Safari disappears for days at time. When he is around, we walk to the other Mai-Mai camp and talk to more of the men, but mostly we just sit together. Safari wades through the English history book for hours at a time, asking me to explain words like “augur,” and “fledgling.” Some of the words are beyond the reach of my French and Safari howls with laughter as I pull chairs together and huddle amongst them (“congregate”) or purposely trip over a chair (“clumsy”).
But despite the Colonel’s profligate laughter, there’s a forlorn feeling to his presence, as if he’s always looking through the Bell Jar. There’s an added effort, as if his personality has molded into the niche of personal solitude, and being around others has become more difficult than being alone. He tells me his primary role, most days, is to stand on the top of a hill waiting to receive and send messages; a human answering machine. Now and then, Safari looks up from the book or stops talking mid-sentence and gazes at a patch of grass, as if he’s just remembered an opportunity he was excited to pursue but never got around to and it slipped away. Rarely, he remembers that I’m still there, watching him, and he’ll open up his thoughts and let me peek in.
-I box a little, he says randomly during one of these moments while contemplating a distant banana tree. I was really weak as a kid, and when I was in the military training camp in Rumangabo with the Rwandese, I had to box in order to avoid death. So many found death there.
-What do you mean? Why did they die? I ask softly, not wanting to jolt him out of his somnolent reverie.
-The officers would tell one thousand people to climb a tree like that one, he says and points at the distant banana tree.
The tree is small and plain, no higher than 20 feet.
-And you would run fast at that exact moment so you could climb the tree. But then the tree would be full of people so quickly and most of the trainees couldn’t climb it. So they were beaten with a huge stick. Ten and twenty at a time; they were beaten until they died.
I gaze in parallel to Safari at the tree and imagine it covered with human forms, trying to climb each other in order to climb the tree.
-When was that? I ask, though I really want to ask why?
-In 1996. Because it was the time when they were trying to get rid of Mobutu. Rumangabo was a military camp before Mobutu was overthrown.
After a moment he chuckles and then goes back to diligently copying down the English history of the region.
To get to the last Mai Mai camp in the area, Safari calls a motortaxi to take us to Bunyatenge. The village is only a few kilometers away, but I can’t make the trip alone as Bunyatenge is where Rwandese, FDLR, rebels are also living. When the motortaxi arrives the driver’s face lights up when he sees my skin and he begins to give me a raised price, before he realizes who is sitting next to me. The man’s mouth remains open, in the brink of speaking, but his eyes flick back and forth between the Colonel and myself. I laugh quietly; the man is torn between the raised price he wants to give a muzungu, and the lowered price he should give someone as powerful as the Colonel. Finally, the driver settles on respecting the Colonel and offers a very fair price.
When we reach Bunyatenge there are only a few rebels wandering around, and it is difficult for me to distinguish between Mai Mai and FDLR. Safari buys a local drink called Tankengo, proclaimed to be a “health drink wine,” that tastes like fermented molasses. As we begin to climb another steep mountain, Safari takes slow, thoughtful pulls from the plastic bottle and explains more about the relationships between the different rebel groups. He explains that the local populations feed the FDLR and the Mai-Mai groups, and that the FaRDC governmental army steals from the population because they aren’t properly supported by the government. Then, in order to weaken the governmental army, the FDLR steal from the population so that there’s nothing left for the FaRDC to steal.
-An army that’s not fed can’t do their job well, Safari says.
-On all accounts, the population suffers the most, I say.
Safari nods his head in agreement.
-C’est une domage. The camp is up there, he says changing the subject.
He points up to the top of the mountain which is still a long ways off.
-Are you going to arrive? He asks me.
-Yes! I exclaim through heavy breathing. Tired, yes. But I’ll make it.
Safari suddenly sits down pointedly in the middle of the small path, I happily follow suit.
Despite the alcoholic beverage and the fact that it’s a very difficult climb, Safari’s breathing hasn’t escalated at all.
-We climb this several times a day, he says taking another pull of Takengo.
As I catch my breath, Safari lapses into another contemplative silence and I look out across the rolling hills, freckled with brown huts. Even though we’re only half way up the mountain, we can see for miles all around. It’s an excellent location for a rebel camp. I turn and look up at Safari, perched a few feet above me. He’s picking at a blade of grass with the now familiar expression that tells me he is contemplating the meaning of life and death and his place in either phase of existence.
-Are you happy? I ask.
Safari only reflects for a second before he looks up at me.
-Everyone here is traumatized in some way, he responds. It’s a sacrifice living as a rebel. It’s suffering. We’ve grown up in war; we don’t have a taste for love.
