I walk in.  So I may be out of town for up to two weeks.
    -You’re going out of town?  Hangie responds and leans on the table.  Didn’t you hear about the violence 95 km from Butembo?  ADF-NALU are active in Oicha, eleven are dead.
    -No, I didn’t hear about that.  What happened?
          I ask, but it doesn’t affect my trip. 
    -I don’t know, I just know that eleven people were killed on Monday.
          ADF-NALU are supposedly rebels from Uganda who’ve recently begun creeping their way across North Kivu, trying to get their fingers in the cookie jar too.
    -There were people in one of the big camion trucks and the NALU shot them all, he says.
          I remember the images of a similar event that happened last year.  The images online were devastating.  I still remember the striped shirt and braids of a girl of about 12 with a hole in her head.
    -Also, you heard there was a case of rape here in the city center?  He continues.
    -No, I didn’t. 
    -The Maman trapped the rapist and she came here for help.
    -Was she lighter skinned than normal? I ask, almost with excitement.
          It would be wonderful if Anuarite had come here, but would also mean she was actually raped.
    -No.  It was a 7 year old girl.  Her mother caught the man with the girl and trapped him.
    -Oh, jeez.  How old is the man?  I ask, imagining a confused teenager.
          Disgust reaches out a skinny hand and wraps its fingers around my esophagus.  It clenches for a moment, disappears, and I can breathe.
    -How did the Maman trap the man?
    -The Maman went to go to the bathroom, it was during the day.  The store where they sell things, attached to the house, was closed and she went inside and then she came across the man raping the girl.  The mother screamed and the man said he was guarding the child.  The Maman went to the owner of the store and told him and she started to cry.
    -After that, they spoke with the girl and found she was raped, Laurentine cuts in.  The girl started crying when they asked her what had happened and she said the man held her mouth shut so she couldn’t scream and he raped her.
          I can imagine perfectly the little girl’s tiny form; skinny arms with bird-like bones, a smile and skin innervated with the fresh excitements of childhood.
    -Where is the man?  I ask. 
    -We took him to prison, responds Hangie.  When the Maman first went to the police, the police officer told the rapist to say that the Mother had splashed water on the girl’s vagina to make it look like a rape so she could get him in trouble.  Then the police officer told the Mother to give him her telephone.
    -What happened after that?  That's horrible.
    -When the Maman came here with the girl, we took the girl to FEPSI.  And we said, that’s not okay that he took your phone and said that.  We went to a different police office, and now the police man and the rapist are in jail.
    -Thank God.  Which jail? Can I speak to the rapist?
          I don’t even think about this before I ask it.  I know I need to see the man; I need to speak with him and ask him where his heart went.  I need to ask him if he has daughters.  If he does, has he hurt them in the same way?  If he hasn’t hurt them yet, what makes this little girl different from his own?  The police officer is simple scum, but the man who raped a 7 year old girl is on the other side of humanity and I need to know what that looks like, in detail.  There’s so much hope here, in the strength and spirit of survivors and the people in general.  But in terms of the problems, I can't see it yet.  I need to find where that hope lies because I know it’s still here.
          I leave COPERMA and speed home on my motorcycle listening to Nina Simone sing Sinnerman and feeling like something is chasing me.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Time Bombs

          The other Americans have both left; I find that I glide easily back into the solitary and relatively silent process of everyday.  I’m around people constantly, and speaking most of the day.  But there’s a difference between being around people who understand where you’re from and speak your native tongue, and the perpetual mistranslations and conscientious awareness with another language and culture.  Friends change the molecules of the air, though the molecules’ structure and composition remain the same.              
          After Sarah boards her plane and departs, I spend a few days doing more or less nothing and speaking as little as possible.  Translating takes more energy than I expected.  I arrive at COPERMA, after a day or two of relaxing, and am greeted with the usual update.
    -There’s fighting in Kiondo and Kasungu, says Laurentine almost immediately.  The fighting is just past Kagoma.
          Kagoma is a small village where COPERMA is starting a center.  It’s an interesting village because it’s not just a center for survivors, but also demobilized child soldiers.  I went there a few weeks ago after three young survivors fled their villages and were absorbed into the community. 
    -Who is fighting? I ask.
    -Mai-Mai and the police and military.
    -We don’t know yet, since they’re still fighting.  But two people are dead, one police and one civilian.  He tried to get into a car to flee the bullets and he was shot.
