Congo’s Daily Blood: Ruminations from a failed state

Bryan Mealer – Harper’s

Copyright Harper’s Magazine, April 2006
On some nights Dave and I would sit around over beers and discuss the
depression, how living alone on this river, in this steaming mess of a
city, made you forget you had the power to leave. The crumbled roads out of
town only led to other choking cities with little to offer, or simply
turned wild and melted back into the bush. The red-eye to Europe lifted off
every night but never truly took you away. The key to maintaining your
sanity in this place was to get out whenever possible, and most of the
mundeles did. Congo’s plentitude of horror and paranoia was the burden we
chose to drag behind us, for that was our job. But when you stayed too
long, you left yourself open, allowing the ghosts, rumors, and scary sounds
that inhabit the rainy nights to climb up your neck.
As wire-agency reporters based in Kinshasa, Dave and I agreed that busy
weeks saved us from this unhappy end. You get one or two stories in the
morning and ride the wave through the afternoon, just in time for
sundowners or a hearty dinner to put you off to bed. Slow weeks lifted the
shield and left you suddenly vulnerable, pacing your bedroom with all the
murders, disease, and gross mutilation of the past weeks stirring around in
the air-conditioning, struggling to make sense of themselves. The
depression made you paranoid and suspicious, made you more susceptible to
the fevers and myriad pestilence that crawled out of the earth. It kept you
out at degenerate nightclubs until the sun rose over the palms, and it was
on one of these nights that we found ourselves in the VIP Saloon.
The bar was just off Kinshasa’s main boulevard, and it was usually filled
by midnight with shifty Lebanese diamond dealers, French and Belgian
mercenaries, and the few Congolese who could afford the $5 beers and sodas.
We ordered two bottles of local Skol at the long, lamp-lit bar and stared
out onto the floor, where long-legged Congolese prostitutes in miniskirts
and flame-red boots watched themselves dance in the wall of mirrors. The
Euro pop on the speakers was loud and monotonous but punchy enough to lift
us from our doldrums.
We’d suffered four days with no stories, and neither of us had really left
our apartment. We’d enjoyed a nice run before hitting the current slump. In
mid-March, United Nations humanitarian chief Jan Egeland had announced that
Congo had become “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” a disaster that
was being virtually ignored by the rest of the world.
Dave and I took this as fantastic news, because it meant we’d somehow edged
out the tsunami in Asia and the genocide in Sudan in terms of absolute
misery. The announcement did wonders for getting my stories printed in
American papers. If the story had a heady lead of cannibalism, endangered
gorillas, or little girls being raped with machetes, then it might have big
enough wings to survive its journey across the Atlantic. Everything else
was like punting in a hailstorm. Stories left the desk and crashed straight
into a watery grave, where a half-century of dispatches of bothersome
African despair boils at the bottom.
But now our moment had passed once again, and we were left restless and manic.
Across the bar at VIP, a group of Belgian businessmen sipped J&B while bar
girls sat like smiling mannequins in their laps. Two Germans stood in the
far comer, twitchy and bug-eyed, taking turns doing bumps of cocaine in the
Dave had just returned from an assignment across the river in
Congo-Brazzaville, where notorious Ninja rebels had ambushed his convoy. No
one had been hurt, but a dope-crazed Ninja had jumped into Dave’s truck,
held two grenades to his head, and stolen his cherished jungle boots.
“Two grenades in one hand, and a bloody joint between his fingers,” he
howled, demonstrating with a cigarette. We laughed about it now over beers.
Sometimes even the most rotten assignments seemed like holidays once we got
back to Kinshasa.
“The U.N.’s saying the Mai Mai are sporting fetuses around their necks,” he
“Oh, lovely. I hear the Lendu wear human kidneys on their bandoliers. I
think I saw it once.”
“I say we round up a few for Fashion Week, mate. Do they allow Kalashnikovs
on the runway?”
