Peacekeepers in hell

2008-12-18 00:00

We exited the airport building and walked into smouldering heat and a throng of beggars carrying dangly-legged beggars on their backs. We were told to keep walking and not to engage. “Go straight to the vehicle. We do not want any diplomatic incidents,” said the general in charge.

We knew that we should be pleased that we had come through the diplomatic entrance. People have been known to part with hundreds of dollars just to make it through the crooked bureaucracy from airplane to taxi.

Welcome to Kinshasa, capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Leopoldville, once nicknamed Kin la belle (Kinshasa the beautiful), and now known as Kin la poubelle (Kinshasa the dustbin).

Whatever you do, do not take any photographs of airports, soldiers or policemen. And, if you think Parisiens are hostile and unfriendly, try the Kinshasans for attitude.

We climbed into the waiting vehicle which proceeded slowly through the boiling cacophony of traffic, towards the city centre. We drove past trucks so overloaded it’s a miracle they hadn’t keeled over. Some had goats and other livestock tied tightly to the top of the cargo. We drove past fields and fields of litter, with pools of green, slimy water in-between the piles of rot.

At times we strained through the black mud track which the road sometimes became. We marvelled at the fact that we hadn’t skidded into the other cars which were veering from all directions into our lane.

We drove past rows of dilapidated, unpainted buildings with a far brighter past, where rows of clothing were hung out to dry. Small brown rivers, choking with litter, flowed down the side streets between the rows of buildings, making their way into the Congo, a river with a flow so strong it could cover the energy needs of the whole of central Africa.

“This place is like ... Hillbrow,” said someone.

“Eish, you can’t say that about Hillbrow,” said someone else.

We were in Kinshasa as part of the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF) annual goodwill visit to its troops who are deployed in Burundi, Central African Republic and the DRC. Every year, senior members of the force, accompanied by key business and civil society sponsors, take a trip to some of the remotest spots on the continent to take a little festive cheer to the soldiers and to show appreciation for the role they are playing in peace making in Africa.

Our first stop was the Kamina Air Force base, in the south of the DRC and a three-day drive from the nearest international airport. Here, about 50 South African soldiers assist the United Nations with peacekeeping operations. Inside the remote hangar, where soldiers sleep in Weatherhaven tents, the homesick soldiers received gifts of rechargable lights and headlamps, as well as camouflage Bibles from the Bible Society.

With the muffled sounds of Come All You Faithful in the background, the army’s chaplain-general, Brigadier-General Marius Cornelissen, delivered a simple sermon, based on verses from Ecclesiastes, about a man looking for answers to the meaning of life — and feels that he is just “chasing the wind”.

Then Lieutenant-General Rinus Janse van Rensburg, the former SANDF surgeon-general, motivated the troops, saying that they have been described as “dependable friends” by their host countries in Africa. “You have given hope to locals. You have helped to take the DRC from civil war to ceasefire to democratic elections and towards reconstruction,” he said. He told them the army has arranged to have Christmas packs delivered to their families back home. The soldiers beamed and, over lunch of fried chicken from home, shared anecdotes and photographs of their experiences in Congo.

At Kamina, Major Louise van Heerden of Hoedspruit described how, in the evenings after work, she listens to Congolese music. At weekends, they visit a river not far from the base for relief from the relentless heat.

One thing you notice in the South African military forces is the fact that they comprise mainly black and Afrikaans South Africans. You won’t come across many English soldiers in Bujumbura, Bangui or Goma.

There is something deeply moving about hearing a senior non-commissioned officer — Sergeant-Major Scheepers — telling a room full of black soldiers in a deep rural spot in Africa that “I love my soldiers and I will do anything for them”.

South Africa has nearly 3 000 soldiers deployed in some of Africa’s most strife-torn areas. South African troops have been in the Central African Republic (Car) since 2007, at the request of the president, to help with military training, refurbishment of military bases and upgrading of the fighting capability of the Car Armed Forces (Faca). In Burundi, the SANDF is largely engaged in a peacekeeping mission with the African Union. In the DRC, where government and rebel forces are engaged in continuous fighting, the SANDF is, among other things, on an ongoing mission to disarm, demobilise and repatriate rebel troops, before helping to resettle and reintegrate them.

