The “Congolese” FDLR rebel who was recently shot, has admitted that he is Rwandese. With this new information the United Nations mandate covers him and he can be helped. Dusan and I are to pick him up from the hospital in Kaina and continue the 4 hour drive across the bumpy roads to Goma.
-That trip is not going to be comfortable, I say to Dusan before we leave Lubero.
The morning of our departure I drove the motorcycle from Butembo to Lubero, and am now waiting for Dusan to “wake-up.” Even if he wakes up at 9 a.m. he often needs to sit on a couch in his pajamas sipping coffee, Coca, and cigarettes until well after-noon. He told me to be in Lubero no later than ten, but it’s already noon and he’s lighting another cigarette.
-I don’t care for his comfortability, says Dusan putting the cigarette to his mouth.
-Well, I’m just saying with six recent bullet holes, riding in the back of a landrover is going to suck.
-I don’t to care, he says more forcefully. This guy is piece of shit. Absolute piece of shit. You know why he was shotted? He went to kill a motortaxi driver and the passenger to steal the moto. The passenger was an officer in the FaRDC and shot back. So, because of this, I don’t care of his comfortability. Piece of shit.
I nod my head in contemplation and relative agreement. I’ve mostly stopped trying to decide what I think about things or how they make me feel. It’s all too confusing and layered at this point to make any headway. After another two hours, Dusan finally calls Jay to come pick us up and we head south to Kaina together. Jay is not happy about the time of departure and he huffs into the back seat before settling in with his arms across his chest, muttering about driving at night. Dusan is relatively quiet, something which only happens when he’s completely exhausted or in serious contemplation. I’m somewhat grateful for the reprieve.
We arrive in Kaina just after evening falls and we go straight to the hospital. The man has been transferred to a more private room. He’s lying stretched across two beds, this time with his bandages showing. He has been shot four times in the chest and twice in the leg. We’re taking him to Goma to have his leg amputated at a better hospital. Something in his face looks somewhat smug this time, and the intensity of his gaze on me makes me reflexively zip up my jacket. I shudder, and leave the room.
Tilapia fish, rice, cabbage, Coca, and cigarettes, in a nearby restaurant before the three of us glide through the silent darkness of the village to a local parish with decent lodging. Watch a movie, go to bed. In the morning Jay and Dusan ask a few local guys to help them fix something on one of the tires. The back of the Land Rover is open and there are several mattresses and a blanket rolled up inside.
-I’m assuming those are for the man to lie on? I ask Jay when he walks up to me.
-Yes, he will sleep on it. And there’s one other guy from Kaina who will be back there.
I stop speaking and imagine the semi-smug guy from yesterday. It slips out of my mouth before I finish formulating the thought.
-That’s going to smell terrible, I say and cringe immediately.
Jay gives me a look. Not exactly the most compassionate reaction.
-Don’t worry we’ll open the windows, he says.
-Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be fine I say, trying to sound like less of a jerk.
It wasn’t the most compassionate response, no, but the smell of healing and dying flesh mixed with the metallic odor of blood and antiseptic is one of the most horrible recipes I’ve encountered. I remember it well from my years as a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician Co-Pilot.
Before we can remove the man from the hospital, we need permission from the FaRDC commander. The FDLR soldier is technically under arrest for being a rebel, and for attacking an FaRDC officer. The governmental military camp is only a few minutes away from the hospital. It’s not what I’m expecting. Most FaRDC camps are huts made with sticks and draped with tarps and cloth; they’re old-fashioned tents that can be easily destroyed and moved. This camp is a large, Belgian era building and when we drive in there are several uniformed soldiers playing volleyball in the yard. They smile and give us a thumbs-up as we drive by. We’re taken to a large stick gazebo to escape the full force sun and speak with the Commander.
After a few minutes a squat man with a wrestler’s body and an intelligent face walks in. He’s wearing civilian clothes and shakes all of our hands without smiling. Officers never smile.
-So, we are here to speak with you because under the United Nations mandate, we can to remove the man who was shotted and take him to have better care. I need to let you know we are not taking him to release or give special treatment. We are not here to letting terrorists free. When we are to transfer him, we will to inform the FaRDC battalion in Goma and they will to take over his arrest. He can to be repatriated in Rwanda, if FaRDC says this is okay, or he can to be tried and judged in Congo. We are simply to get him to better hospital care.
Jay translates and the Commander nods his head knowingly. When Jay finishes the man leans forward in his chair.
-For your mission, this is not problem for me, he says. I know very well about DIH –Droits International Humanitaire—(International Human Rights) in fact I am the one who said he needed to be taken to the hospital. He needs to get the best treatment possible so that he can get better and live, and then he will be judged in accordance with either Rwandese or Congolese law. For me, what you are doing is not a problem.