It was our usual banter, tasteless and maybe a little too loud. But
something about it must’ve struck a nerve in Dave, who went quiet for a
minute, then said: “I haven’t written one story in six months where someone
didn’t die.”
“Same here,” I answered. “I’m thinking of counting all the dead people in
mine. I wonder how many I’ll get.”
You could never count all of Congo’s dead, the way they kept piling up. The
country is slowly emerging from a five-year war that has killed 4 million
people, mostly from war-induced sickness and hunger, and aid groups
estimate 1,200 people still die every day. The war drew in seven African
armies at its peak, and helped create and maintain tens of thousands of
militiamen who still live by the gun, killing and maiming at will. The
militias have all but commandeered the eastern half of the country–rich in
timber, gold, diamonds, and coltan–which they’ve divided into personal
fiefdoms at the expense of the population.
Near the eastern border with Rwanda, packs of Hutu rebels survive in the
forests only by looting. These rebels, who fled into Congo after
participating in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, control huge swaths of jungle too
dangerous for U.N. and Congolese soldiers to police. They carry out regular
massacres and are known for rounding up a village’s women and gang-raping
them while family members are forced to watch. Farther north, near the
Ugandan border, other militias simply exterminate everything alive, then
loot and burn what’s left. Often these militias butcher the dead on the
battle floor and feast on hearts and livers, both as ceremony and as a
tactic of cold intimidation. Its effectiveness is superb.
Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert knew all of this too well, and more. He sat in
the posh, flower-decked bar of a hotel in Bukavu, the eastern city on the
Rwandan border that had become the U.N.’s command post in dealing with the
Hutu rebels. The Dutch general was in charge of more than 14,000
peacekeepers in eastern Congo, stretching from the Ugandan border to the
southern province of Katanga, and there was never a moment when his command
wasn’t hot.
It was early June, and Cammaert had just returned from the dense forests of
the South Kivu territory, where Hutu rebels had just sliced up the village
of Nindja, hacking off the hands and feet of their victims and removing
their kidneys. The Hutu had been assisted by Rasta gunmen, an even more
macabre band of killers consisting of Mai Mai militia, Hutu, and renegade
Congolese soldiers. During the raid, Rastas had kidnapped fifty young
girls, who were most likely taken to mountain camps and raped day after day
before being left for dead. Panicked villagers had fled into the mountains,
where many were likely to die from exposure and disease. The general was
trying to decide whether to send troops into the jungles to protect the
population and how to keep his men from being ambushed.
The general removed his blue beret and rubbed his temples. He’d toured the
scene of the killings. “The brutality, it’s beyond comprehension,” he said,
the words trailing off. “Innocent kids, two years old, just beaten to pulp.”
No one at the U.N. had any idea how deep the evil ran in the jungles. The
tiny U.N. mission that began in 1999 with 90 staffers observing a rebel
cease-fire had since grown by sheer necessity to encompass much of the
country’s infrastructure. Congo is now the U.N.’s largest, most expensive
mission, with 16,700 peacekeepers and a combined annual budget of nearly $2
billion. Congo’s peacekeepers, along with U.N. agencies, have been saddled
with trying to eradicate some 20,000 militiamen in the east, while at the
same time trying to assist more than 2 million people displaced as a result
of war and the ongoing raids. More recently, they’ve attempted to midwife a
democracy by arranging elections in a country three times the size of
Texas, a country lacking roads, electricity, telephones, and local
governments. Battling the various militias while planning elections in
Congo has unexpectedly become the single most ambitious project the world
body has undertaken in its sixty-one-year history.
