I made it out of Africa, none the worse for wear... man, is it cold up here.
There were 40 U.S. refugee program refugees on the plane from Nairobi, a perfect counterpoint to the shrieking deportee that was on the plane I took to Kigali three months ago. They had been in camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, some since 1991. And here they were watching I, Robot and eating mini Belgian cheeses on their way to New York slums and Kansas factories, well-behaved children in tow. The way things go nowadays.
I will keep updating this blog about the movie, etc., but for now... a long holiday season to let the paint set. Check back in a little while...
Thanks to all of you who read this, my first attempt at blogging. Sometimes I wondered why I was doing it, but it was really fun (which explains the millions of blogs out there). Maybe I will keep blogging someday, but not until I have something to blog about. Oh something, something to blog abouut...
The internet is everywhere.
Hrmmm. I just accidentally erased a long post from where I am, a
solar-powered internet cafe on Shyira hill in very rural western Rwanda. We
made it out of Congo and are staying at an Episcopal mission hospital with
the Kings, a Swiss family Robinson of Harvard-eduacated doctors and
tow-headed blond children perched atop one of Rwanda's thousand hills... the
beauty of this place is stupendous. Sinister too, since I'm rereading "We
wish to Inform You..." while sitting here where It happened, only ten years
The hospital, which has no power, serves 150,000 people who come by foot or
mountain ambulance (man-powered) from miles and miles around.
I want to come back to this country. It's completely unreal. The air is
sweet and pure, wildlife abounds, people are walking up and down dirt paths
that wind everywhere around sheer, endless hills where little glades and
waterfalls are separated by starbursts of banana plantations and simple
brick houses. It's the landscape I drew pictures of when I was little.
I tried to do some farrier work on the overgrown hooves of the household
donkeys, and am very tired from it. Mom would have been disapointed.
To Kigali in the morning, Brussels by the next morning. I love you all.
A dramatic goodbye
Here it is, the last day in Congo.
It feels strange to leave just as a weekend lull presages a violent week ahead. Ethnic troubles that Goma has avoided for the most part up till now have begun to infect the city. Jo is running around, attempting to mobilize all of civil society to refuse the coming bloodbath. Fatalism reigns among most people I talk to. Soon, news of a wave of violence overwhelming the city I've come to know a little in the past two months will be something I dig up on Google, if I hear about it at all.
I'm hoping to come back sometime; like the ground here, the stories are very rich. Dr. Ahuka at DOCS proposed we do a film about the pygmy populations he's been working with deep in-country to the west of here. Lyn thinks we should document the project DOCS is setting up in Maniema province. Jo said Lubutu in Maniema is to Goma as Goma is to NYC. It's terra nulius. If you can get to these places, filming something compelling is as simple as turning on the camera.
I'm blown away by what I've seen, and haven't processed it yet. Nelson wrote from New York complaining of cold and difficulty negotiating the sidewalk. I'm baffled by the thought of the subway. Can you play tennis at the courts in McCaren park on a winter saturday, maybe if it's sunny? How am I going to live up to the commitments I've made here, for example procuring goat-cheese making technology for Papa Prosper?
I feel like I've lost a lot of fear coming here, which was like crossing into a dark and imaginary place that became real... I survived, I didn't get malaria or some virulent parasitic boil on my face (I hope), I passed out cigarettes to drunken militiamen with a smile, I listened to volleys of automatic weapons fire and learned not to care (silly people), I worked on a really good project, I sat in urine-scented rooms with women who have lived through things that would have destroyed me and listened to them laughing, I met a lot of good people, truly good... I ate really well and spent mornings playing tennis and swimming, evenings watching films and listening to interesting people tell amazing stories... all in all, I would recommend this kind of trip to anyone. It helps if you go with some stand-up guys like BJ and Nelson, and have a surgeon/senator's house to call home base.
It's time to go home, though, and I am so excited about seeing my friends again. I want to go to the movies, get drunk in a bar without fear of armed robbery, eat a steak au poivre/a juicy bacon cheeseburger, and listen to some music with some damn computer-generated heavy bass. Turn it up!
Three months is really nothing. I've been on a ride, suffered no hardship. I very lazily executed my journalistic imperative (article being worked on, publication uncertain). When I get home I think I have enough material to write a magazine-length article on sex crimes in east Congo, but I don't know if I want to yet.
