Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lessons from the General

          Muhanga is an off button that I have been searching for.  The trees of the forest coating the mountains that line the village are like walls to a room.  My mind turns off and my daily activities become limited to reading, writing, and watching children play.  There is no stress and suffering is somehow hidden.  My heart and mind breathe softly in a way that makes me feel as if I was sprinting before Muhanga.  Everyone avoids the bush; it bears the brunt of stereotypes and sensationalized media, and while the Mai Mai and FDLR pass through non-chalantly, it feels calm and peaceful.
          Dusan does not feel the same way.  General Lafontaine lives in various places in the deeper bush so after our initial meeting, we have to wait two more days before he’ll resurface again.  Dusan’s potty mouth becomes increasingly dirtier as we wait.  The children are too loud, the food is too scarce, and he and Maman Conchetta continue their feud of miscommunication.  We go over the best ways for me to speak with General Lafontaine.  He has sent me permission to stay and spend time with the Mai Mai; Colonel Safari apparently convinced him that I am not a spy. 
          It’s strange to watch the two rebel groups moving through the village with their guns, rubber boots, and green digs.  They are like a dissonant chord; you notice them, but they work well within the village song.  Their presence doesn’t seem to inspire fear as the governmental soldiers do.
          By the time General Lafontaine makes his way back to Muhanga, Dusan is mentioning every other sentence that he will never return to Muhanga ever again.  He arrives towards the evening and waits for me in the NGO room across the children’s courtyard.  He greets me kindly, his smile is so bright it warms the room.  He doesn’t seem to want to talk to anyone other than me.  I realize quickly it’s simply because I’m a fresh mind that he sees as ready to mold.  General Lafontain loves to talk.
          We sit in the gloaming, protected by the red bricks of the small room and surrounded by the faint light of an old bulb.   I explain more fully my work in Congo and my ideas about the Mai Mai.
    -For us, this isn’t any problem, he says.  I am very happy to be able to receive you, since you are accepting to stay here for one month or several weeks.  This is an opportunity for me and my men.
          The General reaches into a black computer bag lying on the wooden table and pulls out a stack of papers and magazines.  The lesson begins.
    -Mai Mai originated from colonial times.  We have to protect our communities, if there is no FDLR and no threat menacing our population and our government works to protect the people and the land, will we have any reason to exist?
          He looks at me expectantly but I don’t’ respond.  I hate rhetorical questions.
    -No, of course not, he continues.  What will we do? 
          He pauses again, and again I refuse to respond.
    -And if you have someone who is FDLR who rapes and then flees to another village, we must chase him and punish him.  If while trying to get him we kill him and people are killed around him, are they not too victims of his crime?
          This time I can’t handle the expectant pause, so I nod in agreement. But if I think about it, I don’t fully agree.  People in war always seem to justify the entirety of their actions; the enemy is always the one to blame.  But if a man does flee to a village and while trying to capture him, the untrained, inexperienced, poorly equipped Mai Mai begin shooting in his general direction and kill several people, there is a division of responsibility there.  The General would never agree though so I just keep nodding.
    -Kabila’s mother was married to a man and who was friends with Kabila the father, Lafontaine says.
          I can tell he’s going for the political side of things, so I get my grain of salt ready.  Everything in politics is hearsay or opinion, but a Mai Mai General’s opinion is definitely one I want to hear.
    -When the man died, Kabila the father, who was President of Congo in the late 90s, took the now President, Joseph Kabila, as his son.  But both of Kabila the son’s real parents were Tutsis from Rwanda.  James Kaberebe, the Rwandese secretary of defense is President Kabila’s uncle.  So, now the problem is not who he is or where he’s from. 
          Lafontaine is practically lying on the table, he’s leaning so far forward and staring at me to make sure I’m taking everything in.  He speaks as if he’s revealing the reasons for creation, and the final plans God has for the world. 
    -Okay, President Kabila is Rwandese, he says.  Whatever, that’s fine with us.  The problem is that he himself is now menacing the Congolese people and dealing with President Kagame of Rwanda to massacre our people.
    -How do you know this stuff about Kabila’s family?  I mean, I’ve heard rumors about that but nobody seems to be sure.