What was heavy on the general’s mind that night in Bukavu was how to purge
10,000 Hutu and Rasta fighters from the east, a mandatory assignment before
elections could take place. Cammaert had already lost twelve peacekeepers
in combat in the northeastern hills this year, and there the terrain was
wide open and ideal for open-ended assaults. The mountains and jungles near
Rwanda were an altogether different war zone, where the probability for
ambush was extremely high. But the general had just pulled a brilliant
maneuver, convincing the U.N. brass to bring in units of Guatemalan special
forces, American-trained jungle fighters who could creep through the dense
terrain to stage surgical strikes on unsuspecting Hutu. Once the rebels
were flushed into open territory, MI-25 attack helicopters could dispatch
It was certainly one of the most ingenious moves the U.N. had managed, but
it also was possibly one of its worst mistakes. The decorated general,
who’d just served as Kofi Annan’s top military adviser in New York, now
found himself in a lead role in Congo’s confusing nightmare. And Cammaert
had his own bad dream, the one in which he’s the U.N. commander in the
world’s next Mogadishu. “I’m losing sleep,” he said, staring off into
nothing. “I can’t stop thinking about those forests.”
Nowhere has the mettle of U.N. peacekeepers been tested more than in
northeast Ituri province, where raids and fighting between ethnic Hema and
Lendu militias have killed more than 60,000 people since 1999. Trained and
armed by both Uganda and Rwanda during Congo’s war, the two militias
routinely battle for control over lucrative trade routes across Lake Albert
and for concessions on area gold mines. Over the years, Ituri, like the
rest of eastern Congo, has become the gun dump of the world, with foreign
businessmen funneling Cold War–era weapons and heavy artillery to militia
leaders through Uganda.
On February 25, 2005, near a tiny village called Kafe, a gang of Lendu
militiamen ambushed a foot patrol of Bangladeshi peacekeepers and killed
nine. During the well-coordinated attack, the other peacekeepers fled the
scene, and the Lendu stripped the dead U.N. soldiers’ uniforms and
equipment. The peacekeepers had been sent to Kafe–part of a vast,
hill-swept territory called Djugu–in late January to protect more than
100,000 people who’d fled battles between Hema and Lendu fighters over
taxation rights to the nearby lake. The Lendu staged a series of looting
raids on Hema villages, punctuating their attacks by burning down homes and
even eating some of the dead. The villagers, who’d managed harrowing
escapes from these attacks, walked dozens of miles to four separate camps
in the remote hills, and once there started dying by the hundreds from
cholera, dysentery, and measles.
In late March, I boarded a U.N. flight for Bunia, the capital of the Ituri
province and headquarters for the 5,000-strong U.N. Ituri Brigade. One week
after the ambush, peacekeepers gunned down some sixty Lendu fighters using
armored vehicles and MI-25 attack helicopters. The assault was led by
Pakistani ground troops, hardened from battling Al Qaeda in the mountains
of Pakistan, and assisted by Indian helicopter pilots. Locked in a
years-long face-off on their own borders, the two armies now combined to
create a rolling killing machine along the bloody hills of eastern Congo.
A rush of cold nostalgia settled in my chest when I stepped off the plane
at the Bunia airport. I’d come here for the first time in April 2003, as a
freelancer, to cover a massacre by Lendu militia in the distant hills, only
to be caught in another killing spree right here in town. I’d stayed in
Bunia close to a month while the Ugandan army prepared to withdraw after
five years of fighting their war. During those weeks, the Lendu and Hema
battled the army daily with mortars and heavy machine guns, waiting to
ravage the town once the troops had gone. I’d been caught in some fierce
gunfights on these dusty streets and experienced mortal fear for the first
time in my life. During that time, only a few hundred U.N. peacekeepers
were in Bunia, and their mandate forbade them from protecting civilians.
Just when it was almost too late, I’d managed to evacuate myself on the
last Ugandan plane out of Congo, and that night the town fell. I returned
nine days later to find the town in ruins and controlled by drunken child
soldiers. Mangled bodies littered the streets and rotted in the equatorial
sun, and every morning I watched as they were torn apart by wild dogs.
Friends and contacts had disappeared or been killed. Nothing was the same
in Bunia, and since then nothing has really been the same for me.
