All Things Must Fight To Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in the Congo

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.


St. Patrick’s Day Congo River Adventure

A small group of American journalists for Stars and Stripes came to tour the Borlaug Institute farm at Camp Base, and we thought it would be a fun experience for them to go on a nice river cruise down the Congo River. Much like the voyage of the S. S. Minnow, our forty minute voyage downriver to Bamboo Palace, a fantastic Belgium restaurant with the best beef in Kisangani and fantastic fried plantains, turned into a test of will.

The dark clouds should have discouraged us. The rumbling thunder coming from behind the house should have made us think twice. Hell, the quick burst of rain should have made us wonder if it would be followed by more.

Casting aside our doubts, the five of us, two reporters for AFRICOM, a Public Affairs Officer, our fixer-slash-translator Didier, and me, boarded the fifty-foot longboat parked out front of the house and set out on our voyage downriver. Dressed in not much more than t-shirts and pants, we brought along some plastic chairs to sit on and our cameras and nothing else.

The boat chugged down the river for a few miles while the warm wind gusted into our faces. As I was warning everyone to avoid taking photos of the main shipping docks (we’d be considered spies if we were caught) it began to rain again. But this time it was different.

The wind was picking up right before the downpour!

The rain poured down on us, and it brought with it the cold air from above. Amanda, one of the reporters behind me, asked if it was hailing; the rain seemed to cut into our skin. Because we were passing the docks we had no choice but to push on into what felt like a wall of razor blades. Didier had turned his seat around to put his back to the rain and we all followed suit. This helped cut down on the pain, but it also meant that there would be not a single inch of dry clothes on our bodies.

The pilot began angling for shore as the rain intensified. We edged around the docks to the dirty land beyond while the temperature

Didier was really looking forward to an adventure!

continued to fall. Most everyone was shivering and we’d only really been on the boat for twenty minutes, but once we reached land we ran up thorough a Congolese shack, two white girls, two white guys, all soaked to our skin bursting through a shack onto the main boulevard where hundreds of locals lined the streets under awnings and stared in awe.

We hurried into a Congolese bar next to the United Nations HQ. As I pushed through the bead curtains I was immediately greeted by two women, one holding an infant child wrapped in colorful cloth, huddled in chairs by the entrance. Beyond them were a few men, two drinking Primus, one drinking Turbo King (a stronger been which seems to carry the stigma of either a strong man or a drunkard), and a giant loudspeaker which was thankfully not blasting music at the time.


Amanda from AFRICOM and Me Having a Turbo King Beer

The women started handing us chairs and we all sat around the table with the mother and her child trying to decide what to do next. We ordered some beers, Primus and Turbo Kings, to split up just so that we wouldn’t impose, and attempted to get the reporters’ driver on the phone.

Didier and Jon from AFRICOM in the Bar

Outside, the rain continued. Bursts of cold, wet rain would gust into the bar through the beads, and the heavy downpour on the tin roof above caused my mind to imagine the gunboys firing off their AKs during the war. They’d once come through Kisangani, those child soldiers, high on booze and dope and magic potions to protect them from harm, indiscriminately shooting at any passing target.

The beers helped to warm ourselves even if our clothes did only the opposite. But the driver was nowhere to be found. I had a feeling that even though we’d said we’d be at Bamboo Palace in two hours, he had pressed on to wait there, and I knew it was well out of cell phone range.

After 30 minutes the rains began to subside. A group of three mamas came into the bar, one carrying a sack of beans on her hair, and they took a table in the back. When the woman with the beans sat down, she did so without removing the sack and even bent over to move a chair for her friend, all while effortlessly balancing this burden. With no driver, but with a reinvigorated sense of adventure thanks to the liquid courage – our own magic potion – we decided to press on down the river. The pilot agreed – he wanted his pay – so we thanked our patrons in the bar, Amanda bought the women a round of beers, and we headed down to shore.

No sooner did we board the boat when a man in a suit seemed to materialize out of nowhere with a militia officer at his side. He identified himself as an immigration officer and wanted to know if we all had documentation proving that we were allowed to be here. Of course we didn’t have anything of the sort with us and if we did it would be soaked and unacceptable to them.

Thankfully, Didier flashed his FARDC / Camp Base identification which he was given for just these sorts of problems. Had he not had that, I would have been on the phone and would soon be handing this man a connection with the Colonel in charge of Camp Base. In any case, after a few minutes of tension amongst my shipmates, we were let off without a bribe changing hands.

An hour after we initially set off, we were on our way again. The light was beginning to fade already as the equatorial sun had begun its regular 7:00pm descent below the horizon. Boats were hurriedly ferrying the last people home across the river and fishermen were paddling their dugouts to shore.