    -I used to be in the government army with Kabila the son when his father Laurent Kabila was rebelling and then when he was in power.  We worked together, in the same room.  But now he is like a stranger because he is harming the Congolese people.  With the Rwandese, the problem is not who they are, it’s that when they came during World War I during a famine, we received them and accepted them into our homes.  If someone is starving you have to feed them do you not?  And then the Second World War came, and again the famine.  Again they fled to Congo and again we helped them.  So now, we accepted strangers into our country and our homes but they have turned around and decided to take up arms.  If they didn’t take up arms we would have no problem with them being in our country.  But because of that decision, the decision to fight those who took them in when they were hungry or persecuted, what else are we to do?  They are threatening our security and menacing our people.  So we must fight.  If it’s the Congolese government or strangers in our country, if they are menacing and massacring our people we must rebel.
     -Yes, I say.  I have heard a lot of things about the FaRDC—governmental troops—being the biggest problem.  When I am in the rural villages, it is all FaRDC out there, and when women and men are raped or robbed or killed, it is the governmental army.  Of course, they aren’t the only ones but the worst areas for the local population, in my experience, are the areas where the FaRDC are deployed.
    -Yes, he responds.  First, when you have an army that is supposed to be a fully integrated army, but you simply put Tutsis from Rwanda with Congolese who were always governmental military and then put them all with Mai-Mai, how will you succeed?  If they are told to attack the FDLR, what will the Rwandans who used to be FDLR think and do?  If they are told to attack Mai-Mai, or me, what will the previous Mai-Mai do?  You have Rwandans who have their own ideology, Mai-Mai with another ideology, CNDP with another ideology and they are asked to fight the same battle on the same side.  Is that going to succeed?  No, the government has failed terribly.  But how do you explain that where there are FDLR, who are strangers, there is no raping and no stealing, but in Kirumba where there are FaRDC these things happen always.  We, the Mai Mai, have lived peacefully with the FDLR even though they are our enemies.  And where the government has failed, we have succeeded, so of course they will demonize us.
    -How exactly have you succeeded?  I ask.
    -We have had meetings.  We have sat and spoken with the other rebel leaders and we have told them that it is not good to rape the people who are allowing you to stay in their homes.  They are your brothers and sisters to and it is not good to harm them.
    -And it worked, just like that?
    -No, it was a process but we have made much progress and now when there is no fighting and the FaRDC are not attacking the FDLR they live normally within the Congolese communities.  You see, here, you are safe.  You should feel safe; other muzungus who are here or who come they will be safe.  This area has many rebels but we don’t cause visitors problems.  Why would we cause them problems if they are not a threat to our people? 
         A guy with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder walks into the room.  He reaches into the back of his pants and pulls out a pistol.  The guy hands it to Lafontaine who similarly tucks it into his pants.  Lafontaine notices my eyes following the weapon change hands.
    -Don’t worry, he laughs.  It’s not for you.  If you have no gun am I going to try to kill you?  No.
          He glances at my body as if suddenly realizing he didn’t check me for guns.
    -I don’t have any weapons, I say laughing and patting my pocket less pants. 
          I laugh a little too forcefully and quickly diminish to a smile.  I feel like I’m lying, like I’m hiding a glock in my bra, even though I’m definitely not.  This is the strangest social encounter.  The General doesn’t seem to notice my awkwardness, he smiles and continues.
    -Why kill you?  If you have a gun I’m going to look at you and think, what is that person trying to do with that gun?  If you try to use it, then of course, I will defend myself.
          He opens one of the magazines lying on the table; it’s from 2002.  He quickly flips to a certain page that’s been highlighted and underlined many times.  In the article, images of Kagame and Kabila are embedded in the text and there’s a scanned image of what looks like a constitution.
    -It says here, he begins reading, that the peace agreement between Rwanda and DRC signed on the 30th of July said that Kabila would stop the acceptance and arming of Interhamwe who had fled Rwanda.  Which means that Kabila was originally arming strangers in our country, and for what? 
          Lafontaine turns the page and points to a box of text.
    -And you see, Nkunda, you know him?
    -Yes, he was the one who led the CNDP and was very violent but also said he was a Christian minister.