Wish us luck on the trip home. We're going to a mission hospital in the mountains of western Rwanda for a couple of days, so radio silence until I get to Brussels/ Paris on Wednesday or Thursday. It may be my last chance to find a monkey bride (I'm thinking an adolescent lady gorilla of birthing age) in the cloud forests of the volcanic mountains. If she asks me to stay I will think about it. I'd bring her to Brooklyn but I hear it's hard to get a U.S. visa for a monkey nowadays.
It's alright, mama...
To those of you I freaked out with news of yesterday, I apologise. I should have made it clear that everyone here understands white people have nothing to do with what they're fighting about. It's true that, and let me quote Jo again, that bullets don't have your name on them, but as long as you don't go the specific place where people are shooting each other, whether it's down the block or on the other side of town, you have nothing to worry about. That's the number one thing I've learned about small arms warfare while here in Congo.
On the other hand, isn't it good news that colonialism is over? ha ha ya.
The only thing we're worried about is Rwanda closing its border if the conflict heats up. That just means spending another thousand dollars to re-route through Kampala instead of Kigali. Two more days!
It's nice that since it doesn't snow here, students have riot days off instead.
What's sad is that as I'm leaving, I finally have a handle on all the dynamics of this conflict. Anyone who is interested in the details, ask me sometime, but I'll need markers and different colors of paper, and maybe some post-its.
Our final task is to film women in the recovery ward watching a film we took of women in the village singing a song about "thank you, I'm healed" in Kinyarwanda. pomo.
Tonight: final throw-down with peeps from UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee! Jello shots, luge shots, body shots, special african male potency shots, malaria shots, gunshots.
email me now if you want fetish dolls. IF mom wires me that money, hear that, mom? I'm in a war here, hell-oooo?
O Pakistan, O Pakistan
Thank you to the soldiers of the Pakistani battallion of MONUC, the U.N. mission, who have begun patrolling the town on foot.
The Rwandophone inhabitants of Goma are rioting today against the arrival of troops from Kinshasa. Pro-Kinshasa inhabitants are shooting them. We've been barricaded in DOCS all day. Shots ringing out regular-like. Five reported dead. The blue helmets just brought in more injured.
It's a beautiful sunny day. We hope the border with Rwanda stays open until we leave. If not, I'll be adding Uganda to my itinerary.
We are still safe because we're not Pakistani, Congolese, or Rwandan. Now that's what I call white privilege my friends!.
So if the troops from Kinshasa get here, the party in power, which is allied with Rwanda, is going to strip the down bare and burn it to the ground. That's what people say here, in any case. I like the fact that we have access to a motor boat and everything, but I still hope we won't have to use it to escape.
Can't wait to see y'all again.
Ordre de Mission
We are back safe and sound from Masisi, having apparently escaped the pincers of two opposing armies marching on the territory from opposite directions for a showdown. Or so the rumor goes. All I know is, we were running late and got a flat tire on the way back about ten minutes from Goma as darkness was beginning to fall. Mama Jeanne called Lyn, who in the cell phone static misheard the word "ambush" and was seriously concerned. We knew nothing of this; I was only scared later when Jo, who came to DOCS to meet us, told us he had phoned the governor and was ready to come extract us with a military team headed by someone named "Second Death."
It was quite mission. BJ, who was grumpy with a case of Leopold's revenge but managed to stay hermetic despite the bumpy road, kept turning to me periodically and saying "hey Lou, we're going into a war zone to rescue rape vicitms." I found that funny and was just spacing out, smoking cigarettes and enjoying the scenery while Nelson did all the work. Also funny was Nelson hanging out of the bus filming scenic views while showing serious asscrack views to the women passengers. Mama Jeanne was on her game all day, giving dap and saying something in greeting that sounded suspiciously like "Yo!" to various rescued orphans, pauper pastors, and local bureaucrats. In bed last night Masisi was streaming in my mind in a strange and psychedelic way... I was having visions of women carrying heavy loads on their heads across plunging roadsides, goats jumping out of our path, shepherd boys chewing grass in peaceful meadows, of stern stares, smiles, and a soldier who came begging to the window, his gun drooping pathetically at his side.
Nelson has gone to Kigali after a laying on of hands by the Assembly of God...
Send me money, because I'm strapped, and I'll bring you ivory toothpicks and Livingston fetish dolls. I know a guy who can get a bucket of grenades for a ten spot.
Baby give your trust to me...
In case the last thing I posted got lost, an update...
Goma is calm, but as Jo said, "the peace of terror is not peace." Something may well happen here, but it's unlikely. If it did, though, it would be big. So I think we'll be out of here just in time. Nevertheless "War" just means a spike in the intensity of the area's perpetual war.
