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.
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.