    -You see, Nkunda himself is Tutsi and he calls North Kivu, notre petit etas.  As if it belongs to Rwanda.  Our country is like a beautiful woman who walks by, and she will have one man looking at her as she walks.  If there is one man looking at her of course there will be another.  Then you have three or four men following her and then when she disappears what do you think they will talk about?  They’ll talk about her.  They’ll talk about her beautiful nose, her eyes, the shape of her body, the earrings she was wearing.  It is like this with Congo. 
    -You are a very beautiful woman I say.
          Lafontaine pauses and furrows his eyebrows.
    -CONGO!  Congo is a beautiful woman, I add quickly.
          He laughs, and his is the kind of laugh you want to partake in whether something is funny or not.  Joining his laughter is not difficult since I’m already so unsure of myself.  I feel like I’m trying to lay flat on a telephone wire.
    -Yes, he says.  And she has beautiful jewelry.  Diamond earrings, golden necklace, everything else.
          A wiry old man enters the room.  He’s clearly from the village.  His missing teeth and leather-like skin reveal the type of life he has lived.  Even though his body looks completely used up, he’s almost bouncing he’s so excited to see the General.  They speak in Kinande and I can pick up enough to understand the man is telling Lafontaine about a problem he had.  Lafontaine looks at the ground and shakes his head and then imparts advice to the old man. 
          I think about the image the General just made, of the Congo as a beautiful woman decorated with sparkling accents.  I remember his comment about the United States, Europe, and Rwanda raping Congo and it suddenly makes so much more sense.  The international companies that buy minerals and supplies through Rwanda or illegally through Congolese merchants have finished discussing the beautiful woman and are rapidly trying to strip her of her beauty and wealth. 
          The old man and the General speak for about ten minutes before the man leaves and LaFontaine turns back to me.
    -Maybe you can find me a muzungu wife!  He says and bursts into his typical, unexpected laughter.  Why not?  But it will be hard to find someone who will accept to marry a rebel!
    -I’ll look for you and ask around, I say laughing as well.
          A young Congolese girl walks in and quietly places several pots of food on the table.
    -And an American especially, Lafontaine adds.  I think nobody would touch me or hurt me if I married an American woman.  It would become much more political and difficult.
          I quickly steer the conversation away from marrying American women. 
    -Are you going to eat with us?
    -No, I can’t.  The villagers have prepared a meal for me and I will eat there.
    -Eating with your brothers?  I ask.
    -Yes, that’s about it.  And I need to leave soon.  I never sleep in the villages.  I never know if someone will be upset with me or some enemy will find out where I am and come to kill me.  So I sleep in the bush and I move around always.
    -A difficult life, I say.
    -Yes, a difficult life.
          Lafontaine smiles some more and then goes outside to say good bye to Dusan and the team.  He says he’ll come by again while I’m in Muhanga so we can speak some more, and I find myself wanting him to drop by not just for a political science lesson, but because he’s kind of nice to have around. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Mai-Mai General

          I wake up to rapping on my door and Dusan’s morning voice yelling “Baby!  Is timing to working!”  When I gather myself and step outside into the children’s courtyard, Dusan is already puffing on a menthol cigarette.  The Muhanga compound is arranged like an F, with the main living quarters for Conchetta, Giovanni, and their V.I.P. guests located in the bottom and back part of the letter; the longest line.  Between the bottom stick and the first horizontal, is a courtyard reserved for children.  Even though Dusan’s knocking officially woke me up, every day in Muhanga begins with the six a.m. shrieks of happy children outside the window.
          Maman Conchetta is a kind but feisty Italian woman who has lived alongside Father Giovanni for about 40 years.  Father Giovanni is a Catholic priest, Conchetta is simply a woman who wanted a certain kind of life.  She and Dusan have a never-ending battle of miscommunications.  Dusan’s sometimes gruff demeanor and Conchetta’s solid refusal to take crap from anyone, make them constantly at odds.
    -We must to take breakfast, if there is some food, with Colonel Safari and then to waiting the General, Dusan says when I emerge into the sunlight.
          We walk across the children’s courtyard to a small brick building where NGO workers and the UN eat when they visit Muhanga.  Inside there is espresso and a strange coos-coos concoction, supposedly left out from the night before.  I greet Safari and pour espresso for each of us.  Nobody touches the concoction.
    -Bonjour Aime!  Exclaims Safari.
