Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Colonels

          We gather ourselves and our things, including $50,000 worth of camera equipment, at one of the MONUSCO bases on Lake Kivu.  C—explains while we eat omelets in the luxurious MONUSCO restaurant that he’s doing several things.  He runs the UN Television station in Goma and is making a series on DDR/RR, Dusan’s section.  He wants it to be hard-hitting, and show United Nations whistle blowers and decision makers in New York that “they don’t know what the fuck Congo is.”
          C—is accompanied by two other Americans; Aubrey, a tall, wavy-haired doctorate student, and Nelson, a fairly quiet and freckled film maker who has a large black camera constantly glued to his hand.
    -So, you’re sure that security is good enough, asks C—when he finishes explaining his project.  I can’t simply replace this level of equipment.
    -Yes, yes.  Responds Dusan.  Not any any problem.  You can to ask Amy, she was there.  We Arranged The Things with The Guy and this is sure.  Absolutely sure.  Right Amy?
          The conversation with The Guy did end in the agreement of arranged security but it seems as if Dusan is doubting his own appraisal of the agreement.
    -Definitely.  I respond.  He said he’ll arrange everything.
         I don’t really trust my own appraisal either, but The Guy seemed straight forward and even a little kind. 
    -And aside from equipment, we are needing to take special care of the ladies, says Dusan, turning to Aubrey. 
          He has a glint in his eye that I recognize but I know she won’t be prepared for.
    -I am thinking this is good thing you are coming, Aubrey.  Because in this way, Amy won’t have to be only one raped.  You can split it.
          Dusan laughs, and I put my face in my hands.  Aubrey looks shocked for a moment but quickly recovers and chuckles along with Dusan. 
    -Wow.  Well, I guess it’s a good thing I’m coming, Aubrey retorts.
    -No, I am not meaning this, says Dusan.  I am just liking to confusing the things.  If you think I am worst person in the world, then when I’m polite you will think I am extremely polite.  And I am Croatian, and I am Dusan.  So I am not often polite.
    -Okay, well now I know, says Aubrey.
          When we finish our omelets, half of the table smokes 3-4 cigarettes, and Dusan has rebuked Aubrey for speaking in a man’s presence before exploding in laughter, we move into the bright sunshine and climb into the shiny white vehicles.  We drive several hours along the route Dusan and I just travelled to Kirumba, where there is a parish with rooms for only $10.00 a night.  We stop at a local restaurant and eat salted tilapia fish, fries, sombe, and listen to Dusan explain the nuances of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia. 
          The next day we set out for Muhanga.  On the way we stop at the Indian battalion in Kirumba, where three men were recently killed by Mai-Mai. 
    -These Indian soldiers are not soldiers, explains Dusan.
          He and C—seem to agree on this point and they discussed it at length before we left even Goma.
    -They are paid much better in UN than in India, he continues.  But when they are here, I am telling you, they are doing everything they possibly can to do absolutely nothing.  We are to stop here and to telling them that we are to go to Muhanga and if we need help they are to come.  This is stupidity, I’m telling you.  You see these cars their country sends?  They can’t to drive more than 10 kilometers an hour.  And no possibility they are to make it through the roads to Muhanga.  I am telling you, they are using every effort to specifically accomplish nothing.
          The United Nations is an interesting creature with many colors, traditions, religions, values and opinions.  Dusan explained previously that one reason the UN is not as effective as it should be, is because of the extremes in cultural variations.  It seems slight to me at first, but the more time I spend with UN employees the more it makes sense.
          When we arrive at the Indian battalion the entrance is blocked off with layers of barbed wire.
    -They are extremely more cautious now because of this attack, whispers Dusan.
          Inside the compound the film crew surrounds Dusan as he speaks to one of the Indian officers.  I wander over to a guards tower where there are three chiseled, tan, Indian men holding machine guns and watching the camera crew.
    -Excuse me, I say as gently as possible.  I heard that you were recently attacked here and you lost some men.  I’m very sorry for your loss.