I nod my head softly and begin playing with a blade of grass in the same peremptory, yet oblivious manner.
-What do you think about at night when you’re trying to sleep but you can’t? I ask, not looking away from the blade I’m engaging with.
-My mom, he says and I look up at the sound of a crack in his hardened voice.
I search his face to see what emotion is there, but he keeps looking at his own blade of grass and his voice re-solidifies once more.
-My younger brother and sister, he continues. When I call my mom it’s hard because she always starts to cry as soon as she hears my voice. I think about them a lot. My mother worries about me living as a rebel, but I can’t even take the time to visit her and ease her fears.
I resist the rising urge to climb up next to him and put my arm around his shoulders.
-When was the last time you saw your family? I ask instead.
-Years ago, he says. I could maybe take some time soon, but I don’t have the means to get there.
I nod some more, not knowing what to say. Safari stands up again suddenly and continues climbing. He walks slowly and changes the subject to education and learning, his favorite things in life. He loves reading; he wants to go back to school. When we finally reach the top of the mini-mountain, the weather turns on a dime. The grey sky begins grumbling, sending a portent of rain with the accelerating wind. We walk through the camp to another thatched, wooden, enclosure. The stick walls are strong enough to stop the wind from whipping my hair around in swirls.
-This is the Commander of this section, says Colonel Safari when a skinny man walks in.
The man reaches out and shakes my hand. He is soft-faced and startlingly shy. Almost every time he and I make eye contact, his cheeks flush red and he even hides his face in his shoulder a few times.
-The Commander? I ask, incredulously.
Safari nods at me and smiles. After some polite small talk, the shy guy becomes a little more comfortable. He stops hiding his face, though I still feel like I’m talking to an eight year old boy who has a crush on his baby-sitter.
-Do you like being Mai Mai? I ask.
-I don’t like it, he responds softly. But because of the conditions and the irresponsibility of the government I stay Mai Mai. I’m a career military soldier. You fight where the money or your heart lead you.
The Commander’s name is Muhindo George, and he grows more and more confident as he speaks, until I am finally able to see the solid outline of a man who has spent his entire life in war. The transformation is astounding, and I begin to think the bashful little boy never existed. He goes through the same history and ideology that Safari and General LaFontaine both explained.
-What do you think about the phenomenon of sexual violence? I ask when he finishes his version of Congo’s history.
Muhindo puts his face in his left hand, and I can see the nervous little boy emerge again. He looks at the ground and stays silent for a long time.
-It’s a complex affair, he says finally. I can’t know how or why that happens, but I know it’s a really bad problem.
He rubs his eyes with his hands as if he’s suddenly exhausted.
-Do you think there will be peace in Congo? I ask.
-I think we’re victims of a war transplanted from Rwanda to Congo, he responds. If we can have a government that collaborates with Rwanda as neighbors, but not in a way that is to the detriment of the Congolese and benefits only the Rwandese, then yes.
-It’s America who makes us suffer, interjects Safari. Because America picked up President Kagame—of Rwanda—and supported him with arms and funds. With that support, Kagame makes us suffer in Congo because he is able to steal our minerals. If America came here and made a deal so they benefit and we benefit, without war. Truly we could be happy. But by supporting Kagame, who would be weak without Americas support, it is America who makes us suffer.
-What gives you the strength to keep fighting for peace? I say, as the sweet, musty smell of marijuana floats by.
I glance through the small doorway and see a few young guys sitting in another hut smoking around the embers of a fire.
-Everything we’ve seen, done, lived through and continue to live through is that gives us the strength to keep fighting, says Muhindo pulling my attention back into our own little sanctuary. To live peacefully is our right, everywhere in our country. But since we live in inhuman conditions it traumatizes us, but it gives us strength to fight those who treat our people inhumanely. The East of Congo generally could live with the FDLR peacefully without a problem, but when the government attacks the FDLR, that’s when the FDLR start attacking the population. That’s why we say the International community must change their politics in order to create peace in this area. The FDLR need to be allowed back to their country of Rwanda. Rwanda says no, they are genocidaires and they can’t come back. But they have a justice system in Rwanda. They need to let the genocidaires back and judge them there. That’s not our problem!
The little boy has fled again, and by the time Muhindo finishes his speech he’s practically yelling. Safari suggests that we take a tour of the camp, and the three of us step out of the hut into the menacing wind. The young men in the hut smile at me, and the smell of marijuana smoke permeates the air, despite the wind. Safari shows me several more marijuana plants that are at least three feet taller than I am, and the men all sigh when I explain that one of their marijuana bushes could sell for around fifty thousand USD on an American college campus.