          I greet him and we tap foreheads three times in keeping with custom.  Safari and I have met several times, the first being when he was in hiding near Goma.  Safari had agreed demobilize through the United Nations, but for some political and military games, he ended up returning to the bush.  Safari has a hard-head that looks like a bowling ball and dark eyes that are seated deep in his face.  He’s appearance is frightening at first, but when he speaks he laughs every few words and I immediately enjoyed his company.  I place the book I’m reading, Congo: Plunder and Resistance, on the table and sit next to Colonel Safari.  Safari immediately picks up the book and begins scrutinizing it.
    -I love reading, he says to me in French.  Especially when it helps me learn English. 
    -That’s great.  I love reading too.  I think reading is very important.
          He nods his head in agreement and continues silently flipping through the pages.  Dusan lights another cigarette and pours another espresso.
    -Coffee is not coffee without cigarette, he says and shrugs. 
    -Can I bring up the reason I’m here now?  I ask in English.
          I know Safari speaks some English but I don’t know how strong it is, and I’m sure if I speak quickly he won’t understand.  The problem is, that Dusan doesn’t understand either.
    -What?  Americans speaking too fast.
         I repeat the question more slowly, not really caring if Safari understands.  He clearly does, as he lifts his head from the book and looks at me expectantly.
    -Why not?  Dusan asks, and then leans back to continue with his morning routine.
    -Safari, I’m here because I was hoping to spend some more time with the Mai-Mai, so that I can understand better.  I also want to hopefully help support your soldiers by giving them education they haven’t had access to and sensitization about sexual violence.
          I continue explaining what I’m hoping, in the roundabout way I’ve learned from Dusan and nearly everyone he speaks with.  When I finish, Safari responds immediately.
    -It’s no problem, we’ll have to make sure with the General but I think it will be very good.  You know, there was a Mai-Mai who raped a girl of 18 recently.  And there were two civilians who raped women.  They were all trapped and have already been transported to jail in Beni.
          I can’t hide how incredulous I am, not because of the rapes, but because Safari is telling me about them.  Dusan prepared me for the fact that the Mai-Mai, as with any group, will be putting their best foot forward if I’m allowed to stay.  Then again, the fact that the Mai-Mai was arrested and is in jail is another version of a best foot. 
    -Yes, he continues.  I think the problem is ignorance.  Most of the men don’t have the information or the knowledge to know that it’s not okay.
    -I agree, I think education is very important.  It’s not as simple as that, of course, which I know you know.  And in order to figure out how I can help, in whatever small ways, I need to get a full image of your lives, your ideology, your everyday.
    -Yes, he says nodding enthusiastically.  It’s good to get a full picture.  What we are doing is revolutionary, and people say we are such bad people.  Maybe you can understand more and know that it is not so.  And then you can tell other people this.
          I agree emphatically to everything he says as I finish my espresso.  Even though I poured Safari some coffee, he doesn’t drink caffeine so he sips on a glass of water.  When Safari and I have finished our discussion, Dusan launches into a history of Italian politics, always connecting things to the situations in the ever changing Croatia.  He stands up for about twenty minutes pointing to different spots on a map pasted on the wall that still references the Russian Federation as the U.S.S.R.  Right when he’s really getting into it Father Giovanni walks in.
          Giovanni is a kind man with a perfectly crinkled face.  He’s lived most of his life in North Kivu.  He’s soft-spoken but direct, and lets Conchetta handle everything involving the house.  Giovanni, however, handles security.
    -You are meeting with the General today?  He asks after we finish greeting each other.
          Giovanni doesn’t speak English, so I act as translator.
    -Yes, says Dusan.  You know, they have to making very good and intelligent decisions now.  With pre-elections processes it’s very important that they are not playing the games they are normally playing and they are very careful and intelligent.
          Giovanni nods at the beat-around-the-bush words.  Giovanni brings up some names of various Officers in different groups who have been around, and rumors he has heard.  Dusan is interested in everything but can confirm nothing.  I feel like a child listening to adults, but am even more uncomfortable since they’re relying on me to communicate with each other; I can’t just listen passively and pretend not to.
          When breakfast finishes, we all disburse.  I go back to my room to read, Dusan disappears with a cigarette clinging frantically to his lips, and Giovanni disappears into the house to entertain four Italian guests.  After a few hours, Dusan raps on the door again.
