10 February 2014
In the Virunga region of eastern DR Congo, lies lands so rich entire mountains are made of gold, where rainfalls wash gold down the mountainside till the sand shines with it and villagers get on their hands and knees to pick gold off the roads, and women are said to pan several pounds of it a day by the river. I never would have believed such stories until I saw it first hand– the first muzungu (foreigner) on this mountain in 50 years. A trip that took our small team of 3 weeks to organize turned out to be a last minute, almost frantic dash for the border, and freedom. As they say, “Plans mean nothing, but planning is everything”
Kampala, Uganda. The assignment was very vague and was a classic Message to Garcia: Develop contacts in the central/East African region to allow our organization to audit mineral supply chains entering the US from conflict zones. I was doing this for a specialty consulting firm, and it was the only realistic way we knew how to do this – we had to physically get on the ground. In the US, The newly enacted Dodd-Frank Act contains a section: Section 1502, that is wholly devoted to conflict minerals. It requires companies to determine whether certain minerals such as tantalum and gold that enter the US (for manufacturing purposes such as in the semiconductor industry), were obtained from such a conflict zone. This is to prevent “the national army and rebel groups in the DRC from illegally using profits from the minerals to fund their fight” (Globalwitness.org). In particular, the Act is centered on the exceptionally mineral rich region of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
DR Congo and parts of its neighboring countries forms a region that historically has been troubled: In the past decade and a half alone, DR Congo experienced everything from dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko, wars with neighbors, fallout from the Rwandan genocide, name changes, two full-blown wars that claimed millions, and such regional luminaries as 2012’s infamous Joseph Kony. The fragile country is still plagued by power struggles between dozens of armed groups, sporadic fighting, and atrocious human rights records, including repeatedly earning top spot for the most dangerous place in the world for women. It’s a country that almost always makes any list for top 5 to 10 of the world’s most dangerous places. To top this all off, eastern DR Congo, with its mineral wealth, said to be worth over 20 trillion US dollars alone, is presently hard fought over with competing interests from regional governments, militias and warlords, the Russian mafia, Chinese and Western corporations, the UN, and countless others just trying to make it – refugees, smugglers, scam artists and criminals. The backdrop was the incredibly lush terrain of the world’s second largest rain forest, endless, mountainous green hills covered with nearly impenetrable jungle in parts, pockets of humanity physically and genetically isolated from the rest of us, and tributaries of the great Congo river. This was the environment that we were preparing to enter.
And so, over a period of weeks, I managed to find a couple contacts in the neighboring country of Uganda that would be willing to meet me, and had already conducted two such meetings, one with a member of a well-known international NGO at the exquisite Serena hotel. At this point, we were feeling pretty good about continuing towards the next step: actually going into DR Congo to inspect a mine. This was important for two reasons – credibility (to prove we could do it), and to actually see and document, first-hand, for ourselves what the typical supply chain did look like.
Google Map screenshot of the North-Kivu region of DR Congo, in relation to Africa. Congo is a huge country, and the eastern part is barely controlled by the capital of Kinshasa, off to the west end of the country.
Moe picked me up in the early Sunday afternoon, after he had attended church. I met his family – his wife and two young sons. We ate at a Chinese restaurant. And Moe asked that we not discuss business, probably to ensure his wife wasn’t worried about our impending departure to Congo.
Moe was a Bugandan, the tribe of central Uganda, and one of the more colorful characters I’ve ever met. He was also one of the most networked people I have ever met, and you won’t find him go five minutes without getting on the phone. We here in the US take emails and text messages for granted, but Moe was still on an old-school Nokia brick, even though he could clearly afford a nicer phone. He was the brains behind of much of the trip, and many people, upon reading this article, would be amazed, if not aghast that I had placed so much trust in a man that I had only met once before, had had all of half a dozen phone conversations with, and had exchanged perhaps a dozen emails with. It had all the hallmarks of a classic “Nigerian” scam.
Moe had lost his parents by the age of 14, and had been forced to put himself through school, admitting that he had slept the streets for a few months and had ran a small convenience stall – the shacks you see all over developing countries that specialize in toothpaste, potato chips, and not-so-cold coca colas – in order to put himself through college. He now ran a safari business, but dabbled in trade on the side.