          The men stare at me blankly before looking around at eachother.
    -English little, says the tallest one with the most chiseled features.
    -Oh.  Um.  Attack.  Men. Dead.  I say slowly.
          They understand this much and nod their heads.  A short soldier on my left holds up three fingers.
    -I am sorry.  I say and put my hand over my heart.
    -Thank you.  It is here, says the tall one.
          He points to the far end of the compound, swings around to the other side of the compound, and then settles on a red X painted on the ground just inside the gate.
    -Man died there?  I ask.
          The tall one makes the motions of chopping into his own neck with an imaginary machete.
    -Machete? I ask, taken a back.
    -Machete and guns.
    -I’m very sorry.
          The men simultaneously return to staring at the camera crew with stern faces.  When Dusan has finished his conversation the cameras are lowered and I walk back into the group.  On the way out we pass the red X, and I imagine the man who was killed.  A man most likely with a wife and children, insecurities, ideas, habits, comforts, and fears.  In the car Dusan continues talking about whatever whatever, and I silently fume next to him.  With all of the talk of how this battalion is incapable, everyone is forgetting the importance of those three lives.  Criticizing the men who lived, and the men who died, means nothing in the face of the empty spaces they left behind. 
          After about an hour we stop and pick up Jay, a member of Dusan’s team and a translator.  I gladly allow him to take the front seat so I can organize and calm my thoughts.  The road turns from potholes and dust to overgrowth and craters.  C—‘s car gets stuck three times on the way in, but Dusan tightens something on the front wheels and they unstick easily.
    -This is best weather I have ever seen for this route, says Dusan.  Can you imagine this after raining at night?
    -Absolutely not, I respond shakily as I’m thrown around on the seat.
          After about five hours, and a brief pause to buy cow meat, beans and a live goat, we arrive at a small wooden shanty covered in dried banana leaves.  Dusan stops the car in front of a long wooden barrier across the road.  A boy runs down quickly from behind the hut.  He’s wearing army green clothes and carrying an AK-47.
    -Mai-Mai, mutters Jay. 
          Within seconds, three more individuals who can only be called boys, show up next to the shanty.  Dusan and Jay both get out of the car and talk to the first Mai-Mai, who is now standing by the barrier.  After a few minutes Dusan pounds the soldier on the back and I hear him yell, “thank you my friend!” 
    -How old do you think those guys are, I ask as we pass under the barrier. 
    -All underage, responds Jay.
          I remember the demobilized Mai-Mai I spoke with a while ago.  At the time it seemed like such a frightening idea.  Yet somehow, actually seeing the boys in action, despite the guns, seems almost normal.  I lose track of the time and focus only on the cratered road and the car handle I’m clinging to.
    -Hold onto handle like you are to take it with you back to United States, exclaims Dusan whenever we hit a particularly large hole.
          Finally, the brush opens into a little village, and just as the sun is setting we pull up to an L-shaped brick house where a plump little muzungu woman is waiting for us.  Conchetta is a beautiful elderly woman from Italy.  Dusan calls her a “nannie,” meaning nun, but I find out that she’s just a woman who wanted a simple life and so moved to the middle of nowhere Congo almost 40 years ago.  Father Giovanni runs the parish but he is in Italy for a medical condition. 
          There’s a make-shift metal merry go-round with toddlers dripping from it. 
    -This little compound is for the kids, says Jay.  Don’t tell them what to do here unless they’re hurting each other.  This is their space. 
          Six hours off of the main road, in a place marked with gold and diamond mining, where Mai-Mai and FDLR rebels live side by side and not always peacefully, the Muhanga parish has 24 hour electricity, internet, two security cameras, and walls painted with brightly colored ocean scenes and rainbows. 
    -You two women, Conchetta says quickly in a mix of French, Swahili and Italian.  You can share this room and then you will share the bathroom with me.