    -Okay, let us go, he says with no further explanation.
          I understand Dusan-speak better than anyone in Congo, and I realize immediately that the General has arrived.  I follow Dusan around the house to the other side of the F where there is a long porch looking out on banana trees and hanging laundry, both waving nonchalantly in the wind.  Father Giovanni is already sitting in a wooden chair, Colonel Safari is standing next to him, and a man who’s short and wide is standing against the railing.  I walk straight up to the man against the railing.
    -General  LaFontaine, he whispers leaning his head towards me.  His hand is pudgy and warm.
    -It’s an honor to meet you, I whisper back not knowing why we’re whispering but feeling the importance of the meeting.  I’m Amy.
          LaFontaine leans back, still holding my hand, and emits a roar of laughter.  The crackling coals of his whisper evaporate immediately as if they never existed.  I laugh as well, though I also don’t really know why we’re laughing.  I’ve heard stories about LaFontaine’s decisive violence.  Whether or not it has been the “valid” violence of war, or cruelty I don’t know.  But it’s well-known that he’s capable of it.  I take a seat next to Giovanni, Dusan sits on my other side.  The Mai-Mai sit across from us in a row.  Two other men who are clearly Mai-Mai, join their row. 
          One of the new men is Colonel Vincent.  Vincent and I met briefly the last time I was in Muhanga.  He looks strikingly similar to comedian Dave Chappele and is quite handsome.  The whites of his eyes don’t have the same stained tint as Colonel Safari’s do.  The fourth man in the row is another Colonel I’ve never met and nothing in his features or demeanor stand out.  He’s a phantom taking up space on the bench.  I’m expecting Dusan to talk about UN business and Congo politics, but he begins immediately with me. 
    -I think it is very good for you to meeting Amy, she is doing very good work here in Congo.  Very serious girl from United States, she will explain.
          I’m speechless for a moment, shocked by the brevity of our introduction.
    -Well, I’m here in Congo working with sexual violence, but I’m not here in Muhanga to accuse anyone.  I’m trying to understand other perspectives and hopefully I can find a way that I can also help the Mai-Mai.  I’d like to understand how the Mai-Mai live and what they think about, really everything.  And then I’d like to show them some information and some films that can help with basic education and sensitization.
    -So, General Lafontaine responds laughing inexplicably again.  Will they get a diplomat of some sort if they speak to you?  After they see your films and read your material will they graduate and have a certificate?
          I’m thrown off by the question but quickly try to recover.
    -Well, no.  I don’t work for the government, or anything like that, so I can’t give Congolese certificates or diplomas. 
    -Who do you work for?  LaFontaine asks.  He’s not laughing anymore.
    -I’m kind of an independent here, working with sexual violence.     
        Dusan understand the basic French in the sentenceand shoots me a look.
    -I’m also attached to DDR/RR and the UN, I add quickly.
    -You are from the United States, LaFontaine says putting his elbows on his knees and staring directly at me.  You know, when we are raped in Congo it is the U.S. that is raping us.  It is the U.S. and Rwanda who are raping the Congo.  So maybe you should start with your own country.
          Again, I’m thrown off balance.  He makes a good point.
    -Yes, I agree, I respond.  I understand the U.S. is heavily involved and Rwanda as well.  But my work is more on an individual basis and in areas that have less access to information and support.
          Thankfully, Dusan cuts in.  He seems to have understood the dialogue is moving towards discussion or argument.  He starts explaining the “situation,” still equivocating and not actually asserting or denying anything.  The elections are coming and things will be bad, everyone must to be careful, etc.  He actually says, “I can’t confirming or denying anything,” several times.  Maybe there is some esoteric meaning in the words, though I doubt it.  Again, I am a child, nervous about participating but employed to transfer the meanings of their words.  I translate.
         Giovanni sits quietly next to me.  He insists on being present when meetings are held in his parish, but he just listens.  Giovanni is perpetually caught in the middle of a real life game of tug-of-war.  He has to play the game, or at least monitor, otherwise he’ll be trampled after ever game. 