Interesting, an FaRDC officer who seems to be genuinely concerned with the law. It probably would have been easier to kill the FDLR rebel, and more often than not, that’s what happens. This Commander is a positive anomaly.
-Great, says Dusan after Jay translates. And I want to say thank you for all of the work you are doing and thank you for the operations you performed recently. We were able to extracting many from the bush so thank you.
The Commander smiles slightly and nods his head some more.
-We must to continue this work we are doing, Dusan continues. And the most important thing is peace. This is most important thing. We are to finishing what we started.
We all stand up and shake hands. Into the sun, back in the car, return to the hospital. I follow Dusan into the room where the man is still being held and treated. When I walk in his bandages are bloody and the smell engulfs me like an invisible wall of smoke. There is a sickening addition to the smell; something is not healing properly. I resist the urge to put my hand over my nose and mouth but turn and walk back into the warm, fresh air.
-Don’t worry, says Jay walking up beside me. They will clean the wounds.
-Yeah, it’s okay. I’m not worried about it.
Dusan joins us and we start unrolling the mattresses and cleaning the dust from the back of the car. The space is only large enough for one man, sitting up. Dusan drives the car over to the door leading to where the man is staying and props the back doors open. Jay and I stand a few feet away and stare at the car. Through a back window I can see Jay’s red backpack poking up next to a roll of toilet paper. It looks like we’re going on a camping trip.
-The space is not big enough, says Jay. This man will suffer greatly.
-Why didn’t we get an ambulance? I ask.
An ambulance is just a Land Rover with no backseats, but at least the man would be able to lie down.
-I don’t know. Ask Dusan.
He says it as if either he simply doesn’t want to have to deal with the task, or he thinks Dusan did it so that the man would suffer.
-This man will die, he says.
-No, but soon. He is shot all across the chest.
He points to four spots, more or less covering his lungs.
-It’s amazing he’s alive at all, I say. Especially in Congo.
-Yes. You see.
Jay walks off to inspect the back of the car and Dusan walks over to me and lights a cigarette.
-Dusan, why didn’t you get an ambulance?
He looks down at me as if I just asked what country we’re in.
-Because, he pauses. If I am asking for ambulance this will take several months to arrange and they will not to go until security escort is come. Man will die and then they will say, okay we are ready. Come on, Amy.
He pauses and then pats me on the back.
-This is Africa, baby.
-Dusan, says Jay walking back to us. I think we can lower the back seat and make enough room for the man to lie down.
-You think so?
Dusan tosses his cigarette onto the ground and the two of them walk back to the car. Within a few minutes they have pushed the back seat up and the mattresses fit easily.
-You and me will both sit up front with Dusan, says Jay.
When they’ve finished cleaning the man’s wounds and given him a shot of pain medication, six nurses carry him out on one of the mattresses. He looks like a skeleton. His normally high cheekbones are like wooden slates propping up the skin on his face and his body seems to sink into nothing once his ribs end. I smile at him but he looks through me. Someone places the blanket across his body and sets a plastic bag next to his head.
-Okay, we are to go, says Dusan. We must to pick the other guy.
I climb into the front seat next to Dusan and Jay climbs in on my right.
-I think we will to reach Kivanga in a few hours and we will stop to take some omelete.
-With the guy? I ask pointing behind me.
-No, of course he won’t eat he’ll stay in the car.
If I had a man riddled with bullet holes and a leg to be amputated in my car, I definitely would not stop for omelets. But Dusan always knows best so I keep my mouth shut. A few minutes down the road into Kanyabayonga village we pull over to pick up someone who will watch over the bullet man. A young man climbs into the car carrying a bag that’s long and clinks. He sits down awkwardly next to the bullet man’s head and tries to find a place for his feet. There is almost no space. The door opens again and another man climbs in.
-You’re both coming? I ask surprised.
-Yes, one responds.
The door opens again and a third man climbs in.
-Jeez, I mumble and shake my head.
One man drapes his legs across the bullet man who is staring at them with wide eyes. The third guy squats next to the bullet man’s chest. If the car swerves he will definitely land on the man’s chest wounds.
-Okay, let’s go.
-Three people? I ask Dusan.
-Yes, why not? It is fine. Don’t worry. Hakuna Matatiso- No problems.
Our first flat tire occurs on the mountain descent leading to Virunga National Park. One of the guys in the back, who calls himself Charlie Hotel, starts changing the tire. Dusan walks up to me and takes my arm. He has a small stick in his hand and he pretends to poke me in the arm with it as if it’s a syringe.
-Sorry, I have small veins. They always have trouble sticking me, I say.
-No, this is what they are telling you. But really they are having trouble because you have too much grass.
Grass is Dusan’s word for fat. He starts chuckling to himself. I kick a stone at him.
-No, I know this is small veins issue, I’m only kidding, he says.
