Stories of War:
I’m a horror movie fan. When I was young I saw Clive Barker’s Hellraiser which is about a puzzle box that, when solved, will open a gateway to a dimension of pure pain and suffering and pull the person in for an eternity in Hell. This film, and its first few sequels, are pretty old now but could still cause a person to cringe and look away. More recently, Eli Roth almost single-handedly created the short-lived horror subgenre called Torture Porn with his film Hostel. Here we have a group of travelers arriving in Bratislava, Slovakia, and staying at a youth hostel where they’re one-by-one selected to be tortured and killed for the pleasure rich elites.
Both of these films and their sequels are NOT for the faint of heart.
But, it turns out, that neither Barker nor Roth could have imagined that reality would be far worse.
The stories found in Bryan Mealer’s All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in the Congo don’t pull any punches, so if true and graphic accounts of murder, torture, infanticide, rape, and amputations are likely to cause you nightmares, then tread lightly when approaching this book.
Mealer’s story begins with his arrival on a UN flight to Bunia, a town in the eastern part of the Congo. As a green journalist looking for an exciting story to put him on the map, he was one of the few there to cover the rapidly deteriorating events in 2003 as the Ugandan army pulled out and the United Nations Peace Keepers were set to take over ‘protection.’ Unknown to the people of Bunia, the UN Security Council Mandate only allowed the soldiers to protect themselves and UN property and not the people of Congo.
The Lendu attack on the Hema tribe in Bunia followed by the subsequent Hema retaliation on the Lendu tribe are captured by Mealer in easily the most horrifying hundred pages I’ve ever read. The violence reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in how it seemed so senseless yet made you search for a purpose. There is a difference between being shocked by fiction and being paralyzed by reality: When you’re reading fiction, you can walk away and claim it wasn’t for you, but when you’re reading about true events you are chained to the words, held prisoner by the obligation to understand the plight of those who suffered.
As I’ve previously mentioned, there was no official war going on at this time. The UN officially categorized the Congo as a Post-Conflict Country, and throughout his first three years in the Congo Mealer covered the violence of this “Post-Conflict” country. In the chapter entitled Daily Blood, Mealer and another journalist joke about how a death doesn’t seem to happen unless they write about it. Mealer even considers going back through all of his stories and counting up the bodies.
It’s after the first presidential elections and the violence that erupted in the streets of Kinshasa that Mealer decides he needs to find something more to this country, something more to write about than horror.
Stories of Deliverance:
Mealer’s decision to take a barge from Kinshasa to Kisangani in order to actually get in touch with the Congolese people and find some stories of hope and promise seems a risky yet promising notion. While the results don’t give him the cathartic answers he’s seeking, it does give him a better connection with the river that is the lifeblood of this country.
Congolese river barges are incredibly slow and unreliable, particularly after the elections in 2006 when they were just starting to make the full trip to Kisangani. They were notorious for breaking down, getting stuck in sand drifts, stopping for weeks at a time due to illness of the captain, or any other number of reasons. While Mealer starts off in comparative luxury on a tugboat operated by a Frenchman who was a former member of Mobutu’s entourage, he, his photographer, and their translator decide to switch over to an actual barge for the majority of the journey. This puts them on the slow trip while living outside under a tarp facing the elements of the Congo and the constant noise of the many travelers crowded on the deck.
The journey upriver morphs the narrative away from contemporary violence to a sort of floating history lesson, where Mealer recounts the exploits of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley and how it led to King Leopold of Belgium taking over the country to become his own personal resource mine. This history is juxtaposed with the Congolese people and their own lack of knowledge about the past that led to where they are now. The river people simply live from trip to trip, hoping to double their investment and not be wiped out by a disaster.
The trip does give a welcome respite from the brutality of the first half of the book, and, in fact, I would recommend the chapter The River is a Road to anyone interested in understanding the Congo and how the nation and the river are inseparable. He meets people who are returning home to Kisangani for the first time in many years after being displaced by the war. He meets others who have taken to the river because there is no work anywhere else. But he never really finds any strong narrative of hope.
Like many youthful adventures, the trip degrades into chaos and simply because of mechanical failures, medical emergencies, bad roads, lack of food, and sickness Mealer and his compatriots were lucky to survive, having to peddle the final 400 kilometers on bicycle while feeling the effects of malaria and other illnesses.
Even though there are no bright lights that point to a happy future, he does gain a better understanding of the people in the country and the land he’s fallen in love with. Even now, four years after Mealer’s last words were written, there are maybe signs of hope, but they’re balanced by failure after failure. When the elections coming in November this could all start again. I hope that’s not the case, but it’s definitely a possibility.