          Soon after Dusan begins talking business, his team members, Jay and Kensey, arrive.  They pick up the job of translating.  I’ve heard most of the information before so I mostly tune out the conversation and study the General.  Despite his power and status as a rebel, the General makes me think of Santa Clause.  He has a round belly and face with soft eyes and a smile like a fireplace in winter.  As I watch him, the General stares directly at me and speaks in Swahili.
    -Yes, I respond in Kinande as a sort of joking way of indicating I don’t understand.
    -Did you understand, asks Jay.
    -No, I say laughing.
    -He says he is fine with what Dusan is saying but you, Jay raises a finger and points it at me.  He says you could infiltrate them from here because probably you are FBI.
          I laugh but the General clearly isn’t joking. 
    -Okay, with this maybe you should leave, says Dusan.
    -I’m not FBI, I say in French, but I will leave.
          I stand up and bow slightly to the General and the other Mai-Mai, then walk off the porch cussing to myself.  On the other side of the F, in the children’s compound I pull out a cigarette I’ve been avoiding.  Kensey quickly joins me.
    -He thinks I’m FBI, now they’ll never let me stay, I say.
    -It is because you are saying you are Independent, he responds laughing.  There were people here a while ago saying Independent and they were investigators from America.  Did you tell him you’re American?
    -Dusan did, I say after thinking for a moment.
          He throws his hands in the air and laughs.
    -Now you’re FBI!
    -No!  That’s not good.  I’m not FBI!
          Kensey keeps laughing and I can’t help but join him.  I like to think I’m relatively hardened and capable, but apparently even if someone tries to steal my phone and I skin my knee I’m going to cry about it.  If the FBI were in Muhanga they’d be laughing with us.  Kensey goes back around to join the conversation, but I’ve been condemned as a spy so I sit in a wicker chair and watch the kids.  A little girl comes up to me and places herself on my lap. 
          One great thing about Muhanga is that the children are all accustomed to muzungus, though not just any muzungus.  The internationals who thread through Muhanga stay for a month and go home.  They don’t drive around in locked Land Rovers and aren’t fatigued by the constant presence of children, they relish it.  Whether or not Big Brother in Congo is watching, the children always are; typically between eight and 40 of them.  After a month the many eyes staring at you become heavy and exhausting.  Mostly, the kids just watch and often cry if a muzungu gets too close; but in Muhanga they’re not afraid and it’s nice to be able to interact with them rather than simply exist as a perpetually entertaining alien.
    -Are you okay?
          I look up and see Colonel Safari standing next to me.
   -Yes, I’m fine, thank you, I say once again confused.
    -I hope you’re not uncomfortable, he continues.  The General can’t trust anyone, you must understand that.  He doesn’t mean to offend you.  It’s like me when I first met you.  Trust is always a process, but he’ll get to know you.
    -No, I’m not offended at all, I say.  I completely understand.
          The fact that Safari is worried that I’m hurt by my excommunication from the group clearly signifies that he, at least, doesn’t think I’m a spy.
    -Don’t worry, I’ll speak to him and explain more, he says.
          He pats the little girl sitting with me on the head and then walks off with a wink.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Back to the Bush

          We spend a few more days romping around Goma.  My knee and finger don’t bend for a few days but gradually everything starts to heal.  Then back through Virunga Park and into the mountains to Butembo.  I only have time to drop off some donated funds for COPERMA before Dusan tells me we are going back to the bush, today.  I’ve been pressing him more about the rebel project; traveling around with him is fascinating and always presents something new, but I want to start understanding the rebels so I can figure this conflict out a little better.  To truly help, you have to understand as much as possible and understanding in Congo is quite elusive.  Finally, a chance presents itself.
          Over the potholes and through the trees to the Bush Bed & Breakfast  we go.  Jay and Kensey, Dusan's team members, both join us.  Dusan’s job is becoming increasingly more convoluted and demanding as the elections approach.  It hasn’t yet become clear which rebels are working with whom, and apparently nobody trusts anyone anymore.  We leave late in the day and neither Jay nor Kensey are happy with the decision.  As we go further into the bush the road gets worse and daylight quickly dims into night.  The four wheel drive on the Land Rover can manage most mud but the car hydroplanes left and right, often barely missing ditches and wayward branches. 
    -No, baby, don’t do this to me, Dusan says out of nowhere. 