          The concept of Mai-Mai is still confusing to me.  It’s a great concept in theory;  Mai-Mai simply means community based, it’s like a neighborhood watch but with children, machetes and guns.  The groups originally started in order to protect communities from the mercurial wars of the region.  But when you give children guns, or men with no training or education, what can you expect but a bit of chaos?
          COPERMA has been asking me what I’m going to do to help three demobilized Mai-Mai child soldiers whom I spoke with in Kagoma.  I keep avoiding the question.  The child-soldiers are like a lagoon and I don’t want to touch the surface because I’m terrified of what’s underneath.
          It’s extremely difficult to find or speak to demobilized soldiers, as they are constantly being sought by the groups they left.  COPERMA has a complex system in place to conceal the boys, and move or hide them when any group of soldiers moves through the area. 
In Kagoma, I sit on a stranger’s bed in a dark hut to speak with three boys who want to talk to me.  Jeremy is clearly the leader of the trio, and he makes me uncomfortable as soon as he starts speaking.  He’s a skinny fifteen year old with patches of facial fuzz and spots of acne.  He started fighting with the Mai-Mai when he was 12. 
    -Why did you join the group?  Were you forced? I ask Jeremy. 
          The three boys are sitting on a small wooden bench, all facing me.  I’d rather speak to them individually, but they say they only want to talk if they can stay together. 
    -I was influenced by my friends, Jeremy responds.  They said it was cool and that I should do it.
    -What did you think once you got there?
    -I didn’t like it, because I was abused by my Superiors every day.
    -Did you engage in fighting while you were with the Mai-Mai?
          He chuckles a little.  He doesn’t seem upset or uncomfortable talking about his past.  The boy next to him, Gregoire, is also 15 years old.  He’s wearing a baby blue jacket and he has the bone structure and eyes of a model.  His eyes are soft and pretty.  He doesn’t seem uncomfortable either, but Damien, a 17 year old sitting on the end of the bench won’t look at me.  He’s hunched over, leaning away from Jeremy and Gregoire, looking at the floor.
    -Killing wasn’t the problem, continues Jeremy.  That was the job.  I used stones, the machete and knives [to kill.]  If someone hurt me or bothered me in the village, we killed them directly.  That wasn’t the problem.  In full on war I’ve killed women, children, elderly, all categories.  If an old person is a sorcerer, we must kill them.
          I was expecting a sense of morality to have motivated demobilization, not this.
    -Why did you leave then?
    -They were beating me.  It wasn’t because I didn’t like killing, it was because of the superiors.  I wasn’t a superior. 
    -Were you afraid of being killed?
    -No, the tattoos protect against that.
    -What tattoos?
          He pulls up a tattered sleeve and shows me a small scar on his left hand  It looks like a tiny bundle of sticks etched into his skin.
    -With the tattoo, you are safe from bullets.
    -Do you believe that?
    -Yes, he says with no hesitation.
    -Have you ever known someone who was killed who had this tattoo?
    -Only if they did something wrong.  There is Mai-Mai law, and if you break this law the tattoo will no longer work.  If you rape someone, it doesn’t work anymore
    -So you never raped anyone while you were a Mai-Mai?
    -No, then the tattoo wouldn’t work.
          He says this forcefully, and for some reason I believe his “no.”
    -If you have the tattoo and you don’t break a law, you can get hit by a bullet or a bomb and you won’t be hurt, he continues.
          I want to point out the flaws of this belief but there’s no point.  And if the potency of the tattoo actually does prevent Mai-Mai from raping it would be foolish of me to even hint at otherwise.
    -If you were given a promotion, so you were a superior, would you go back? I ask, not wanting to hear the answer.
    -Yes.  If I was a superior I’d go back, when I’m an adult I think I will go back.  But if I was a regular soldier I’d never go back.
    -Does this effect you in a bad way?  Do you have any problems with remembering what you’ve done and what you’ve seen? 
    -I see people I’ve killed in my dreams.
           He looks down at the floor as he says this and for the first time he seems a little uncomfortable.  Gregoire explains his situation to me next.  He started when he was 10, it was voluntary. 
    -I was curious.
         He says he’s killed many people with a gun, other Mai-Mai and villagers.  If someone is a sorcerer or a rapist they must be killed. 
    -Do you have problems now with remembering what you did with the Mai-Mai?
    -I think about them, the people I killed.  But to kill someone is good.  It was their fault for getting eliminated.
