A New Year in Congo

So it’s a new year here in Congo (well relatively speaking).  For me it’s about time to look back on the year that I’ve spent in Africa.  I remember that it was a few months before I came that I talked to someone who had spent a year flying for Air Serv here in Africa and was told that, “It was the hardest, best year of my life.”  I suppose that made sense to me at the time.  I guess it might make at least a little more sense to me now.  

I started looking back on the year a few weeks ago.  When I came to the DRC almost a year ago, I could see a glimmer of hope here.  In the east, rebel forces and the government had signed a peace treaty and the fighting had more or less stopped.  There were still hundreds of thousands of people living in camps, but the hope was that with the newfound peace they would soon be able to start moving home little by little.  In Kinshasa, new apartment buildings were being built.  The streets were still filthy and the traffic lights still didn’t work, but there seemed to be some progress being made.  The best progress seemed to be happening in the south.  Lubumbashi was a boomtown with all the money coming in from the mines.  

Now a year later, war has broken out all over the northeast of the country.  Many of the IDP (internally displaced people) camps have more than doubled in size and thousands of people are dying in them every day from disease and other causes every day.  The people that survive frequently have what little they have taken from them at gunpoint by soldiers.  It takes a special kind of person to point a rifle at someone with next to nothing and demand whatever else they have.  I suppose that sort of person has been at work in this country since the days of King Leopold II of Belgium when families were taken hostage to force men to trek into the jungle and bring back a ransom of rubber.  

Soldiers from Rwanda have crossed the border supposedly working together with Congolese government troops to root out the Hutu rebels that have been in the North Kivu region ever since they fled Rwanda after the genocide.  This particular group is largely made up of the militias that went door to door in 1994 killing Tutsis and even Hutus that didn’t get with the program.  When Tutsis gained control of Rwanda, many of the Hutus fled the country fearing criminal prosecution or death.  Many of the Rwandan Hutus took up residence in various refugee camps in the North Kivu area.  In these camps the FDLR were protected and fed while they continued their insurgency into Rwanda.  (There’s a moral dilemma for you: do you feed the camp knowing that it will support rebel soldiers or let people starve?).   This and other things lead to the Congo wars which killed 5-6 million people.  The genocide that killed nearly one million in Rwanda has, in a way, killed six times that many here in Congo.  So the story goes.  

Lubumbashi and the surrounding areas have recently been hit hard by the falling prices of the metals that are mined there.  Something like 80% of the mines have been shut down because of the falling prices.  The resulting unemployment threatens to destroy all of the progress that has been made in the province.  There have been rumors of soldiers entering homes looking for Tutsis and questioning any that are found.  I suppose the motivation for this might be revenge or just a bit of paranoia as the main rebel group in the north of the country are claiming the protection of Tutsis in Congo as their cause.  

Right now, there are about 17,000 UN “peacekeepers” with talks of a “troop surge” of  3000 more (I guess the UN liked that term too) plus many thousands from other humanitarian and charity groups at work in the country.  What is probably the largest humanitarian force in the world is here in DRC and yet things have spiraled out of control in the last year.  If all that is working here can’t even maintain the situation, it almost forces you to question what the point of trying is.  I know I have allowed that question to float around in my own mind.

Anyone coming to do anything like I have done over this last year has to know that it’s unlikely that many direct results will ever be seen.  We get the occasional “thank you” as people exit the plane, but that’s just the same as thanking someone for a ride rather than having changed their life.  Sure there flights now and then like flying a family that had survived a plane crash with their three year old boy in a body cast and the occasional flying of women that have been brutally raped by soldiers to get life changing surgery, but those, at least for me have been the exception rather than the rule.  

It may seem to some that leaving the comfort and security of home to come live in a war torn country in central Africa is a huge sacrifice.  The reality is that it’s not.  Some have been offended when our local staff or others don’t seem grateful for an American coming to “save their country”.  It’s easy to see why once recognizing the luxury of  how we live relative to most others in the country.  I suppose it would be a bit like if Bill Gates took up residence in a Beverly Hills mansion so he could work at the LA Mission or something.  Maybe it’s a lot like that.  Except for slightly less freedom of movement compared to what most are used to back home, we really do live quite well here as humanitarian pilots.  You just can’t jump in your car at any hour and drive to McDonald’s for “food” (that’s probably a good thing though).  

It has been said that all non-Africans come here either to make a difference or to make a buck.  Even after spending a year here, I often struggle to see how effective either of those two groups are.  There are people who make huge impacts on lives here and those who have made a lot of money here also.  More often than not though, it can see like a futile enterprise.  That can be heartbreaking to someone who is trying to gain praise or fame for their efforts.  If you have the peace of knowing that what you are doing is what you are meant to be doing, the apparent futility, anonymity and all of the frustrations that go along with the task won’t matter.   The fact that it might seem impossible or to be just a drop in the proverbial bucket is no excuse to not at least try to do what you know to be the right thing.  

“If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself.”

-C.S. Lewis


5 Responses to “A New Year in Congo”

  1. Laura Says:

    I know which it is you are there to do. It is obvious that you are just trying to help in the little way that you can, and who knows what kind of impact you’ve made on the people there. If you have made a difference in the eyes of one person the effects could be far-reaching. I love reading your accounts – they are so thoughtful and thought-provoking for me. Stay safe.

  2. mormor Says:

    Patrick, after reading your blog, I feel so proud to be your “mormor”…the way you have done your job there, your deep feeling for the people that you have touch daily, your sense of duty to your job and the friends that you have made during the year in Africa. I know that you have left “footprints” over there, and now that you are embarking on a new Phase…. I pray that God will direct your steps according to His plan for your life.

    Love, Mormor

  3. MOM Says:

    Good Job, Patrick!!!
    I am so proud of you!!

    Have fun on your next adventure and welcome HOME!


  4. Alfred Says:

    Hi Patrick,

    It is really refreshing to read about your experiences.

    May God continually be with you and guide you through the valleys, plains and pastures!!!


  5. harry0212 Says:

    Congo is exotic land!! God bless congo.

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