          As we approach a large truck completely stuck in the middle of the road he starts cussing in Croatian.  There’s just enough room on the left side of the truck for the Land Rover to pass but the road is a swamp of mud, and where our driver’s side tire would pass, there is a deep ditch.  It’s pitch black out and the truck seems diserted.  Dusan stops before the tiny space next to the truck and keeps muttering cusswords.  Jay and Kensey both get out of the car and disappear on the other side of the immobile truck.  When they come back they are accompanied by about six men of all ages.  The men are covered in dried mud.
    -Stay in the car, says Dusan as he climbs out.
          They start taking rough measurements of the space available and the width of the Land Rover.  It looks like we can fit but the car will be scratched by branches on the left and the metal of the truck on the right.  This is not safe territory to remain in and we can’t turn back at this hour so I’m sure we’re at least going to try.  The men pull out shovels and start shoveling away the replenishing mud in the road.  Some chop at the mud wall on the Land Rover’s left trying to make more space to pass. 
    -This is not good, says Dusan getting back into the driver’s seat.  Hold on extremely tight.
          He revs the engine, switches on the four wheel drive and we slide forward towards the tiny space.  Just as we pass next to the front bender of the truck the left side of the Land Rover falls into the ditch and I’m lofted into the air.  Dusan accelerates but the tires only scream at him.  The car is irrevocably stuck and is slanted at a 50 degree angle.  I have to hold onto the door handle to avoid tumbling onto Dusan.  Dusan’s door is pinned against the mud wall so I have to climb out of the car in order to let him out on my side.  My feet are sucked into the mud and I almost fall several times in the slippery darkness.
          Dusan goes to talk to the mud covered men and the shoveling continues.  I notice a light behind the truck and head towards it.  The men have started a large campfire in the middle of the road.
    -They’ve been stuck here for three days, exclaims Kensey when I sit down on a log in front of the crackling fire.
    -Three days?  Did they bring food to eat?
    -I don’t know, he says.  They must have brought something.
          Within only a few minutes all of the mud covered men return to the camp fire and I hear more words of fire explode from Dusan’s mouth.  I walk back to the car.
    -They’re too lazy to helping us, he yells. 
    -They’ve been digging their truck all day, retorts Jay.  They are not lazy they are tired.
          I agree with Jay.
    -This is not good.  I have never stucking overnight.  Ever.
          Dusan walks off to speak to Kensey by the fire.
    -We’re going to sleep here, says Jay.  I always say we need to leave early.  And I am always right and Dusan never listens to me.  I’m always right and nobody every notices!
    -You were right Jay, I say and pat him on the back.  I noticed.
          He walks over to Dusan and Kensey still sulking.  They chat for a few minutes and I stand in a puddle of mud surrounded by a cloak of blackness.  The cloud cover is too think to see the stars and the only senses I have are the coolness of the night air and the insect sounds filling the blackness all around me.
    -We need to call Father Giovanni, Dusan says, returning to the car.  We have to use the satellite phone.  Do you have his number?
          Both Jay and Kensey shake their heads.  Dusan pulls out the SAT phone anyway, hoping to call someone who can give us the number.  Father Giovanni is the head priest in the community where we are going.  I've named it The Bush Bed and Breakfast, since it's in the middle of what's referred to as "the bush," yet has internet, 24 hour electricity, a washing machine, and the best Italian cuisine south of Sudan.  When Dusan pulls out the SAT phone he cusses some more, this time in English and Croatian.
    -Kurats Usladuledu, f#$*ing phone.  Battery is dead.
          Jay and Kensey both laugh.
    -Let’s charge it, says Kensey.
          When he finds the charger, they have to tape it to the phone to get it to work.  Now to get service.  With the cloud cover the service is almost non-existent.  Seeing as Dusan has been reduced to pure profanity, I walk back over to the fire and Jay follows me.  When I get there they are roasting something on a stick.  It looks like a hand puppet.  When I take a closer look, I see what looks like the charred remains of an extremely large rat; it’s mouth is open in a scream and it’s arms stick out straight with no paws on the end.  It looks like a smaller version of the swamp rat that attacks Wesley in The Princess Bride.  The animal has been cut in half and there is light red blood filling the inside. 
    -What is that?  I ask.
    -It’s like a porcupine, says Jay.
    -Did it have spikes when they caught it?