          His words make me sick and filled with a dislike I have to control.  I have to constantly remind myself that they were, and are, children.
         Gregoire is very obviously the last in the pecking order within the three boys.  Damien is still staring at the floor, shaking his head from time to time.  As Gregoire answers my questions he constantly smiles and looks at Jeremy for support and approval.  I can’t tell if any of them are being forward with me.  I have to watch Jeremy and chastise him from time to time as he whispers things to Gregoire, or nudges him when he seems to be going into too much detail or certain territories. 
          Damien is different.  Although his words seem to be herded by Jeremy’s body language and snickering, he doesn’t smile and he continues to watch the floor.  He started with the Mai-Mai when he was 11 and was with them for five years.
    -Did you like that life?
    -No, he says and rubs his face in his hands.  There were difficulties.  You don’t know where you’re going to sleep; when you go to fight you don’t know if you’re going to leave there or not.
    -Did you kill people?
    -I only killed soldiers.  If it wasn’t a stray bullet, I didn’t kill people in the village.   I was always afraid, even after the tattoo.  When I went to combat I thought, I can die, I don’t want to die.  I don’t believe in the tattoos for protection.
          He continues speaking to the floor, covering his eyes with his hand.  He says he thinks about the people he’s killed all the time.  He doesn’t ever want to go back to that.
          Damien is more of what I was expecting in terms of child soldiers, but I get the feeling he’s relatively rare.  How can anyone expect children who are raised with essentially no rules and the immense power of a weapon to develop any sort of moral foundation?  Morality isn’t a human instinct, it’s learned.    I can’t imagine how uncertain and frightening it is for Kagoma to have these boys in their midst.  Yes, the boys need help and yes they are children, but with their learned knowledge that violence is unrestrained power, in the end, they’re walking time bombs.  I realize that it’s not just that I don’t know how I can help them; I still can’t figure out if I want to try.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Political Play

          Soldiers are filtering into Butembo and the surrounding areas like green smoke seeping under the crack in a door.  The Presidential elections aren’t until September, but things are already starting to shift.  A few weeks ago the current President, Joseph Kabila Kabange, announced that he would be changing the structure of the electoral play from a two part voting system to a single act.  Word on the street is that his "Popular" Party comprises 60% of the Judicial committee, and with a little monetary motivation, voting the change through became incontestable in any official sense.
          On public television, the entire Parliament and Judicial committee broke out in a fist-fight, in an attempt by the opposition to stop the pre-determined “vote”.  The scene would be comparable to Colin Powell punching Hilary Clinton in the face while Nancy Pelosi is kicking Rahm Emanuel between the legs.  It would be funny, if the implications weren’t so grave.  People want a democratic election; having only one vote removes any real possibility of representation of the people.
          When we arrive in Butembo one day, shortly after the physical filibuster, I ask a friend named Kambale if our mutual friend, Justin, was able to meet up with survivors he knows, who are currently at FEPSI.  Kambale responds by pinching his eyebrows together and looking anxiously at the floor.
    -Justin is still at home.
    -What happened?  Is he sick?
    -In his neighborhood it is not okay.  I called you last night at 8 p.m. to tell you the FaRDC are attacking the population there.  Since 5:30 p.m. last night, even until now.  They are shooting there.
          The evening before, Alana, Sarah and I went to one of the fanciest hotels here.  It has walls around it and the only billiards table in Butembo.  We went to play a game of pool , have some sodas and salad, and relax.  When we arrived the compound was dotted with soldiers and there was nothing relaxing about it.  Next to the billiards table, about 20 green uniforms were holding beers and AK-47s.  They left at around 5:20 p.m. nice and tipsy.
    -Is he okay?  I ask Kambale.
    -I spoke to him last night but not today.  He is probably hiding under the bed still with his family.
          He laughs a little, trying to make light of the situation. 
    -Why are the soldiers there?  I ask.
    -The Governor heard of malice there and so the army attacked the people.
          The story comes out piece by piece and changes with every telling.  Sarah suggests I send a message to Dusan asking if he has any knowledge of what’s going on, or advice.  He rarely deals with conflict or politics out of the bush, but I don’t like the image of Justin and his family hiding under a bed while soldiers toting machine guns and flimsy rules run amok. 
          Alana and I walk down the dusty road to a small, white kiosk that sells phone units.  As we wait for the boy behind the wooden window to pull the units together, a round-faced man walks up to us.