I left Africa several months later. Five hundred people had been
slaughtered that week, and the U.N. had done nothing. Bunia had been a blip
on the news radar, and back in New York no one seemed to know anything
about it. For a year I sat with those faces, the bloated bodies, the dogs,
and the smell, and never gave them a good reason for dying. All the
gangsterism and hatred became tangled into a question I couldn’t resolve.
So when I was offered a job as Congo correspondent for the Associated
Press, I took it, hoping that maybe I’d come to understand what I’d missed
before. I wasn’t out to change anything, I wasn’t that pompous. But it had
been my story, it was now part of me, and I had to bring the terrible tale
to a conclusion that at least made some kind of sense.
Bunia had been drastically transformed since I’d seen it last. The U.N.
mission had tripled in size, and there were no longer any teenage soldiers,
in wigs and painted fingernails, prowling the streets with rocket
launchers. Several new restaurants and hotels had opened, including an
enterprising Indian joint at the Hotel Ituri that catered to Indian and
Bangladeshi troops, plus the massive influx of international press and
foreign aid workers. There was a lopsided pool table in the bar of the
Indian restaurant, and every night a dozen Italian aid workers would line
up to play two hefty Congolese girls who’d established themselves as local
sharks. The two girls played for bottles of beer, knocking back one after
another, yet they never weaved or staggered, and I never saw them Jose. The
Italian men wore their hair long and kept it clean and bouncy, even in
Bunia’s thick dust and heat. They wore tight designer jeans and pointy
leather shoes and thundered through town on silver Ducatis, which they had
shipped in from Italy. The Italian women were young and loud, and would
fall down drunk in front of tables of staring Congolese.
I was having a beer in the restaurant one night with an old friend, a
hardened U.N. logistics officer who’d been through the war, seen enough
gore to fuel a lifetime of nightmares, and had even seen arrows shot
through his truck during the siege. We watched the aid workers spilling
their drinks and running into tables. “Look what’s happened to this town,”
the officer said, his face twisted in disgust. “These kids don’t have a
fucking clue what happened here.” Bunia had also become a backwater feeding
ground for cowboy journalists looking for serious action. You’d see them at
dinner, outfitted with elaborate GPS devices and dressed in the latest
Columbia rip-away pants, talking about cannibals, gunfights, and maximum
coverage. The ones who rolled in hot from New York were the best, like a
photographer whose business cards were shaped like dog tags, metal and all.
One day he sat on the steps of his hotel smoking cigarettes, cursing a
press officer at the U.N. because she wouldn’t let him embed with
peacekeepers like he’d done in Iraq. He’d just come back from one of the
displaced camps in Djugu, where he’d photographed kids dying from cholera
and measles. “The light,” he said, “was just fantastic.”
A few days later I landed a seat on a U.N. chopper that was taking Ross
Mountain, the U.N. deputy in charge of Congo, on a tour of three of Djugu’s
camps, where more than 75,000 people now stayed. Mountain had served as
Kofi Annan’s special representative in Iraq through October 2004, before
arriving in Kinshasa in December. He was a straight-talking Kiwi who never
tried to sugarcoat the U.N.’s mistakes or bad judgment calls, and there’d
been many. Every week Mountain would take trips into the thick of Congo’s
misery to get a look for himself, and this week he’d asked to see the great
catastrophe of Ituri.