He stood at maybe five eight, was out of shape, and was proud of the fact that he dressed “like a Congolese”, his vernacular of anyone who dressed flashily. You will rarely find him without a colorful -shirt, or his now trademark striped pants. His personality was equally colorful – he was boisterous to the point of rude and prejudiced to the point of hilarity. He made no qualms about the fact that he hated the French – and by extension their “Belgian brothers” with a passion, and despised the Chinese as the most “untrustworthy of peoples”. Congolese were “thieves”, northern Ugandans were “black and naïve, but their honesty made them good security guards”, western Ugandans were controlling the country, and eastern Ugandans were lazy. He admitted that central Ugandans, his people, were also thieves. About the only two groups of people he seemed ok with were the British (at least they built infrastructure), and the Americans, although he accused them of owning a quarter of the Congo. This was also probably because he knew I was American. I’m sure he had lots of fun things to say when he interacted with a Chinese client, for example.
But he did dislike American culture, and said that outright: “I do not like your culture. In the US, the women dress so provocatively. As a man, when I see such things, I get excited, and that is not good. I see tourists here dressing like this and it is not good” to which I replied “What are you talking about? You took me to a couple bars last night where the people were practically having sex on the dance floor, and the women were practically half naked”
“Yes, but that is different”, he said, “they are in a club where it is normal to dress and act like that”
Moe also had the mildly annoying habit of wandering around stores, finding a drink of his fancy, and opening it immediately there to down the contents. At least he would bring the empty can to the check-out and pay for it. To top it all off, he had the classic accent, and idioms to go along with it. His placefiller phrase was “the what?”, as in, “we need to go to dee what (pause while he was searching for the right word), to the hospital” or “we need to get supplies, and go to the ATM for what?” (pause). “So we can be prepared for this trip”. Now say that in your most practiced African accent and you can understand how our conversations went.
Over the past few days we had been putting together the finishing touches on a plan to enter Congo that in retrospect, seems audacious to the point of being ridiculous. That previous Friday, was a bit of a goat rope…
Two days ago, Moe and I had been waiting for him at the lot at building near where I was staying. Fedex appeared from around a street corner – around six feet tall, and lanky, and unlike most people from the region, flashed a bright smile. He also walked with a spring in his step, whereas all Ugandans I noticed on the street seemed to move with a casual, almost lackadaisical walk.
As he approached our van, Moe immediately pointed out that he was carrying a small black satchel.
“See that”, he pointed, “He does not dress like a Ugandan. Ugandans don’t carry those. He is Congolese, and usually they transport diamonds in those things”. Moe was also a man of superlatives, so I immediately dismissed what he said. Fedex approached, we made quick introductions, and settled into the van – he insisted I ride shotgun, and soon the two of them settled into a conversation in Swahili, with Moe occasionally remembering to keep me up to speed. We rode on through Kampala’s busy streets to towards the embassy district, passing a couple markets.
Fedex spoke in broken English, broken French, broken Swahili, and his own dialect – which I’m embarrassed to say, I haven’t the faintest clue of (perhaps a Lingala dialect). He also had one of the coolest accents – a mixture of a central African accent combined with the French accent. If you ever speak English to a Congolese person, you will immediately be able to pinpoint the accent – it is one of the most pleasing sounding accents you’ll ever hear. Fedex seemed to be making decent money being a courier – he was the guy who brought, or perhaps more accurately, smuggled gold out of DR Congo. His connections and easygoing attitude got him places. He wasn’t the least bit aggressive – a far cry from the stereotype often portrayed in movies where you have gold laden thugs toting AKs yelling at you. But what I didn’t know at first was that he was a refugee from DR Congo – and his papers had expired. His wife and young child were fortunate enough to get accepted into the US, but he had not been. So he was effectively trapped, a man without an identity, or even a country, and was forced to do what he did in order to make ends meet.
That Friday we met Fedex, the goal had been to see if I could get a “special entry pass”. From my experiences crossing semi-legally from Thailand into Burma, a lot of border crossings into dicey areas really do require special permission, which is basically short-hand for paying off the right person. And the process can get expensive. And it always involves you avoiding eye contact, and shutting up while your fixer does the talking.
