Archive for October, 2008


October 30, 2008

I had a vision in my head of what an evacuation from Goma would be like.  It would be dramatic.  There would be a mad dash to the airport with a convoy of blue Land Cruisers.  When we got to the airport, bombs would be going off and soldiers would be shooting in all directions.  Mobs of people would be begging to get on the planes.  The planes would all be loaded beyond their normal peacetime limits but we would still takeoff without any problems.  We would heroically make several trips through the maelstrom, each time lifting another plane load of grateful aid workers out of the carnage until the airport was overrun by rebels or lava or whatever the cause for the evacuation was. 

Now I will attempt to describe how the evacuation actually went.  Rebel soldiers had been steadily working their way towards Goma with FARDC (government) and UN soldiers retreating ahead of them.  Neither the 6,000 or so UN soldiers based in the area nor the 20,000 FARDC soldiers have been able to block the advance of 4,000-5,000 strong CNDP army lead by General Nkunda.  Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes since this latest advance.  People have blamed the UN for not being able to protect the people in the cities to the north and in the IDP camps and have been holding protests in front of the various UN locations in Goma. 

Throughout the day we had been getting conflicting reports about where the rebels were in relation to Goma.  The one thing that we did know was that they were getting closer and closer.  The main road between our house and the airport was blocked by protesters and roadblocks and we weren’t sure how long the back road would be open.  We got the call at about 2:45pm telling us to pack and be ready to leave for the airport by 3:30.  At that point, the plan was just to get the planes fueled and ready to go in case we actually needed to leave.  The national staff members at our house started to get concerned when we all came out of our rooms in our uniforms so late in the day.  They asked if we were leaving and I had to say that I didn’t know.  I think most of us expected to be back at the house that night for dinner. 

We all piled into one Land Cruiser along with our go-bags and headed out.  There were a lot of concerned faces along the side of the road as we made our way to the airport.  I am sure that most of them knew more about what was happening than we did.  I think a lot of them knew that we were leaving town.  It was a terrible feeling to be abandoning Goma.  Or even just getting ready to abandon Goma.  Cowardice leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. 

When we finally got to the airport, things were quiet.  Very quiet.  I’ve never seen the Goma airport that dead.  Even the planes that fly between Walikale and Goma all day long moving the coltan ore were parked and silent.  There were no explosions to be heard, no gunshots, no panicking mobs of aid workers trying their hardest to get on the planes, just an eerily silent ramp.  We loaded our things along with some boxes of documents into the planes and waited.  Only the occasional UN gunship broke the silence as it headed up to the front lines to bomb the banana plantations that the rebels were marching through. 

When we actually left, it was completely without ceremony.  I could barely take the betrayed looks on the faces of our staff at the airport.  For them, it was nothing new.  I think they have become used to being abandoned.  They have survived several wars and have no doubt seen the expats running away at the first sign of trouble many times before.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so weak and powerless as I did the day we ran away from Goma. 


Pays des Mille Collines

October 25, 2008

“Land of a thousand hills”.  It’s easy to see where that title comes from without spending too long in Rwanda.  The road between Goma and Kigali was lined with Eucalyptus trees and takes a serpentine route over hills, mountains and between volcanoes, through villages and towns.

Kigali itself is a relatively modern city.  The streets are clean and well maintained.  I guess most cities would seem that way compared to what I’ve become used to in Kinshasa and Goma.  While eating in a café in the mall and enjoying a nice cup of coffee, I almost forgot where I was.  There were more Mzungus in that café than I’ve seen in one place since coming to Africa.  It felt weird. 

The weird feeling didn’t end with the café and shopping mall.  Since there aren’t a lot of opportunities to walk around in Goma, we spent a lot of the time walking around the city.  It wasn’t too hot or cold which made it nice to walk along the streets that were lined with jacaranda trees heavy with their purple-blue flowers just like the ones that would stick to the windshield wipers of my car back home.  While out exploring the city on foot we came across this place:

Hotel Des Mille Collines.  Hotel Rwanda.  The actual hotel that the movie was based on.  I expected there to be a large statue or something to commemorate the site, but that was it.  Just a regular hotel now.  I suppose that it might be only unusual as it served as the focal point of a movie. 

Standing there staring at the sign it was like I was transported into the movie that made me cry sad and angry tears when I first saw it.  I could hear members of the Interahamwe (translated from Kinyarwanda: “Those who stand together”) sharpening their machetes on the ground and yelling as they waved their clubs angrily in the air.  Not far away there stood a beautiful stone church that was in a state of disrepair.  Was that one of the churches where Tutsis tried to find sanctuary only to be barricaded in and killed with hand grenades that were distributed by the militias for the purpose?  A chill ran down my spine as I snapped back to reality looking at the trampled jacaranda flowers on the ground. 