    -Hello friend, he says. 
          He reaches out his hand to shake mine, and I recognize a traffic officer who has chided me before for driving three people around on a motorcycle; infraction.  He was friendly, didn’t ask for money, and let us continue on our way without transferring one muzungu to a motor-taxi.
    -Hi, I shake his hand.  How are you doing?
    -Oh, we are not doing so well, but we are okay, he says.  There is insecurity in Furru.
          He points in the general direction of Justin’s neighborhood.  I’ve been to the little suburb of Butembo several times to have dinner or a drink with Justin and his wife.  It’s a beautiful little area of dirt paths, mud huts, and families.
    -That’s what we are hearing, I say squinting against the sun.  What’s happening?
    -The people started to rise up in rebellion and attack traffic officers and police, he says.  They began throwing stones.  News of this got to Kinshasa and so they sent in military to calm the uprising.  The young people got together and burned a kiosk.
    -And so now the FaRDC are all there?
    -Yes, they will help.
    -You don’t think they’ll steal and rape people too?
          No matter what I teach my tongue, it doesn't seem to listen.
    -No, he says staring straight at me, almost as if I’ve hurt his feelings.  Governmental authorities never do that kind of thing.  Whoever told you that was lying, that is completely false.
          Just as he finishes saying this, a wiry man in the dark blue uniform that signifies Police strolls up to us and starts speaking in a language I don’t know.  The hungry grimace on his face and the way his eyes dart across our muzungu bodies make the subject clear.  The traffic officer looks uncomfortable and seems to be trying to get the policeman to continue on his way.
    -Lingala? The dark blue smear of negative intention asks, staring at me.
    -No, Kifranza, I say not smiling.
    -J’aime m’amuser avec les blanches, he says, baring his teeth in a sickening smile.  I like to amuse myself with white women.
          I cross my arms and look back at the traffic cop. 
    -You were saying? I ask accusingly.
          The traffic cop is very obviously uncomfortable and he speaks rapidly with the uniformed police officer.  The officer looks over us one last time and walks off.
    -I have work to do, he yells in French and waves his hand at us.
          Alana and I head back to the office.  Over the course of the day we find out another side to the story.  Locals indicate that there was unrest as a result of the change in the voting structure.  People were going to the “parliament” office that is set-up for local complaints and questions.  News of this did get to Kinshasa and the FaRDC were sent.  But the local people say it was the FaRDC who burned the parliament kiosk in order to blame it on the “young people.”
          When Justin finally makes it into Butembo, he looks completely drained.
    -How is your family?
    -We are okay, he says.  But they were pillaging and raping women last night.
    -Can you identify the survivors and help them get to FEPSI? I ask through the window of the car I’m sitting in. 
           I’m on my way to Vutondi with COPERMA, since there’s nothing palpable I can do to help.  Any action we might attempt would simply put us in danger with no reason or positive results.  Justin explains that nobody will come forward because if they aren’t married yet, being raped will make them unfit to wed.  If they are already married, social pressure will push a man to leave his now “ruined” wife if the community finds out she was raped.  Our hands are completely tied.
          Over the next few days things go up and down.  Justin’s little family of mostly females stays with friends for two nights, but things seem to be getting slightly better so they go home once again.  There are soldiers everywhere and then only a few.  They are shooting at night and pillaging, or shooting and entering homes but not doing anything illegal.  When they enter Justin’s home his family is already back.  He doesn’t crack jokes like he normally does when he tells me what’s been happening.
    -Did they hurt your family? I ask.
    -No, they just looked under the bed and in the armoire to see if we had any guns.  And then they looked through all of our photo albums to see if we had pictures of soldiers.
          My experience with the Commander in Bulambo pops into mind.  I guess pictures of soldiers indicate reconnaissance and rebel activity.  Not surprisingly, Justin has not been participating in either.  The soldiers seem to fluctuate from pretense of just action to letting the fa├žade go and taking advantage of the power their weapons provide.  Sort of like the Commander in Bulambo, following all of the rules and then threatening to torture one of my co-workers if I didn’t pay a bribe.
          The elections have the potential to be a turning point for this country, which has been immersed in war for over a decade.  More than likely it will be just like the Rwandan elections of last year, staged, and like spreading icing over a crack in a cake; either way, there will be serious repercussions for the local people and the International world will barely be watching.