As we prepared to depart for the embassy, Moe gave me the expected simple set of instructions. Lay low, don’t say a word. Stay in the car, and if anyone talks to you, act like you don’t understand or simply say you’re going to Congo as a tourist. “If you open your mouth, you will mess it up – I guarantee it”, he said in his accent. And I didn’t disagree. We rolled up to the embassy, I put shades on, reclined on the seat, and promptly fell asleep. About an hour later, I had my answer. As it turns out, the ADF, a rebel force, had attacked Goma, a town we wanted to get to, the day before. The Congolese government had apparently shut down the border to Uganda at that point. And seeing as how the previous troupe of Chinese businessmen Moe had ferried over paid $1000 USD apiece to cross, I didn’t see how getting over there was going to be feasible on my budget. Moe said, “let’s try plan B – the Rwandan embassy”. We drove over to the Rwandan embassy at that point, and found out that I could, in fact, enter Rwanda through a transit visa – which was provided at the border. So at least we knew we could get there. Crossing from Rwanda into Congo would be another issue though. Apparently, however, the Rwandans were quite friendly with Muzungu, the term originally used for “whites” but now applied liberally to all non-black people. But the issue with plan B, was the extra legwork required to go through another country – which mean more driving, more hitching rides, more money, and more time.
Plan C: (Always have a plan C).
We were unable to do much Saturday, other than prepare, and wait. But luck was with us on Saturday – A contact of Moe’s then suddenly called, and pulled through. For a much, much smaller fee, we were going to get a questionable “invitation letter” into DR Congo. We finalized the plan shortly afterwards. Fedex, true to his namesake, would be a courier of sorts – he was going to enter DR Congo the day before (being Congolese, this was fairly routine for him), and grease the skids, so to speak. He would contact the appropriate border agents in Congo at the crossing we wanted to cross at, let them know a muzungu and Ugandan were crossing a border that was technically closed, and pre-negotiate the entrance fees – i.e. settle on the bribes before-hand. Had we shown up without this step, we would at best have been turned away, at worst, been allowed to pay an exorbitant fee, and then turned away.
It was now Sunday and our food at the Chinese restaurant had just arrived. Moe got the confirmation call from his contact: the invitation letter for myself was good, and all of a sudden the trip looked like a go. Lunch concluded with this highlight: Moe attempting to demonstrate to me how to eat Chinese food: Put the food in the bowl. “Damn it”, I said, “I’ve eaten at Panda express dozens of times – I know how to eat Chinese food!” (The comment may have been lost in translation.)
On Sunday evening, we began our long departure to the Congo border. It was dusk and we headed out around 7 PM in Moe’s 4×4 van. We bumped along the main highway west, passing towns, villages, and hundreds of the ubiquitous 125-150cc motorcycles known as boda bodas. The one annoying thing about Ugandan highways is that they are full of these tiny speed bumps – often arranged end to end in four rows. And they’re never, ever marked. So at night, you’re praying that your suspension isn’t going to get destroyed as you churn along at 100+ kmph. You can sort of see why these silly bumps exist though: villages surround the highway, people are selling goods or loitering roadside, and the lack of sidewalks means that everyone walks on the shoulder.
It was now dark and perhaps a four or five hours of open farmland and jungle later, we passed another village, about halfway to the border. I said, “It looks like night of the living dead”. Drunk people were aimlessly staggering around on the shoulder of a highway. We saw a poor bug-eyed man barely able to keep himself on the shoulder of the highway. There were about half a dozen in this village alone.
“They are drunk”, Moe said.
“How can they afford to get drunk?” I asked.
“Moonshine. They make it here.”
I asked how much, and he said, “Maybe 500, maybe 1000 per glass. And it is very, very strong!”. (That’s about 20 to 40 cents per glass)
It was now nearing midnight. Moe said we needed to stop and thought the town of Fort Portal was the best bet. “I want to spend the night in a safe area. You are my guest, and it is most important for us to be safe. This area to the border has a lot of ADF. You do not want to be there at night”. Fort Portal is the last big town before you hit the Congo border, a town that Moe claims has the prettiest girls in Uganda.
The ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) are a Ugandan-based rebel group that operates in DR Congo, with alleged ties to Sudan and al-Shabaab (a Xinhua article dated July 5, 2013 mentioned Somali / Al-Shabaab mercenaries by the Uganda border). The ADF are designated a terrorist group by the US, and like many such groups, they are based in a neighboring country to take advantage of improved infrastructure, communications, and logistics. There are approximately two dozen rebel groups that operate in eastern DR Congo, including the well known group: M23. Some of the bigger players in this particular region are the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the Peoples’ Redemption Army (PRA), and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU). These groups regularly clash with both the Congolese and Ugandan militaries, and while the fighting is usually limited to skirmishes that leave a few dead on each side, certain groups have been known to conduct mass killings. The day before we entered Congo, the ADF massacred about 40 from a village just miles north of our selected border crossing.