The Mighty Congo!

The motor chugged us on down into the darkness as the lights of the city become one small light off in the distance behind our backs. Every now and then a strike of lightening in the distance would illuminate the vast expanse of this magnificent river, sometimes drawing the dark silhouettes of a dugout and its crew out late for a nighttime catch.

Kisangani is where the river bends and we were changing direction from west to north. Had the sun still been up, we would have seen it set across the river. Had the sky not been overcast, we would have seen the heavens moving in a thin band from east to west above our heads. Instead, we only saw the dark outline of the shore, and occasional lights off in the distance slowly, after long periods of growth, being revealed.

The lights became a house where a woman was outside rehanging the clothes to dry. The lights became the riverside market where vendors were huddled around one remaining stall smoking cigarettes and gambling work. The lights became a river barge docked to the shore while its crew played loud music and welcomed the night with palm wine.

And finally, one light that came after the house and the market and the barge became our destination. Two and a half hours into a forty minute cruise down the river we arrived at the Bamboo Palace, still enervated from the wet and cold but also giddy with adventure and success.

In the dark we managed to navigated the landing, unable to see the stairs up the hill at first, causing a few false attempts. We thanked the pilot for his hard work and paid him handsomely for the effort.

Here's my Dinner: Beef Shish Kabab, Fried Plantains, and a Cabbage Salad. Delicious!

Dinner was fantastic, everyone enjoying the fried plantains and their choice of entrée. Hot tea and cold beers helps to warm cast off the cloak of rain each of us wore, and, as seems to be the focus when reporters are around, talk turned towards Didier’s experiences in Congo and his knowledge about the war.

After the drive home, and some short goodbyes and best wishes, I was not surprised how quickly sleep came to me. Weather is a tough obstacle to overcome. I’d like to say I dreamed a child’s dream of pirates on the high seas or of an adventure down a crocodile infested river, but I simply was too tired to remember.

Some Racism a Product of Frustration

A common joke among Ex-Pats in Kisangani is:

Question: “What’s the difference between a tourist and a racist?”

Answer: “Two weeks.”

It doesn’t take long in Kisangani before you realize how unbelievably difficult it is to find a competent employee. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I’ve only met one single Congolese person who possesses the combination of traits needed for that title: intelligent, skilled, a strong work ethic, honest, a high quality of work, and follow through with any promise. This man was an electrician named Viki. I’m not his only source of praise either. As soon as my boss, Beau, met him he was so blown away that, like me, he’s been recommending him all around to others.

Sadly, Viki is not the norm. The norm is our previous group of electricians who used a hodgepodge of exposed wires with no apparent system to jerry rig the house, allowing it to function for a few hours at a time before something blew. They would show up one day and say they’ll come back with parts and then vanish for weeks at a time. They would ask for money after not completing anything. And they could never get to the source of any problems. The electricians before this group were the exact same.

Now, when it comes down to economics, an electrician like Viki will receive praise from us and end up being recommended to all other Ex-Pat workers in the city. Usually all I need to do is recount a simple story and I’ve sold him to whomever I’m talking to:

“One night when we were still in the middle of rewiring the house Viki realized that the neighbors were stealing our power from the main line. He went over there to look at it and decided that the State Power Company (SNEL) needed to come and replace the main line and bury it much deeper. He told me that he would have the SNEL guy come out the next day at lunch time. The next day, at lunchtime no less, Viki arrived along with a guy from SNEL. They examined the line and decided they would come to replace it on Saturday. On Saturday, Viki came with the men from SNEL and replaced the line.”

Now, if you lived in the DRC and heard that a simple electrician could get a SNEL worker out to your house in a short period of time, well, let’s just say that you’d want to see that for yourself because pigs must have started to fly somewhere.

But when your best and most competent employee continues to make the exact same mistake on relatively simple everyday tasks, the level of frustration grows higher and higher in the Ex-Pat. Even when an employee does something correct 10 times in a row, you will be shocked when he or she inexplicably goes back to the old incorrect method one day and casually explains that it’d slipped his or her mind. The Ex-Pats will regularly complain that the need for babysitting a task exists at all levels from management down to the lowest laborer.

In a world of bad service, Viki stands out and has finally been noticed and will be rewarded. But the fact that the majority continues to cause the frustration levels to grow in the Ex-Pat community means that they are going to be discounted as worthless by many of the Project Managers who have to power to offer them lucrative employment. And it’s going to continue a culture of racism which is more predicated on lack of service and good work than on the basis of color of skin (not to say that there aren’t the other kind as well).