Later in the day we went to the genocide memorial museum.  The museum itself was surrounded by mass graves that held the remains of some 250,000 Tutsis (and moderate Hutus that refused to participate in the killing).  The numbers are staggering.  The museum explained the history of the country and its people.  It also told about Europeans who colonized the land and categorized the people like animals in a game park.  The differences between Hutu and Tutsi were exaggerated if not created by the German and later Belgian colonizers.  The exhibits laid out matter-of-factly the events and circumstances leading up to genocide. 

The thing that angered me the most was how killing was virtually ignored by the outside world until it was over.  The UN commander in Rwanda at the time saw the situation building and requested five thousand peacekeepers with a mandate that would actually let them do their job.  He estimated that such a small number of properly trained and equipped soldiers would be able to stop the militias that were largely armed with machetes and clubs.  This request was denied and ignored.  In one case a group of UN soldiers was protecting Tutsis that had taken refuge in a school.  They were ordered to leave and only evacuate the expatriates (translated: whites).  As soon as the UN convoy left the Interahamwe militants that were standing outside came in and killed everyone.  Someone made a movie about that too. 

In the three months that the genocide lasted, somewhere between 800,000 and 1,000,000 were killed.  Three months was how long it took the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi militia led by the current president) to break out of their camps and take control of Kigali. 

Could the genocide have been stopped if the outside world too action, if the UN wasn’t afraid to act, if the US had given the 50 or so armored personnel carriers rather than squabbling over price for months? 

“The ones that know don’t care, the ones that care don’t know.”  Maybe that was true of the outside world then. 

Signs like this were all over:

I am told it says something like: “Let’s fight together against the genocide ideology of ethnic and regional division and eradicate it.”


The effects of the Rwandan genocide didn’t end when the killing stopped there.  Millions of Hutus fled Rwanda, largely into Congo.  Hutu militias used refugee camps as bases of operation to attack Rwanda.  This and other factors led to the Congo wars the second of which was known as Africa’s World War or the Great War of Africa and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 5.4 million people.  The current problems in eastern Congo involve a lot of the same groups. 

I think every humanitarian hopes and prays for peace and stability, for the day when we are no longer needed there.  I know I do.

Jinja Part Two

October 21, 2008

Jinja is a lot of fun for more reasons than just the amazing whitewater near there.  The place seems to attract a lot of unusual and interesting people.  I suppose the African continent itself tends to draw the more adventurous, but the people I met in Jinja seem to be a bit more so. 

The Swedes that we shared the raft with had been on quite an adventure.  Before they took off on their adventure, he had been a stockbroker and she a prison guard.  They quit their jobs and have been driving across Africa in their Land Rover.  It was a pretty good setup that they had.  A tent folded out of the roof with a ladder that folded out and doubled as a stilt to hold the half of the tent that cantilevered out beyond the back of the truck. 

The most unusual person I met when I was out there was this German guy who for some reason decided to ride his bike (bicycle, not motorcycle) from Munich to Cape Town all by himself.  He has been on the road for over a year and still has a ways to go.  On his way down, he pedaled through Turkey but got stuck at the border with Syria.  They wouldn’t let him in.  After a few days of trying to convince them, he gave up and detoured back through Turkey and down through Greece where he got on a ship to Egypt.  That’s what I call a detour.  He had a police escort all the way through Egypt to the border with Sudan.  He said that the people in Sudan were very friendly feeding him and letting him stay in their homes.  When he got to Ethiopia, things changed.  People threw rocks at him, “stone-hail” as he called it, and were generally hostile.  The Swedes had a similar experience between the two countries. 

The day after rafting it was time to explore around Jinja a bit.  We walked to a village that was nearby the place we were staying.  Before too long we were surrounded by a dozen or so kids that were tagging along asking for “sweeties”.  Several villagers came out to meet us and offer to be our guides.  By that time it was getting a bit hot and the sun a bit powerful, so we headed back to the campsite and caught a ride towards the source of the Nile. 

Here is the way to The Source of the Nile brought to you by Bell Lager:

Near the source of the Nile there was a bunch of shops and tourist traps along with a statue of Ghandi.  Apparently some of his ashes were scattered in the Nile. 

From near there we got on a boat along with two guys from Nepal.  The one Nepalese guy had lived in Uganda for ten years working for the UN and the other was his nephew that was visiting him.  The first man shocked some of the fishermen when he spoke to them in Luganda.  The boat took us up into Lake Victoria and to a post that was supposed to be “mile marker zero” of the Nile River.

After the boat trip we managed to find a bus back to Kampala where we managed to get pretty lost for a little while.  Eventually we made it to the taxi park where we found the mini-bus back to Entebbe where Chinese food was waiting. 

Jinja Part One

October 8, 2008

It was time for another R&R for me and whitewater rafting at the source of the White Nile seemed like a very good idea.  I got a ride to Kigali with the Air Serv car and then flew from there to Entebbe.  I met up with my friend Julia from Goma the next day in Entebbe.  She just finished a six month contract with another NGO and figured a little rafting detour on the way back to England would be a good idea. 