The rebel groups were not leaving anytime soon – obviously in part because of the incredible mineral wealth of eastern DR Congo. The Ugandan government has been accused of linking the rebel groups in the past together in order to justify any cross-border incursions. Indeed, as you pass the outskirts of the Rwenzori mountains, you will see the homes of Ugandan generals – huge, easily defensible, fortress-mansions surrounded by nearly impenetrable walls and located strategically on hillsides – and often next to a pet project business, such as a resort.
There are further accusations that Western and Chinese corporations of implicitly backing up certain rebel groups to gather mining concessions – and the rebel groups are by no means ill-equipped. I’ve seen rebel groups in other locations that were functioning off of hopelessly obsolete guns or down to a few rounds per fighter, but in this area, everything from sub-machine guns to rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers can be bought, and are. It is a region where a man’s status is determined by how big a caliber weapon he can mount on the back of his Land Rover is, and how many tricked out thugs he can muster.
“We’re only going to bed down for a few hours. We’re in a van. Can’t you find a safe place to park and let us crash for a few?” I asked.
“No.” Moe said sternly. “Not safe”.
We found a rundown guesthouse next to a building known as the Continental Hotel – I don’t even remember the name of the place, it was dark. But it had an AK wielding guard, a courtyard and thick doors that locked in every room. Moe said this was fine. On the way up the stairs, a fun sign read, “ALL WEAPONS MUST BE DECLARED AT THE RECEPTION”.
The guesthouse was really dingy, but otherwise fine – I wasn’t about to complain about the ginormous grasshopper on the bed, the mosquitos and the cockroach, all in the room. I was mainly concerned about bedbugs and made a point to carefully comb the bed first. Seemed clear. Mosquitos were going to be my biggest issue. I quickly fell asleep.
It was about 6:15, and I was awake. I took a shower in the dingy room (from past experiences in these types of situations, you never know when the next shower you’ll get will be, so always take advantage), and walked over to Moe’ room and yelled at him through the iron grating “You awake?!”
“Yes, I’m ready. Let me brush my teeth, and we’ll go.”
It was a beautiful morning and we were now hugging the outskirts of Rwenzori, a world-renown UNESCO world heritage site. Rwenzori borders another UNESCO site, the Virunga (which occupies a nice portion of Eastern Congo). The scenery, needless to say, was a breathtaking blend of flat savannah with lush forested mountains in the back.
After a pit stop in a town, where we had a not-so-delightful breakfast of motoke (plantain) with what had to be parts of a cow uterus (or maybe intestine) on top of it, we continued on to the border. It was another 70 odd kilometers. The scenery became less savannah like and more jungle-like.
We reached the border town of Bwera at approximately 9 AM, and parked the van at the rustic border police outpost – which was itself a strange collection of metal huts. In other words, the offices of the border police station were literally tin sheets nailed together to resemble traditional, circular mud huts. Now the border here is interesting. You pass through 2-3 checkpoints just to leave Uganda. First there is customs – and the official there is this smooth talking guy in a black leather coat who clearly made more money than he was being paid.
After greeting me, he concentrated on Moe, and rambled on in Swahili, periodically saying, “But where are my dollars” in his thick accent, so it would come out sounding more like “but weya ahh mai dollahs?”
Then he turned to me and asked why I wanted to go into Congo. “Tourism”, I said. He smiled the all-knowing smile and had me sign his log-book. On the wall, I noticed two bizarre calendars, and I asked his permission to photograph them. They were martyr calendars of the late Col Qaddafi, who is apparently pretty big around here. I was staying at a hotel in Kampala that was on Col Qadaffi road. It led up to this giant mosque, the city’s largest, that he had built. Earlier Moe had said, “Col Qadaffi was a very powerful man. When he came, he didn’t come with one or two body guards. He came with an entire battalion. An entire battalion! Can you imagine that!” The customs official waved for me to go ahead and I snagged a couple photos of the calendar.
Then he told Moe one last time “but where are my dollars?” And Moe paid him the bribe – I tried not to peek too much but it wasn’t much – I’d guess just under $20 US in Ugandan shillings. We hopped a couple boda-bodas and arrived at immigration, about a hundred yards down. I filled out an exit form, and we continued into this four or five hundred yard stretch of land known as “no-man’s land”, via boda boda. The area was marked mostly by a stretch of jungle, with a few buildings with small money changer shops, red-painted airtel shops (to sell mobile phone minutes), and convenience stores. Dozens upon dozens of people cross either way on foot during the day at any given time. There is a small river that separates the countries. Our boda bodas hopped across the bridge and into the Congolese side, into the town of Kasindi. Now we had to clear Congolese border police.
