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 façade 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.