Welcome to Kinshasa
May 11, 2007

 
Okay, I am not in the Congo. I am in Kabul. But I read the following and thought, well, there but for the grace of the Goddess...

I always try to maintain food in my guest room -- snack bars, bread, peanut butter -- and food at the office -- same thing, plus cup-o-noodles and what not. I did it for convenience, but as I read this article, I realized that I should *always* maintain some food in my room and at work. No one ever suggested that... should be in the briefing paper they give us, don't you think?

Since there is no electrical grid in Kabul, all buildings that are powered with electricity are powered by individual generators, FYI:

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30 April 2007
Welcome to Kinshasa

Violence raged in the streets of Kinshasa for several days in late March when the government forces and the defeated presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba's gunmen got into a fight. Approximately 600 people were killed. Héloïse Vilain, based in Kinshasa, recalls the experience of being trapped in the UN building for two full days along with 300 other UN staff members.

Kinshasa, 22 March: It is Thursday. The UNDP staff arrive at work as usual around eight o'clock in the morning. But there is something unusual. Every 30 minutes, we receive security updates, advising us to avoid certain parts of the town. I make my way to downtown with a driver. I am waiting in line to get my plane ticket when David, the driver, suddenly pulls me away from the crowd. "We have to go now," he says.

"Stay where you are."

I am puzzled, but I comply. As we get out of the building, a car full of armed policemen stops in front of the building. Something is definitely wrong. "All UN staff, please stay where you are," I hear on the radio. There are shots being fired, but I don't know where they are coming from. Driving fast through crowded streets against a stream of people fleeing the fighting will remain the scariest experience of my life. Somehow we manage to arrive at the UN. There are 300 people in the ten-story building that accommodates UNDP and other UN organisations.

Refugee camp

In the course of that afternoon, we spend most of the time listening to the radio and sending text messages using our mobile. The information we receive are conflicting and we no longer know what to believe and what not to believe. A colleague sets up a TV in the doorway so that we can watch the news. We try every channel. To our despair, there is no report on the violence, not even on the national channel.

"This is so Congo! There is a war outside and they show people dancing on TV," says one Congolese colleague bitterly.

At seven o'clock in the evening, we are hungry and wait in line for the first meal of the day. It is being distributed on the ground floor. A baby is lying on the floor. People, looking haggard, stare at the wall. They are sitting on chairs or resting on carton boards on the floor. This crowd looks lost. The UN building seems to have turned into a refugee camp.

The wake-up call

While people are waging their war outside, we have our "camping" operations inside. Our immediate concern is to find cushions and leftover cardboards and a cozy corner to spend the night.

All through the night, we hear machine guns outside. Who is shooting whom? We have no idea.

Friday morning, just before 6:00 a.m, we wake up to the sound of a rocket propelled grenade explosion.

"Did it hit the compound?" Someone asks.

Daniel, our economist, the calmest person on earth, replies: "No, it exploded far away from us. Cool down everybody!"

That is when the second explosion happens and the walls are shaken. Sixteen windows in our building are shattered as a result of the explosions.

River cruise

"The Congo river cruise is still scheduled for 2:00 p.m. Do not forget to bring your own food and beverage," says Antoine Russell, our new security expert. He wants to ease the tension, but the sweat on his forehead betrays his anguish.

It is deeply traumatizing to be trapped like this in a building, calling for help and yet have no one come to your rescue because you are in a danger zone. On top of that, we have food and water supply just for one day. And there is not a single first aid kit or even one aspirin. There is just enough fuel to run the generator for eight hours. But all of us do our best to handle the situation. At the end of the day, nobody got hurt or injured.

On Friday morning at around 10 o'clock, three UN tanks show up, but like in the old western movies, they arrive only when situation starts to improve. But we still have to stay here for another night because some parts of the city are still dangerous. Our "hotel" has an entertainment program scheduled for the evening. The events organizer Xavier Blaes manages God knows how he did that to get a copy of Casino Royale, the latest James Bond movie. A good number of us watch it in the meeting room on the sixth floor.

Invisible wounds

The UN peacekeeping forces show up with food around 11:00 at night. This is our survival ration. The next morning, everybody wakes up early. There is no more rocket propelled grenade wake up calls. We are all desperate to go back home. Eventually, around midday, we are allowed to head home but not to wander around, as the government forces still search for Bemba's soldiers scattered in town.

Two weeks after the events, the shattered glasses and bullet marks are still there, reminding us of what we had gone through. Looking at the faces of my colleagues, it is obvious that we have yet to recover from the invisible wounds.

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