          It looks nothing like a porcupine.
    -No, it’s not a porcupine actually.  It’s a forest rat.
          I lean in to take a closer look as the guys all laugh at my astonishment.  I work hard to keep disgust off my face.
    -They said they got lucky today, Jay translates for an older man in the group.  They haven’t eaten almost anything in days, but today one of them caught this rat.
          Jay points to one of the younger guys.  The guy takes out a machete, places the  bottom half of the rat on the log he’s sitting on and begins hacking it into small pieces. 
    -It’s good meat, says Jay.
          All I see is black flesh and shiny red blood; no meat.  The older man who just spoke points to me, points to the rat and then makes the motion of eating.
    -Thank you, that’s very kind but I don’t want to take any of your small meal.
          Jay translates and the men all see the nervousness written on my face and laugh.
    -That could make me sick, right?  I ask Jay.
    -Yes, it’s better not to eat it.
    -Bonne appetite! I say.
          Jay and I walk back to the car, sharing the one flashlight we have.  Kensey is perched on the window sill of the passenger’s side door holding the SAT phone up to the sky for service.  After several attempts and a few broken conversations, Kensey is able to contact Father Giovanni.  Giovanni doesn’t know if he can help, but he’ll see if there are men willing to come at this hour with a car.   They’ll need a Mai Mai escort since this is Mai Mai and FDLR territory.
    -Well, why don’t we to eat something?  Dusan says when everything is tentatively arranged.
          Everyone gets back in the car.  Due to the slant I have to put my feet on the side of Dusan’s seat and hold onto the door handle.  It’s like sitting on  top of a steep roof with only one side of the roof to work with.  We pull out the salami, bread, and cheese that we brought and Jay and Kensey bring out cans of sardines.
    -It’s a picnic!  Yells Jay, laughing.
          Kensey pulls out a bottle of Hunter’s Choice Whiskey.
    -The best picnic ever!
          He fills the top of the bottle with whiskey and hands it to me.
    -Your glass, Madame.
    -Thank you.
          We eat quickly and with a small measure of whiskey in each of us we settle in for the night, uncertain whether or not people will come to help.  Dusan is comfortably pressed against his door, cozily weighted down with the pull of gravity.  I, on the other hand, have a bit more trouble.  I consider opening my door and hanging out but with the other men nearby Dusan won’t allow it.  I curl into a fetal position but have to cling to the door handle and wrap my arm over the side of my seat to stay aloft.  Finally, after a few hours of cramping and clinging, I’m able to hook my body in just such a way as to not have to actively hold on and still stay in one place.  I begin to drift off.
    -They’re coming?  I hear Dusan mumble in his sleep.
    -Yeah, maybe they’ll come, I mumble back.
          Kensey is stretched out on the back seat snoring loudly; Jay is curled up in the trunk. 
    -No, they’re coming!  Dusan yells.
          I sit up quickly, forgetting to grab the door handle and almost tumble onto Dusan.  I grab it just in time and see headlights moving towards us through the darkness.  The mud covered men are sleeping under a large tarp in the middle of the road and at first I’m afraid the car will drive over them, but the car stops and the men stumble out from under the tarp.  Within seconds there are men by my window.
    -Bonsoir! Each of them says smiling at me.
          At first I think they’re the guys who tried to help us earlier and I’m amazed at how quickly they jumped from sleeping to digging.  I soon realize these are the men Giovanni sent; the other guys are stationed around the coals of their fireplace once again.  The new men work quickly, digging mud from around the tires and attaching a long yellow cord to their car and ours.  I stumble around groggily, trying to comprehend their energy and not lose a shoe in the mud.  After about 30 minutes they’ve towed the car free of the ditch, the mud, and the truck.  Jay, Kensey, and I hoot in celebration and Dusan gives me a high five.  It’s almost 3 a.m.  We make it to Father Giovanni’s around 4 in the morning and every single one of us immediately collapses into a horizontal bed. 
          Tomorrow we are to meet with the General of the Mai Mai group.  General Kakule Sikuli Vasaka LaFontaine, leader of the largest and most influential Mai Mai group currently in Congo, has walked several days through the bush to meet with Dusan.  I'm going to throw in my  two cents and see where it lands; the goal is to stay for a while.

Saturday, August 6, 2011