I do my best to give everyone who we work with a fair chance. I also find myself working hard to keep my frustration level down when our Engineer continuously fails to follow through with what we planned the previous day.

It’s funny, but, I might have been less frustrated before meeting Viki simply because I didn’t know that there were Vikis out there in Kisangani to be discovered.

Post-Conflict Label Helped Fuel Violence in the Congo

Most Americans don’t know much about wars and violence that took place during the Zaire-DRC Transition period. The news mostly didn’t cover it in the United States, usually because African problems are viewed to be uninteresting to American news viewers. As was pointed out back in 2005 by the Christian Science Monitor, “even a nonlethal car bombing in Iraq or a kidnapping in Afghanistan [got] more Western media coverage in a day than Congo [got] in a typical month of 30,000 dead.”

But media attention isn’t the focus of this update; rather I wanted to draw your attention to that figure and the year in which it was noted. 30,000 dead was a ‘typical month’ in the Congo in 2005. This is a staggering figure, but even more so when you realize that from 2003 through 2008 the United Nations officially labeled the Congo as being a post-conflict nation.

During the first and second Congo Wars, a period basically stretching from November 1996 to July 2003 with a brief reprieve between wars, the United Nations forces actively sought to create peace. They would meet with local military leaders in an attempt to create peace talks and promote an end to the violence. The mission of these forces was more of a Peace Creating Force. But, as soon as the official end of hostilities was declared in July of 2003, the United Nations completely shifted their focus. The Peacekeeping Mission went into full effect, and became a support for the Congolese government with little to no connection to sub-national and regional issues.

Instead of conflicts, the ongoing violence happening in Eastern Congo, including mass murder, mass rape, and constant pillaging and destruction of villages were considered individual crisis.

As Severine Autesserre points out in her book, The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding, regarding the shift from a classification of war to post-conflict:

“This shift halted the few efforts at subnational conflict levels that interveners had previously considered. High level diplomats began considering local conflict as an exclusively internal matter that fell within the expertise of the Transitional Government. As a high-ranking UN official recalled, ‘The structures that had been able to deal with [warring] parties as [legitimate] parties disappeared.’”

UN Peacekeeper in Congo

Dr. Autesserre further discusses the problems this label created, particularly in regards to the actual UN Peace Keepers who came into the country unprepared for any form of conflict. Most of the Peace Keepers and support staff spoke only English and did not understand the local language. They were also uninformed on a lot of the local violence taking place. In one horrifying example, a boy had escaped a village being attacked by rebels that were raping all the women. He ran to the UN outpost to get help. The guard, not knowing any French or Lingala, was able to figure out what this boy wanted and went into the outpost. He came out a few minutes later and gave the boy a package of cookies and sent him away. Every woman in the village was raped.

Now, I remember hiking around valley surrounding Sarajevo with a former partisan defender of the city, and he would tell me story after story of how the UN Peace Keepers would avoid any actual conflict or personal harm. Serbian snipers were trained to never shoot the Peace Keepers with their blue helmets, as it might provoke them, but they had no problem shooting Bosnians within plain sight of these defenders. Ever since then I’ve wondered what exactly is the point of UN Peace Keepers?

Autesserre gives the Congolese view of these ‘peace keepers’:

“The peacekeepers wasted the Congo’s money (or money that international actors had earmarked for the Congo) on large cars, high salaries, and beautiful houses. They failed to fulfill some of their duties, in particular the protection of the population. Overall, the Congolese often saw the UN staff as useless parasites, whom they nicknamed Tourists in a War Zone.

So, what can we do about this? Well, I’m going to write another post on a bottom-up perspective of peacekeeping, which would focus more on interacting with local militant groups and actually trying to understand what the root cause of a conflict is rather than simply stating it’s for resource control or because of a spill-over from the Rwandan genocide.

You Think TPS Report Cover Sheets Are A Pain?

I swear that I’ve recently relived this conversation over email, and like in Peter’s case, I’ve had to hear it from multiple people:

Dom Portwood: Hi, Peter. What’s happening? We need to talk about your TPS reports.
Peter Gibbons: Yeah. The coversheet. I know, I know. Uh, Bill talked to me about it.
Dom Portwood: Yeah. Did you get that memo?
Peter Gibbons: Yeah. I got the memo. And I understand the policy. And the problem is just that I forgot the one time. And I’ve already taken care of it so it’s not even really a problem anymore.
Dom Portwood: Ah! Yeah. It’s just we’re putting new coversheets on all the TPS reports before they go out now. So if you could go ahead and try to remember to do that from now on, that’d be great. All right!