I reach out and point to his veins which are large and clear under his skin.
-Well, you’re old, I say.
-Oooooh! He howls. Now it is one to one yes? This is good!
He raises his hand and gives me a high five and then walks off still laughing.
Charlie Hotel only takes a few minutes to change the tire. You can’t drive in Congo without a spare so we have to make it to the Indian battalion in the Park. It’s about an hour drive to the Indian battalion, if we get a flat we’ll be stranded with a dying man in the car. Dusan drives less carefully than Jay and I are comfortable with. Both of us wince and make exclamations each time a tire hits a sharp hole.
-Hakuna problemas! Says Dusan. Don’t worry so much.
We make it to the Indian battalion and they are able to switch the tube in the flat tire. It takes about an hour and I stay in the sweltering car, glancing back at the bullet man from time to time. I watch him slowly untie the knots in the plastic bag by his head to reveal a piece of stale bread. His hands tremble as he slowly rips off pieces and brings them to his mouth. I consider trying to help him but can’t figure out anything to do.
-You know what is funny, Dusan says returning to the car. We have three weapons in the car and they are pretending to watching security. It is funny, you know. And one of these guys with us is an ex-combatant. He’s being extracted too. They can to be attacked even from inside.
I remember the clinking plastic bag one of the guys brought in. Two FDLR ex-combatants and three AK-47s in the car, but the bullet man couldn’t use a gun if he wanted to, and the other ex-combatant seems pretty mild. They finish repairing the tire but the outside casing of the tire has also split, and before we drive off again, Dusan points out the wire they used to stich the split together. There’s no way it will hold.
We leave the Indian battalion and drive for about an hour before Jay rolls down his window and I notice the loud fssssssssssssssssss coming from the front tire.
-Stop! He exclaims.
We climb out once again and Charlie Hotel gets to work. I notice that the third man in our car is wearing a t-shirt that says, CAUTION: Alcohol Testing- Risk of projectile vomiting, verbal diarrhea, gaseous emissions, uncoordinated movements.
The area of the park we are in is one of the least secure pieces of passable road in North Kivu. A German NGO worker was shot in this stretch a few months ago and people are often attacked and looted. Jay seems to notice this at the same time.
-This is great. If we are to be attacked, this is the place, I’m telling you. This is where they are.
He nods his head in the direction of the FDLR ex-combatant.
-Yeah, but we’re with their friends so maybe they won’t attack us, I say.
-Are you kidding? He says and laughs. This gives them more reason to beat us because we are extracting their people.
It’s an interesting balance. On the one hand we’re trying to save the life of one of their soldiers, and on the other we’re decreasing the number of their forces.
-Okay, finish! Says Charlie Hotel standing up. But this is not strong tire so you should drive carefully.
Back in the car. Jay climbs in next to me and explodes in laughter. We’re all a bit giddy at this point.
-The minibus behind us stopped! He says still laughing. They thought we were being looted and they were getting ready to run.
Dusan takes off, and caution is not a word that could be used to describe his driving. Jay winces for the tire, I wince for the bullet man.
-Should we to let the minibus pass? Dusan asks, accelerating as the minibus climbs up on our left side.
Dusan has a thing about other vehicles not passing him, even though when others don’t let him pass he always yells that they are just trying “to showing the dick size.” Jay and I respond at the same time.
-We have a sick man, I blurt out.
-The tire! Yells Jay.
Dusan hunches his shoulders and stops accelerating.
-A minibus to passing us, he mutters.
Suddenly Jay lets out a shriek next to me.
-EEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!! An Elephant!! Dusan, Dusan!
Dusan slams to a halt in front of a massive elephant standing next to the road. Jay and Dusan both climb out of the car and take turns taking pictures standing next to the elephant. When Jay gets back in he’s ecstatic and makes me look at the photo of him next to the elephant at least three times. He’s Congolese and his excitement confuses me.
In Kivanga, we stop for omelettes, fries, and fried chicken. We need to fix the spare tire again, so we have an excuse to order more than just omelets. The sun is setting and shortly after leaving Kivanga the tire pops a third time. Charlie Hotel sighs and cusses a few times but takes a cigarette from Dusan and changes the tire again quickly. Jay mumbles some more about why it’s important to leave in the morning and not lounge around smoking cigarettes. I glance constantly at the bullet man and the three other men continuously tell me everything’s okay.
After about six hours we make it to Goma and drop the bullet man off in the DDR/RR repatriation camp. He made it through alive and only verbally acknowledged his pain towards the end. Just outside of Goma, I see a half-broken bicycle with three boys clinging to it as it rockets down the road. The boy in front is wearing a white shirt that’s miraculously clean in an atmosphere heavy with grey dust. On the front of the shirt in large block letters it reads: I HEART PARIS HILTON.
This is Africa, baby. Whatever that means.