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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Eastern Congo Update

Ok, so here's the skinny on the last 24 hours. Yesterday afternoon I flew out of Nairobi. The way things were working out, I was going to have to sit in Nairobi for 5 hours, catch a flight to Kigali (which involves flying directly over Entebbe), sit for another 6 hours and then hopefully fly to Entebbe - but as I would find out, pilot uniforms and those chessy striped epaulets can be a real God-send and actually serve a purpose.

The night before I was still in Mombasa, sweating away and trying to find a way back to Nairobi. I ended up hopping on a bus and cruising 8 hours through the night, arriving at Jomo Kenyatta International a solid 6 hours before I actually had to check in. Stepping off the bus and into the first rays of light from the rising sun I headed straight for the Kenyan Airways ticketing office to see if I could change my destination direct to Entebbe and save myself from an entire day of sitting around various eastern African airports (because God knows I already do enough of that on a day-to-day basis). Tired, unshaven, pretty haggard looking and in my normal street clothes I was told that if I wanted to change my ticket to the 1pm flight to Entebbe I would buy a whole new ticket.


So I walked out of the ticketing office, grabbed a cup of coffee and some breakfast, then went and changed into my pilot uniform and marched back into the ticketing office with my chest out and fingers crossed that somebody new would be there - luckily there was. I showed the woman behind the counter my badge with "Humanitarian Aviation - Pilot" written on it.

"Have you been watching the news the last couple of days? Have you heard about the fighting in Goma?"

She nods slowly

"Well that's where I live and all my friends and co-workers are evacuating to Uganda. I need to get to Entebbe right now. You HAVE to get me that 1pm flight to Uganda" I tell her as sternly and with as much authority as I can.

Eyes wide and moving like she had a purpose she started typing away on her computer and making phone calls. No more than 5 mintues later I had a new ticket in hand marked "Humanitarian Aid Worker - No Fees - Entebbe" As I watched her at work, it took everything in me to keep a serious face and not start laughing - I can't believe this is actually working.

I'd like to take a moment now to rescind all the complaining and whining I've done over the past few months about the complete impracticality and total goofy appearance of being a bush pilot in the middle of Africa and wearing the standard white pilot shirt with 4 stripes on my shoulders. As I have slowly come to see, they actually can serve a purpose and unlike back home in the States, command a level of respect here that I never would have anticipated in a million years.

A few hours later I was touching down in Uganda, walked straight through customs and the lines of passengers waiting to get stamped into the country without so much as slowing down (man these uniforms are really something) and was back at the AirServ crew house in 10 minutes flat.
The crew house is where I find myself now and I suspect where I will be for some time to come.

Here's the update on Goma and the fighting in eastern DRC:

By Thursday a cease-fire had been announced. The crazy thing is, it appears to have been unilaterally declared by the invading rebel CNDP forces. Under the threat of the advancing 5,000 CNDP soliders, approximately 5,000 UN peackeepers and 20,000 FARDC Congolese soldiers simply melted away into the jungles and neighboring Rwanda. As far as I know, there are little to no Congolese soldiers left and only 800 UN soldiers remaining in Goma. Now a mere 7 km out and surrounding the city, Laruent Nkunda, the rebel leader and his soldiers are waiting.

While the fate of Goma and the future actions of the rebels are far from known, for the moment life is slowly and cautiously returning to normal. Rebels have allowed displaced people to return to their homes and aid workers to back to the city to continue their work. The really frustrating thing is that it seems that the majority of the killing, looting, rapes and overall destruction was caused not by the incoming rebels by rather by the retreating Congolese soldiers. This afternoon I got a text from a friend in Goma saying (and this is unconfirmed) that a town just an hours' drive to the north of Goma where she normally works is now part of a new country with a national anthem and everything - crazy!

So now we wait for the decision to return to Goma. Given the uncertainty of what could happen, the continued presence of the surrounding rebels and the tenuous cease-fire, I'm afraid we could be waiting for a while.


Anonymous said...

alright, prisoners have uniforms with stripes too. hop down off the high horse big boy

Pilgrim said...

God gave everyone two feet to walk with. But if He gives you a high horse it must be for a reason. So get on it and take it for a ride.

That Guy Who Says Things said...

glad to hear you are safe. thanks for once again putting the problems of my life into perspective. sad, pathetic, vegan perspective.

Josh said...

Interesting stuff...I need to correct you on those stripes though. Albeit their power has diminished in the last 50 years, I wear them everyday to work and they still convey respect. Maybe it has something to do with the person wearing the stripes though. ;-)