          We follow her to a clean room with two beds and then into the main house.  In the bathroom there’s hot water and a washer-dryer machine.  I smile to myself as I watch the little woman with dyed black hair point out the various things we ladies might need.  In the kitchen there’s a large wooden table with a lazy-susan ready to spin. 
          Maman Conchetta quickly places a bag of Kit-Kats and a bag of Snickers on the susan.  Someone else quickly adds a bottle of J&B whisky.  Dinner is ready shortly after our arrival.  Maman Conchetta grills up the cow meat, fries potatoes, brings cheese and fresh bread, and places six cold Heineken beers on the table. 
          In the morning, there’s freshly made Italian espresso that tastes like gold.  When I sit at the table, I notice a man wearing a clean black and green track suit who I hadn’t seen before. 
    -Colonel V, says Jay, noticing my confusion. 
          I reach out and shake the young man’s hand.  He nods courteously but doesn’t say anything.
    -Mai-Mai?  I ask.
    -Yes, Colonel of Mai-Mai, says Jay.
          Colonel V picks up his fork in his left hand, his knife in his right and begins carefully cutting a slice of cheese and bread on his plate.  His back is straight and no elbows on the table.
    -He’s tres chique, adds Conchetta a little later.
          The Bush Bed and Breakfast: The Most Comfort You’ll Find in Any Rebel Territory!
          After breakfast, C—and his team get the camera equipment ready.  We have a meeting with the Mai-Mai.  Their camp is not far from the Muhanga parish but we can’t go directly there, we have to be invited.  Colonel V gets into the back of Dusan’s car and I climb in after him.  On the road we run into Colonel S.  I’ve met Colonel S. before and he greets me enthusiastically.  Colonel S. was extracted from the bush as part of a larger program, but when the program fell through Colonel S. fled the MONUSCO camp and ran back into the bush. 
          Colonel S. climbs in and sits next to me.  As we drive I ground myself in the fact that I am sitting sandwiched between two Mai-Mai colonels, both of whom are innately fugitives from the state.  Colonel V has his arm stretched over the seat behind me.  All I can think about is how fresh his arm pit smells and how clean both Colonel’s clothes are.
    -So, when you speak with the General, you must to tell that this is not documentary, says Dusan. 
          Colonel S. speaks French, Swahili and basic English but Jay translates to make things smoother.  Colonel S. interrupts Dusan and Jay starts laughing.
    -He says, they are not worried about this movie thing.  They are afraid of Aimé.
          I turn quickly to Colonel S. and then re-steady my gaze out of the front window.
    -He says, even the General L.F. is saying he is afraid of what this muzungu woman wants to do. 
          I realize how strange it must actually be, having a young white woman, requesting an audience with the Mai-Mai.  I’m a rogue party and they don’t know what my intentions are.  I smile to myself.
    -Stop here, says Colonel S. in French.
          We pull over on a stretch of road that’s completely vacant of anything but trees, dirt and children.  Everyone climbs out of the cars.  Now it’s C—‘s turn.  Colonels V and S stand in a circle with C--, his translator Horeb and Nelson and Aubrey circling.  They have to discuss what C—wants and what he’s going to give in return.  The conversation doesn’t interest me much so I watch the accumulating children.  Suddenly, there’s a commotion.
    -You’re just a fucking murderer, C— shouts at Colonel S.  I’m not going to play any of your fucking games.
          I look quickly to Colonel S. who looks startled but in control. He's very hard to read.  The little party separates as Horeb tries to calm C—and smooth the disrespect thrown at the Colonels.  Dusan looks a little nervous.  He walks between C—and the Colonels trying to calm the situation as well.  C—is eccentric and not a coward, but he’s also not stupid.  And his reaction is histrionic, even for an artist.  He’s acting.  But he’s definitely taking a risk.
          Only a few minutes after the commotion begins, C—walks over to Colonel S. and apologizes.  He explains a miscommunication that I don’t fully understand, and effectively gets Colonel S. completely on his side.  Free pass, as long as the General gives permission.  C—really does know what he’s doing.