Staring down from a chopper over eastern Congo was like glimpsing a
prototype of Earth during the first days of creation. Where are all the
people? I always wondered from my high seat, usually en route to some
backwater camp where war and sickness had already claimed them before they
ever had a chance to live. The camp in Tche was located forty miles north
of Bunia amid a panorama of sweeping, green hills. About 25,000 people had
congregated in the crook of a narrow valley, which quickly became an ideal
container for disease. At least twenty kids were dropping every day from
measles and drinking dirty water, and groups like MÈdecins Sans FrontiËres
were working without sleep just to slow down the death rate. About 350
Pakistani peacekeepers were dug into the valley and had brought tons of
steel and firepower, but it wasn’t enough to stop kids wasting away from
The helicopter landing zone was on a ridgeline overlooking the camp, and as
we approached I could see that the Pakistanis had arranged some sort of
welcoming ceremony nearby for the guests. The camp had also spread up onto
the ridge, and hundreds of its ragged and desperate residents stood below
eagerly watching the helicopter land. But as we touched down, the rotor
wash from the chopper blades blew the thatched roofs off several huts and
sent a wall of red, stinging sand into the crowd. Children screamed and
scattered in all directions. The plastic tables and chairs meant for our
ceremony sailed through the air and slammed into people’s backs, knocking
them over. As the wheels bounced and settled, someone from Mountain’s
entourage shook his head and yelled, “Jesus Christ, what have we done?”
The people had returned when I stepped out of the chopper. Some now stood
pressed together behind a high wall of razor wire, while others perched in
trees, watching and waiting. The eyes stopped us dead, even after the
blades stopped spinning. We stood frozen in the awkward silence. But
Mountain broke the ice for all of us. “My God,” he gasped, walking forward,
“look at all these kids who aren’t in school.” A Pakistani colonel ferried
off Mountain and his staff, so I headed down into the camp to get my story.
Amid the haze of cooking fires and strange morning shadows, I saw Johnny
Ngure, my old translator from Bunia, who’d lived through the war and was
now a U.N. interpreter. I ran over and tackled him with a giant bear hug.
He had saved my skin several times during those bad weeks in Bunia, and I
hadn’t seen him since. I immediately enlisted him to translate Swahili for
me, and we made our way through the camp, speaking to people who’d escaped
the village raids with little but their lives. One man who still stands out
in my mind was named All Mohammed. He’d walked outside his hut in Loga just
in time to watch Lendu teenagers butcher his mother and two children with
machetes. He’d escaped by throwing himself down a mountain and tumbling to
the bottom. He was still dressed in the long, torn nightgown he’d been
wearing during the first shots of the raid, now his only material
possession. I didn’t have time for many interviews. The chopper stayed no
longer than thirty minutes in each camp, long enough for Mountain and his
staff to speak with aid workers and military personnel, get off some
snapshots, and declare that, yes, this was indeed the world’s worst
humanitarian crisis. We then climbed back into the bird, fired up the
blades, and sailed off again like a white ghost over the hills.
A week later, U.N. peacekeepers pulled out of the camps at Tche, Gina,
Tchomia, and Kafe, leaving more than 100,000 people in the hands of poorly
paid, ill-equipped Congolese soldiers, who promptly began looting the tents
as soon as the blue helmets were out of sight. A cholera epidemic had
already descended on two camps, so when hundreds of people fled the
marauding troops, many also carried their deaths with them into the tall grass.
The March operation in Loga–when peacekeepers killed around sixty
fighters–had also resulted in a number of civilian deaths, according to
villagers. Peacekeepers had taken small-arms fire as they’d approached a
crowded market and responded by pounding the market with mortars, while
gunships hovered overhead and emptied their cannons. The militia had used
the market vendors as human shields, the U.N. said, and women and children
were also seen firing guns. As with most peacekeeping operations, there was
no way to confirm the U.N.’s information. In fact, most of our days were
spent trying to decipher the official sludge that slid from under the door
of the U.N. headquarters and still remain credible. To sell the world
body’s new method of peace enforcing to the world press, the U.N. relied on
Kemal Saiki, a short, chain-smoking Algerian with a hard-on for war. Saiki
was a tough talker who routinely issued threats and ultimatums to the
militias from his air-conditioned office 900 miles away, a real Sgt.
Slaughter for the struggling blue helmets. A former spokesman for OPEC,
Saiki was better than past public information officers the U.N. had
employed. But still, when it came down to numbers and hard facts, you often
filed at your own risk.