THE POLICE CHIEF
Imagine a 1930s looking customs house, complete with pillars, faded white paint, and garish print in light blue on the front. A light blue Congolese flag flew on a pole in front. The place had a very colonial look to it. We walked into the back office, a dimly lit room with peeling white paint, dirt-stained walls, and a musty smell. There was a window with grating on it. On the desk were stacks of folders and a fairly new looking HP laptop. Right outside the office, an old typewriter. (Did these guys just get an upgrade?)
In the back office sat the Police Chief, who looked absolutely comical in his bright (very bright) sky blue long sleeved shirt with black pants. He was about five and a half feet tall, 40ish, and slightly portly, and looked hopelessly out of shape. And incredibly shady. He spoke a mixture of French, Swahili, and the local dialect, and a smattering of English. Moe spoke Swahili, and Fedex spoke both the local dialect and French. The three would switch over between languages constantly in order to exclude Moe from the conversation. Of course I was completely excluded and smiled dumbly whenever I heard terms such as “America”.
The conversation went on. And on. At least twice, the police chief left his office and we could see him through the grating in his window talking and gesturing out of earshot. Then back in the office, where the police chief all but avoided eye contact with me.
Finally, the bribe. It was a lot. We were getting close to the end of negotiations. The chief suddenly turned to me and said, “What is your occupation?”
“I’m a student”, I said, not untruthfully.
“Please show me your student identification”
Great, I thought. The one time I didn’t pack that silly card is the one time I really need it.
“I don’t have it on me.” I said, and Moe attempted a rescue. “Give the police chief $20”, he said. I fished a bill out of my wallet. If I had stayed or argued, the bribe might have been higher. Who knows.
Within minutes we walked out. But our adventure was just starting.
As we walked into Congo, we stopped for a quick photo. Then Moe explained: “The police chief wanted to provide us security, for $1500 a day. He would have given us armed guards, and let us see a mine. But we said no, that is too much. We have our own security. He then said, that is fine, but I can’t guarantee your security then.” How ominous that would turn out to be.
On a good note, Fedex suddenly appeared. He had successfully accomplished his task of “greasing the skids” the day before and was waiting for us. This is when you know you’ve got a good team.
I quickly noticed hostility in the people around me – perhaps it was due to being in an increased state of survival mode. No one smiled, or said hello. I was clearly the only muzungu in a long radius, and perhaps the only one they had seen for days, or weeks, or more. I tried to snap a picture of a crudely made wheelbarrow – and immediately got yelled at by 3-4 guys, who wanted tips for taking a photo of their wheelbarrow. Note that this happened to me several times on this trip. Eventually I learned to ignore the yelling people and keep snapping away (but I would only recommend this if you have a local alongside that’s able to yell back).
The entire border town had the feeling of a dingy Wild West town. One big, fairly wide dirty road. Two story buildings packed side by side on either side of the road. A few houses haphazardly thrown behind those houses to form trash-strewn alleys. Rusting corrugated iron roofs, dirt-stained walls, fading logos poorly painted on the sides of buildings (with the exception of Airtel – their logo was plastered everywhere – and any building with their logo was analogous to a clean, crisp bank in an American frontier town in the late 19th century). Everything in Kasindi is broken down and Mad Max’d. Scrap metal and plastic used to bolster up stalls, chairs with a leg missing, piles of junk just left, trash everywhere. And masses of humanity on the streets, with seemingly little to do. Like in Uganda, you see masses of people. With astronomical and almost uncountable percentages of unemployment, you will rarely see, in any part of the world and this town in Congo topped the list for me, more people seemingly doing nothing. Shopkeepers sit idly by, not trying to solicit a customer. Groups of men stand around. Even the ones that are walking move with a deliberately slow, almost ridiculously slow pace. I know I keep bringing this analogy up, but it was like being in a zombie apolcalypse, but the zombies seem to think you might be one of them, so they stare at you, but don’t attack. This was a broken society – no one seemed to care about anything, not the state of their town, not the way they moved; anything.
We settled in on the top floor of one of these buildings, overlooking the main drag. The one saving grace of this place was that they had ice cold coca-cola, always a lifesaver out here. Me, Fedex, and Moe settled into plastic lawn chairs and Fedex made a couple phone calls. In about five minutes, someone showed up, dressed in dark slacks and an off-white stained, long sleeved collared shirt. Introductions were so hurried I never got his name. But he was our security guy, and our guide.