Now if you haven’t seen Office Space, well, something is just wrong. But the key point here is all of the paperwork that you need to do in the development world, and then the number of people you hear from if you’ve made a mistake.

One thing about International Development work is that if you’re a project manager you’re most likely on some form of a budget, and someone higher up than you is fronting the cash for that project and that person, or group, expects accountability. Now, you might be lucky to have someone back at a main office who deals with all the bills, but that still means that you, off in some foreign country, need to gather receipts for every little thing you buy related to the project.

But you can’t just send those receipts home and let them sort it out. Most likely the receipts are in some language that the assistant in the home office has never seen nor heard of. So, you’ll need to translate all of the receipts into English and enter the information in some nice, organized spreadsheet, assigning each and every receipt a number and keeping them in date order.

Of course, if you’re vigilant and organized about this process you’ll quickly be faced with a local counterpart that shows up a week later with a receipt or three from earlier in the month. There goes your numbering scheme and date order in one swoop. Sometimes you just modify the date, which will keep your work all nice and fancy and prevent a talk from each boss, or sometimes you start over.

In any case, you’re bound to forget something when dealing with hundreds of receipts, some of which are no more than a square inch in size. A receipt might not get scanned, a number might not match up with the receipt, or the total price might not have been scanned because it was added up on the back side and since the total ISN’T ACTUALLY VISABLE ON THE SCAN it can’t possibly be valid.

So, just a warning to those who are looking at getting into development work: Take an accounting class and never throw away a piece of paper without first having it translated!




Three Weeks as Project Manager

Tonight signifies the end of my role as “Acting Project Manager.”

Over the past three-and-a-half weeks while our project manager has been having meetings around the country and ordering parts for our cassava processing center, I’ve been running things from Kisangani. In this short period of time the project has been going through its largest expansion since the initial construction of the farm.

On the day I took over, we broke ground on nineteen expansion fish ponds. Using three men to dig each pond and create the dikes around them, six of the ponds have been completed with the remaining ones to be done in the next day or so.

Digging a Fish Pond

A few days after that we began clearing 7-9 hectares of land (1 hectare = 100X100 square meters). This land is to be used for growing rice. Our workers have been cutting trees, vines, and bushes six days a week to get the land we need, and yesterday it looks like we finished the initial removal. Next week we’ll burn the field and begin clearing the wood and turn it all into seed beds.

Here is a Completed Fish Pond

Two weeks ago we began preparations for our initial fish harvest. This included getting a large net – and I mean LARGE! 80 meters long – a dugout canoe, and some fishermen to teach us how to harvest the fish. Yesterday we brought the fishermen out to the base to check out the fish ponds and to test out the net. We discovered that we have a few too many branches in the ponds right now, but we have a strategy in place for our actual tests next week. One of the fishermen said, after getting out of the pond, “It was like swimming through fish!”

Tonight, as a bit of a celebration, Didier and I went over to Palm Beach, a local hotel / restaurant, and we had some drinks and a decent dinner. I had some delicious pork chops and fried plantains.

Oh, and yesterday I met some kids who liked using our fish ponds a swimming pools!

African Kids are Awesome!

So, that was my past three weeks. Development work is a lot of work, but there is some to be had as well.


Nintendo 3DS Fueling Conflict in the Congo?

Is This Game System Supporting Child Soldiers?

Ok, I feel like my life has officially come full circle. I freely admit that a significant portion of my life was dedicated to playing video games, but for the past ten years or so I would say that I’m only really a casual gamer at best. That doesn’t mean that I don’t keep up on the gaming industry news.

Well, it seems that Nintendo has caught up to me in the DRC thanks to the impending release of the Nintendo 3DS on March 27th. A Facebook group is boycotting the release of the 3DS until it takes action against conflict minerals.

Now, in their FAQ they specifically claim that they don’t have proof that Nintendo is using conflict minerals, but the do say the following:

“What we DO KNOW is that these minerals ARE GOING INTO OUR MARKETS and Nintendo very well may be using them IF WE DON’T REGULATE TRADE ROUTES AND MAKE SURE THEY ARE NOT. Other companies have made efforts, but Nintendo has failed to do so.”

It seems highly unlikely that this boycott will even come close to harming the sales figures of the 3DS, which, as a friend of mine who works at a Game Stop has informed me, are expected to sell out on the first day simply through pre-purchases.

But, it does demonstrate that there are a lot of minerals used in electronic products which can be linked to conflict zones around the world. Diamonds are not the only things which are profitable, and more and more companies need to make a stand on these issues, even if the price is passed on the the consumer.

I think he would be better off with a 3DS in his Hands