Reintegration is something the SANDF had to deal with after 1994, when former combatants had to amalgamate into the national defence force. We didn’t hear much about that process, but, according to Cornelissen, it was a profound and almost miraculous process, involving white soldiers washing the feet of their black compatriots and long sessions during which soldiers from across the previous political divide shared stories and wept at long reconciliation sessions facilitated by the force’s religious leaders.

In the Congo, the reintegration process is still a formidable challenge. While we were there, the talks to end the fighting in the eastern DRC collapsed after rebel and government representatives failed to reach a cease-fire agreement after three days of talks in Nairobi.

Fighting since late August between government troops and the rebel group National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) under the Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda has displaced more than 250 000 people in eastern North Kivu province. Nkunda claims that his four-year-old rebellion is defending Congolese Tutsis from attack by Rwandan Hutu rebels and local militias linked with the DRC army. The North Kivu conflict has its origins in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutus massacred 800 000 Tutsis, spilling refugees and rival fighters into the DRC.

It is said that the average Congolese person has a meal only every three days, a result of war, appalling delivery of services and general corruption in the country. Some lobby groups blame the war in the DRC on influential figures in the industrialised world wanting to access the rich mineral resources of the Congo. A UN expert panel has accused Rwanda and the Congolese governments of backing rebels in the eastern DRC.

In Goma, a place which makes Kinshasa look positively civilised, South Africa’s Colonel Barney Klaasin described how South Africa’s 725 troops in the rebel area below the Nyiragongo volcano have had to deal with a range of wartime atrocities, from rescuing child soldiers, seeing people’s heads being cut off, to dealing with women who have been raped and then had sticks poked inside them until they died.

“We survive by dialogue,” Klaasin said, adding that he has an excellent relationship with both the government forces and Nkunda’s people.

We learnt that South Africa has helped to register at least 170 000 former soldiers for the DRC defence force.

“Our people travel for days to remote places to set up demobilising centres for rebels. They sometimes work in very dangerous conditions,” said Captain Sonica van Rooyen, a seasoned Congo hand, who has worked closely with demobilisation efforts.

General Raymond Mdutwana, chief of South Africa’s advisory group to the DRC’s army, described the almost insurmountable task of disarming and reintegrating rebel soldiers. The Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC) is one of the most unstable and impotent defence forces in the world, comprising various disparate military units, after years of war and a serious lack of funding.

“What we wished for has failed,” he said of the most recent negotiations debacle. He added: “The situation in the east is keeping us busy, so we cannot focus on training. The most difficult aspect of this is the effect it has on civilians. When two bulls fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

We heard, repeatedly, how, as some rebels are demobilised and reintegrated, new rebel groupings are formed and new rebels recruited.

But Van Rensburg persisted, from base to base, with his motivational message to the South African troops. “Blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called the sons of God,” he told the troops in Kinshasa.

I was reminded of the chaplain-general’s earlier sermon about chasing the wind. “Then I saw all the works which my hands had made, and everything I had been working to do; and I saw that all was to no purpose.”

Back in Kinshasa, we drove four vehicles to a single lane as the driver wended his way along. A policeman stood precariously in the middle of the chaos, blowing shrilly on an orange whistle and banging loudly on the vehicle with a baton. I wondered out loud why these cops even bother to try to control the chaos and what can they achieve with those batons? A Congo regular replied: “I have seen them crack windscreens with those batons.”

We passed the Stade des Martyrs, a stately spectacle among the mess, which is best known for hosting the Rumble in the Jungle between Mohammed Ali and George Forman, and which can hold 80 000 people.

We passed the national police headquarters, a tall shell of a building, burnt out and non-operational, except for a few people who were peering out from cooking activities a few storeys up.

We reached the Memling Hotel, where, back in the sixties, the mercenary Mike Hoare held meetings with the then Congo government in a bid to get rid of the communist rebel forces.

We walked into the air-conditioned lobby full of businessmen, dressed in Brussels-styled suits, and workers from the UN, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the World Food Programme. The sparkling Christmas tree and the shops selling Elle Decor and exquisite diamond necklaces from Switzerland provided great relief from the potholes, the heat and the beggars outside.

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