Safari walks back down to the village with me and I take the mototaxi back alone. His presence on the way to Bunyatenge gives me sufficient enough security to return without him.
The next day, only three days before Dusan is scheduled to come pick me up, I open the door to my room just as Colonel Vincent is about to knock.
-Good morning, Amy, he says without smiling. There is news that the FaRDC will be coming to attack soon. Do you know anything about this?
I chuckle and smile at him, but he doesn’t smile back.
-You’re serious? Not joking?
-No, he says. I have a source who says they will attack soon and I want to know if you know more details.
I shake my head.
-I don’t, I’m sorry. I have no sources at all, except Dusan and he hasn’t said anything about it. If he knew about it I’m sure he would have contacted me. When do you think they might attack?
-I’m not sure, he says. Maybe tomorrow or the day after?
-I’ll send a message to Dusan, I say quickly. I’ll see if he knows anything about it.
I go inside where I’m able to send an SMS through Skype, since the phone service in Muhanga is almost non-existent. If Dusan does have information about a pending attack, it would compromise his position in the U.N. to share details about it with any of the rebel groups, but he’d sure as hell better share the details with me. Father Giovanni and Maman Conchetta have been gone for about a week and are supposed to arrive that evening, but I have no way of contacting them. Maman Conchetta’s adopted son, Mbusa, starts fiddling with the SAT phone trying to reach them and warn them or ask for advice.
Colonel Vincent disappears and Safari does not arrive. There’s really no way for Dusan to respond, but I let him know about the rumor just in case. Part of the agreement in my staying in Muhanga alone was that I would alert him to anything and everything out of the ordinary. Soon after dark falls, Maman Conchetta and Father Giovanni return with several Italian visitors. Only an hour after their return, Dusan and Jay show up. Dusan doesn’t know about an attack and doesn’t think they will, but he wants me to leave the bush, anyway. He’s not happy that there are so many visitors in Muhanga when rumors are swirling, but there’s nothing he can do for them.
The next day we make a brief trip to Bunyatenge so I can say thank you to Colonel Safari and so Dusan can meet with him briefly. When we pull into the village, every hut has at least three FDLR rebels stationed in front of it. Colonel Vincent hitches a ride with us, and is able to point out the small clump of Mai Mai amidst the herd of FDLR sentries.
-They are ready for a fight, says Colonel Vincent.
We don’t linger in Bunyatenge. The contemplative, nostalgic philosopher in Safari has evaporated and take-no-prisoners fighter is all that remains. He barely acknowledges me, so I leave my thank you in the dust and climb back into the car. We leave Muhanga as the sun begins to set and when we reach the closest village, Mbingi, our car is surrounded by the lecherous bravado of the FaRDC. One soldier crosses his arms and over his AK-47 and stands in front of our car, glowering as if God has given him the power to burn down humanity with his eyes. The soldier succeeds only in looking rather pathetic.
-Showing the dick size, Dusan mutters quietly.
A man who is clearly an officer walks up to the car and begins questioning Jay in Swahili. Where are we coming from, where are we going? How long will we be gone? The man does not attempt to utilize the same childish intimidation tactics as the young man still standing in front of the car. It’s clear he’s an officer and does not need to show his dick size. The officer is tall and lighter skin than the rest of the men. Jay answers calmly and after a few moments the officer motions for the glowering soldier to move out of the way.
Neither Jay nor Dusan speaks for a few minutes, both clearly caught up in some revelation I’m not privy to.
-They will to attack, says Dusan suddenly. It is sure but I do not knowing when.
-Why do you say that now? You knew they were here before and you said they weren’t going to attack.
-That officer was Tutsi, which means he is former CNDP officer. If Tutsi officer is here, then they will to attack.
We make it safely to the provincial church where we often spend the night. In the morning I emerge from my room just as Jay is walking sleepily out of his room.
-They attacked at 2 a.m. this morning, he says to me. There is shooting even now.
-Is everyone okay? I ask, knowing that statement is pointless and means nothing. Who is everyone anyway?
-I don’t know, says Jay. I received messages and calls during the night. The villagers have fled to Father Giovanni’s and many are staying there.
Dusan assures me there’s nothing we can do to help. I realize how absurd it is that I had to flee the bush when the governmental army came close. The United Nations uses the terms “positive” and “negative” forces to distinguish between rebel groups and the governmental army. But, in this game, the distinctions between good and bad are nebulous and the only clear fact is that the population suffers.