One Friday night I’d called Saiki to follow up on a raid that had begun
that morning south of Bunia. The blue helmets were tearing down another
Lendu camp, and we knew they’d made contact.
“How many dead?” I asked.
“Eighteen casualties,” he said.
“No, I mean dead. How many militia killed?”
“Yeah, eighteen,” he said. “Eighteen fatalities.”
I ran with the story. Hours later, Dave called and said he got thirty-eight
dead, and Radio France International was reporting ten, all from different
sources within the U.N. At the weekly press conference days later, Dave and
I cornered Saiki to get an explanation.
“Look, we’re all getting different numbers,” I said. “Which is it:
eighteen, thirty-eight, or ten?”
“It’s eighteen,” he said. He then leaned in and whispered, “Look, what
really happened was the helicopter fired eighteen shots, and it got
mistaken for eighteen shot. Get me? We don’t really know.”
“But you told me eighteen,” I said.
“Yeah, or it was eighteen militia standing on the roof of a house when the
helicopter released its rockets. The roof collapsed, the people
disappeared. Boom. Eighteen.”
He pulled out a cigarette and made his way to the door.
“Why are you so obsessed with death counts?” he said. “This isn’t Vietnam.”
News of the dead came in several ways, and sometimes when you wanted it
least–two beers into the night after filing all day, or just when you
reached a restaurant and put in your order. If Dave was there, and it was
something small like a plane crash (Soviet-era Antonovs fell out of the sky
in Congo nearly weekly), we’d exchange a haggard look and start making
deals. “If you wait, I’ll wait,” we’d say, just to finish our food like
normal people. We never waited long; the desk and telephone controlled us
like tin men. But while we sat there with a mouthful of food, the dead now
among us to sort out, one of us would shoot a glance and repeat our sacred
news-grunt mantra: “If we don’t file, it doesn’t exist.”
Many reports of attacks, rapes, and massacres came through confidential
sources within the U.N., and to them from humanitarian officers, local
government officials, or residents–often those who’d escaped attacks and
then walked several days with children and festering wounds to a military
post. I had a contact within the U.N. who shuttled information to me
through instant messaging, usually blood-soaked with raunch when it flashed
my screen: Hear about the attack near Tchomia? Eighteen Hema lost their
livers. Most often the jokes came out of boredom or those dark recesses
where coping mechanisms had terribly malfunctioned after years of being in
the bad bush: Have you thought much about the huri cook-book? I have an
addition: stewed hearts of Hema in mother’s milk. Or perhaps kidney
brochettes with peacekeeper pie?
We all lived our jobs, and the jokes were a good way to keep cocktail
parties from becoming mired in gossip or humanitarian jargon. If some U.N.
brass was nearby, not part of our clique, we’d take off our shoes and start
measuring the size of our toes, or launch into make-believe Rambo odysseys
of Ross Mountain (whom some had nicknamed “Mohammed”) that usually began
with the deputy U.N. chief losing his mind on voodoo cocaine and
disappearing into the jungle like Kurtz, naked and smeared in mud,
whispering to his knife, “To kill a Rasta, one must become a Rasta.” With
my contact in the U.N., things were never serious, even on those rare
occasions when I desperately wanted them to be. During one of those
unrelenting weeks of sitting in Kinshasa while filing daily blood from the
east, hardly ever leaving the house, I’d said something that probably came
off as naive, about never having time to write positive, hopeful stories.
The reply was quick and barbed: “There aren’t any happy stories here, pal,”
the message read. “This place is
a Viking holiday, all blood, rape, and gore.”
Gradually the cocktail and dinner parties, and later our lives in general,
became weighted down by one encompassing subject: June 30, 2005, the day
many predicted Kinshasa would crumble in a wave of blood and terror. The
date marked the end of the country’s transitional government, which had
been agreed upon in 2003, at the end of the war, by government and rebels.
The agreement also made clear that June 30 must also be the date of the
presidential election–the first in Congo since the country gained
independence from Belgium in 1960.