In order to get to Jinja, we took a mini-bus taxi (public transportation, more or less) from Entebbe to Kampala, a motorcycle-taxi across Kampala a bigger bus from Kampala to Jinja and then the back of a truck that they use to transport the rafts to get to the campsite.  It took about five hours and cost the equivalent of about four dollars to travel the 150km or so from the Air Serv house in Entebbe to the Nile River Explorers Campsite in Jinja. 

The campsite is up on top of a bit of a cliff looking down on the river a couple hundred feet below.  The view was amazing.  We will raft the next day.

In the morning we pile back in the truck along with a bunch of other future rafters and head over to another place where we’ll get breakfast and meet our guides.  After breakfast, we get a bit of a briefing about what we were getting ourselves into and then were fitted with helmets and life jackets.  Once all geared up we all pile back into the truck and head to put in the river just below the dam.  In our boat there are five plus the guide.  Out of the six in the boat we came from five different countries: US, UK, two from Sweden, one from Australia and our guide who I think was actually from Zambia. 

The river was relatively calm for a while after putting the boat in.  That gave our guide a chance to teach us a few things.  He would tell us, “Paddle forward!” and we would.  “Back-paddle left!” and those of us on the left of the boat would paddle backwards causing the boat to spin.  “You will tell from the urgency of my voice how hard you must paddle.”  I suppose that made sense. 

“If… when the boat flips, take a deep breath because you will go under the water.  It will be like being inside a washing machine.  Do not panic as the life jacket will bring you to the surface and then you will see a safety kayaker over you.  He will look like Jesus in a kayak.  Don’t worry if you lose your paddle as they will pick them up.”

A few nervous chuckles ensued.  We practiced flipping the boat, swam through a small rapid and then turned the boat back over and got back in. 

Up ahead the river appeared to disappear and there was an ominous roar coming from where the river dropped away.  The oar boat went down the rapid first, then the safety kayakers, then another raft, and then it was our turn.  “Paddle forward!  Harder!! Back-paddle left!! OK!  GET DOWN!! HOLD ON!!!”

We jump down off of the sides of the boat and crouch facing the tube and hanging on to the rope along the side.  The first wave we hit grabbed the nose of the boat twisting it 90 degrees to the next wave which then seemed to pick up the boat, turn it over, and proceeded to shake it until all of its contents were in the river.  When my head pops back to the surface a few seconds later I look back to see our upside-down boat and my fellow rafters floating nearby.  By the time I was back to the boat, it was right-side-up again and a couple of people were already inside.  I thought to myself that this was going to be a long day and didn’t want to ask the guide what class of rapid that was.  Our boat was the only one of the boats that flipped on that rapid.  I think it was good that we flipped on the first rapid because then we didn’t have to wonder what it would be like to get tossed out and swim through a class 5 rapid anymore. 

This is what it looks like before a raft flips. 

We made it down all of the rest of the rapids unscathed that morning.  After one rapid we had 12 people in our raft from other rafts that had flipped over. 

In the middle of the day the river was relatively calm.  We had lunch on the river that they had packed in sealed boxes on the oar boat.  It was relaxing.  Swimming in the river and applying copious amounts of SPF50 to our Mzungu skin. 

After the break, it was time for more rapids.  As we headed towards one of them, our guide starts telling us that there is a “standing wave” on this rapid that sometimes flips boats.  “If anyone doesn’t want this, we might be able to avoid it.”  We answer almost in unison, “let’s do it!”

“If things don’t… go as planned, swim to the left towards the island.  Helmets, check!  Life-jackets, check!  Just remember, swim to the left.  Paddle forward!  Back-paddle right!  Paddle forward!!  Harder!!! Paddle!!!  OK, GET DOWN!!! HOLD ON!!!”

I didn’t see much of a wave ahead, but before I knew it, the boat was upside down and we were in the water.  I pop to the surface a little bit later and Julia appears not to far away with a kayak behind her.  She grabbed the front of the kayak and I got on the back.  We are deposited on the island while the kayaker went back for some more people.  When we all got back in the boat we discussed how we were all surprised how the rapid wasn’t bad, but somehow we flipped anyway.  Gus the Swede said, “yeah, that’s because that’s where the guides flip the boats for the camera.”  I looked back to see a sly grin on our guide’s face. 

The next rapid is class 6 – too big for a raft to do safely.  We take the raft out and carry it over the hill and put back in after the class 6 section.  The rest is class 5.  One section of that rapid was affectionately known as “the bad place”.  When we hit “the bad place”, George the Australian was vaulted over the boat into the water.  The rest of us managed to stay in the boat, even though we were all scrambled around in different places of the boat. 

After rafting we pile back in the truck with the boats behind and drive back to the campsite while listening to choruses of Ugandan children shouting, “Mzungu, Mzungu!!! Give!! Give!!!”  Back at the campsite there was a big BBQ prepared waiting for us.  We sat around the tables looking down at the river we just braved in a daze eating good food.  It was a good day.