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.
-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.