Anyone expecting real elections in June was living a fantasy. The
government was in constant disorder, gutted by corruption and allegiances
that fell alongside Congo’s four vice presidents, two of whom were former
rebel leaders who’d been integrated into the postwar, power-sharing
government. President Joseph Kabila had come to power after his father
(who’d overthrown the pink-champagne-sipping dictator Mobutu Sese Seko) was
assassinated by his own bodyguard in 2001, and he immediately made strides
in ending the war, gaining respect from Western leaders. But the president
remained surrounded by men with agendas, lawmakers with too much money and
power to lose in a transparent, corruption-free state. As one American
diplomat once told me, “Kabila is alone in a lake of piranhas. He knows the
second he puts the first toe in, his whole body will follow.”
Decades of corruption and dirty politics, militia attacks in the east, no
infrastructure, and two years of foot-dragging by the administration had
sucked dry any hope of democracy. So as expected, in late April of 2005,
the government extended the transitional government and delayed elections
until the spring of 2006.
The first hint of an election postponement back in January had sparked
massive rioting in the capital that ended when police opened fire into the
crowds. I’d only been in town a couple of weeks and didn’t venture out into
the mobs alone, knowing how easy it would have been for one kid to smash a
rock in my face and for me to be lost forever underfoot. But after the
official April declaration, rumors quickly spread that June 30 would be
much worse, that crazy mobs would run through the streets, and soldiers
would be leading the parade of rape and pillage. It was billed as “Congo’s
apocalypse,” a Y2K in the heart of darkness that would terminate in a rain
of bullets and machete blades, and I knew I’d be right at the core with no
place to hide.
The June 30 fear slowly crept its way into the expat community. Aside from
U.N. and humanitarian staff, Kinshasa had many Belgians who’d stuck around
after independence, having invested everything in a falling star. There
were Lebanese, who owned much of the city’s commercial center, and Indians,
who were booted out by Mobutu in the 1960s and returned after his fall.
The basis of the expats’ fear was rooted in les pillages of the ’90s, three
instances when soldiers and residents had grown so tired of Mobutu’s
neglect and lies that they looted for days, literally stealing the roads
from underneath the city’s feet. The infrastructure that hadn’t withered
away from decay was stripped and sold. Government offices still bore the
scars where appliances had been ripped from their foundations and light
fixtures had been reduced to dangling wires and crumbling plasterboard.
Kinshasa’s main post office hasn’t received mail in years, but dozens of
employees still turn up for work every day, hoping to be paid. Most of the
city remains without regular water or electricity, and jobs are a distant
memory, reserved mostly for those with family connections or a hand in the
government pie. Most streets run with sewage that breeds the malaria that
kills countless children in the city.
We’d sit around and listen to the old hands tell about the old days, about
watching the city disappear piece by piece in the gunfire and looting while
they bravely fought to maintain their small stake. “There were two days
between the time Mobutu fled in 1997 and Kabila’s rebels advanced onto
Kinshasa,” my friend Moi would tell us. He was a Congolese businessman
married to a beautiful Polish woman, and they’d lived in a large house on
the outskirts of town. The city had gone mad after Mobutu’s retreat, with
ravenous mobs of residents and soldiers looting every quarter. For two
days, Moi sat on his roof with a pump shotgun and a case of shells,
scattering the crowds that gathered at his gate. Government soldiers would
cruise by and listen for the gun blast; the heavier the weapon, the better
the chance that they’d keep going. Other security forces raced down the
block, gunning down looters and lining up bodies on the roadside. While Moi
blasted away on the roof, his wife, Nesh, kept the NBA playoffs on the
television below, poking her head out the window every half hour to
announce the score. “I was up there trying to save our house,” he’d say,
“and there was Nesh yelling, ‘HEAT 67, KNICKS 55.’ BOOM! BOOM!”
For the complete article, please see the April 2006 issue of Harpers.

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