          We get back in the cars and drive to a school on a hill.  All nine of us begin hiking up a path to a little wooden bench where now and then there is reception.  We’re joined by a few more Mai-Mai soldiers, younger and less confident than the Colonels.  As the Mai-Mai and Jay stand with their hands and cellphones in the air trying to catch a ray, Dusan speaks to C—and the cameras.  I sit on the little wooden bench with Horeb.  He’s a light skinned Congolese man; very intelligent and has a good sense of humor.
    -So, what I don’t get, I say squinting through the sharp sunlight.  Is how and why are FDLR and Mai-Mai just living next to each other?  I thought they were enemies. 
    -They are, sometimes, he says.  But right now they have a common enemy.
    -The governmental forces?  I ask.
    -Exactly.  And besides, the Mai-Mai aren’t actually strong enough to chase the FDLR from here.  The Mai-Mai are equipped with weapons but they can’t actually win against the FDLR.
          Horeb turns his head quickly towards the clump of Mai-Mai and cellphones.  He yells something in Swahili and Colonel S. responds immediately.
    -I just asked him if the Mai-Mai ever beat the FDLR, he says turning back to me.  He says yes they have beaten them many times.  The problem is that when they do win, the FDLR begin pillaging the villages and raping the women in order to get back at the Mai-Mai and reestablish power.
    -Oh.  That’s terrible.
          A half-siren rings out from behind a neighboring hill.  At first it sounds like a loud bird, but as the rhythm continues it becomes clear the sound is machine made.
    -That’s a signal to the Colonels, says Horeb.
          The Colonels don’t seem to even notice the bird-like alarm.  After about 40 minutes one of the cellphones finally gets through.  Angry sounding Swahili explodes through the speakerphone.  I hear my name mentioned several times.  Horeb walks over to C—and translates quietly into his ear.
    -The General is refusing Amy to speak with his men.  He says she can be present for our work but she cannot speak to them or mention sexual violence.
          I nod my head and look back to the screaming phone.  All I have brought for this initial trip are basic pamphlets about sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, and the Geneva conventions.  One pamphlet simply includes an image of a bubbling, infected penis, and the words IF YOU RAPE YOU CAN BECOME SICK, in Swahili.  The pamphlets are very little; the primary aim was to gauge how open to working with me the rebels would be.  Even a refusal gives me information.
          Jay quickly weaves through the Mai-Mai and speaks into the phone.  I can understand enough of his Swahili to know he’s explaining what exactly I want to do.  The screaming voice gets softer and I understand an affirmation.
    -Thanks Jay, I say as he walks passed me. 
          He gives me a low high-five and a fist pound.
    -He just thought you were coming to accuse them of raping and he can’t have that.  I explained that you want to do education and that it can show to UN that Mai-Mai want to suppress sexual violence.  So he agreed.
    -Fantastic.  Will I speak with them tomorrow?
    -We will either go to their camp today or you’ll speak tomorrow.
          I walk back down the hill glowing with intrigue.  The Colonels are well-educated, but will the lower soldiers even listen to me?  Back at the house Conchetta pulls cold Coca-Cola’s from the refrigerator and hands them out to everyone.  Colonels V and S sit outside of Dusan’s room laughing with the translators and sucking on the cold clear bottles.  I watch the kids running around in the courtyard and try to figure out how I feel about the day.
         Colonel V stands up and starts walking across the sand lot.  A little girl, about the height of his knee, picks up a pebble and tosses it to him.  Colonel V catches it dramatically and tosses it back to the girl, who tosses it with laughter back again.  The Colonel catches the pebble and pops it into his mouth like a peanut.  I see the pebble sail behind the Mai-Mai Colonel’s back but the little girl’s jaw drops open for a moment before emitting squeals of delight.  She sees only a grown man in a green and black track suit chewing happily on a pebble.

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