We are off to Masisi this morning, or as I call it, "land of a sixth war waiting to happen." Five wars since 1993, hundreds of thousands killed, and an epidemic of rape as a war weapon. We'll see if we can spot any Rwandans cleaning out Interhamwe spider holes, though according to Rwanda they were here and now they're gone. I am officially French today and the others are Canadian. We are taking two cars, one DOCS SUV and one minibus to be filled with Masisi patients coming to DOCS. Nelson has the hidden camera set up and the patients here are preparing a sung welcome for the new arrivals. We have two cases of Fanta and some bread, the cameras are charged up, and the rest is in the hands of Mama Jeanne and hopefully not the Mai-Mai militas.
Nelson is leaving tomorrow, which means the end of our work, or so it seems to me. I can't imagine having accomplished anything here without him, and in fact I consider myself his assistant. In the past week he has made great strides with the patients, letting the women use his camera to film each other and then having a screening of what they shot. Sort of mind-bending (kids will wave at themselves
waving on screen). I think this kind of thing will make our film. Nelson's been living with Phil Masles and has the verite thing down. I wanted to turn everything into an episode of "Frontline." I'm glad he won.
We shot a music video for "Wanted G2K" at club Bobongo yesterday instead of going to church. Hi-larious, and this time I made BJ take my role as the perfidious white man (I don't want to be typecast). These things are going to be on Congolese TV which also makes my mind reel.
Before we go, interviews with the U.N. and the Pole Institute (www.pole-institute.org), a wonderful local think tank. A week and counting, and I don't know how we're going to finish all this. Back in NYC it will be 100+ hours of tape, a lot in Swahili and the rest in French, to start editing. Got to get it done in time for Sundance if not
Congolese quote of the day: "The life expectancy in Congo is 24 hours, renewable."
Apparently it's easier to figure out what's happening in the Congo-Rwanda border region from Johannesburg
than from the Congo-Rwanda border region. Oh, my bad, NYT.
I'm working on something for the IHT and the pressure is on. To the wire, to the limit la la laaaaa...
You know I'm loving this. Goma is like a second home now. The blue Pajero gets thumbs up all over town. Yesterday we got stopped by the police... they wanted a ride down the street.
Tonight I'm going to the weekly U.N. security briefing for expats. Will report further. As for the war, it's happening, but Goma is safe, firefight-free and the border is staying open. It's hard to figure out exactly what's going on, to tell you the truth, but we aren't being foolish. A week and a half to go. Peace.
This is an article from January, but here is
Mama Jeanne on the BBC
. The reporter seems to have been on our turf. i talked to Dr. Ahuka about it; of course the reporter promised to tell him about it, but never sent him the article. Journalists.
Kagame's boys cross over
The rwandan army has crossed into Congo at rutshuru, in small but signifigant numbers, 80 miles north of Goma.
For the documentary, Nelson and BJ insist that we must return to Masisi, those verdant heights, to capture our subject matter at its source and in depth. The last trip was short because of security constraints. it's a miracle we could even go at all, and this time we might be pushing our luck. A war is starting. it's not that the rwandans are up there-- in fact, the rwandan army, being relatively disciplined and salaried, is no trouble. The mai-mai militias and the interhamwe (exiled hutu killerz) are the problem. The rwandans are gunning for them, they are rag-tag as all hell, and they think all foreigners (especially americans and british) are spies. And when the war rumors fly, trigger fingers limber up.
But we rely on our guides to give us the clearance. in any case, they have camembert up there! you couldn't keep me away. And Hutu death squads love French nationals thanks to operation Licorne back in 94, when French troops blocked the tutsi advance, extending the genocide by a couple of weeks. the Interhamwe is still misty-eyed over that one. [That should be Operation Turquoise. Licorne was the botched mission to Ivory Coast last year. --Ed.]
Speaking of a slight problem or a large one-- we have been doggedly filming women in the most sensitive possible situations. it occurs to us at this point that we may face some serious questions about consent when we return. we are covering our legal bases, but the larger ethical question remains... the fact is that village women who have never watched television, who we are bribing with unrefined sugar and body soap, could consent to pretty much anything. to white men in the company of doctors, even if we are careful to ask.
i knew the line between journalism and exploitation was fine, but it is horribly uncomfortable to live out. we have now filmed two patients days before their deaths. we filmed one woman's funeral procession.
but we are doing our best. i hope the product justifies the method.