Seven a.m. and I'm already tired. I shouldn't be tired. I went to bed at a reasonable hour last night and the usually heat-ridden Kalemie was unusually cool.
My workday hasn’t even begun and already I’m behind schedule. I hate being behind schedule. It doesn’t really matter today. I only have 5 legs and plenty of time to work with, but still, I hate landing at an airstrip later than the arbitrary time prescribed on the piece of paper that dictates what I am to do today.
Finally taxi onto runway 06 thirty minutes after I should have, push the throttle forward, give the engine gauges a quick glance as my passengers and I accelerate down the asphalt and take to the air. Beneath us Lake Taganyika with it’s sandy beaches and Kalemie with its mud huts slowly fall away. A quick turn to the west to avoid the thunderstorm releasing its cache of rain just a few miles off the nose begins another normal day of flying in DRC.
The legs between stops are pretty short today, all being no more than 30 minutes except the last one. That last hop goes from Kasongo to Goma, a solid hour and 45 minutes, which I’m always less than excited about but I won’t complain. I won’t complain because normally there’s a stop in Bukavu before ending the day in Goma. Although it’s been getting a little better there lately, Bukavu is not exactly my favorite place, nor is it anyone else’s for that matter. The fact that I won’t have to stop there means I might actually make it through a day of flying without losing my cool and getting into a knock-down, drag-out with the R.V.A. over passenger fees, inflated exchange rates, the condition of my U.S. greenbacks, the usual attempted extortions and all around general emotional stress. This makes me happy.
Leveling off at 12,500 ft on the backside of the day with Nyunzu, Kabalo, Kongolo and Kasongo behind me I hit the auto-pilot, do all the paperwork I can and let my mind drift while watching the little airplane track north on the magenta line of the GPS and waiting for the ETE to reach 00:00. To the drone of the engine my mind slowly wanders to the landing at Moba yesterday. I’m still pissed about that. Freaking U.N.
I like going to Moba. Actually I love going to Moba. Moba is beautiful. Sitting quietly on the southern shores of Tanganyika, hemmed in tightly by dramatic, sharply rising terrain Moba could almost be described as idyllic. It’s dirt freaking poor as all villages in DRC are but every time I go there I find myself wistfully thinking that I’m going to spend my next R&R here. I have no idea where one could stay in Moba and there’s absolutely nothing to do there but sometime down the road I want to spend a couple of days there. The mornings would be filled playing soccer with kids, afternoons wandering along the narrow, rocky beaches or maybe walking a couple kilometers across the flat, palm tree scattered plains to the hills and hike to their rocky, outcropped tops. Nights would be dedicated to laying out and looking at the stars.
Maybe I could create some mechanical problem there sometime, I'm great at coming up realistic stories:
“Hello Pierre? Hey this is Josh. Yeah I just landed in Moba and the weirdest thing happened. I left the plane for a minute and when I came back the engine cowling was open and my battery was missing. Crazy right? So if you could send a new battery down that’d be great. Oh, but there’s ummm....locusts....swarms and swarms of locusts here so, uhhh....don’t try to send a plane with it for a few days. I’m sure they’ll be gone soon. Great thanks. Oh and I’ll be down on the beach with my phone turned off in case you try to get in touch with me.”
It’s just really cool being there, if only for 20 minutes while you drop off or pickup the usual load of passengers or cargo. Not more than a stone throws’ away from where you park the plane are mud huts and their tawny grass roofs. There’s always a crowd of onlookers, mostly children, who line the edge of the runway and look wide-eyed at the mzungu and his airplane slowing to a stop and casually hopping out.
“Jambo” 80 or so voices all reply in perfect unison followed by the predictable held out hands and sad puppy eyes.
If I have any extra, a few lucky kids will a get a package of cookies or a juice box, running off the instant it’s in their hands, squealing wildly to brag to their friends what they got.
That didn’t happen yesterday. I was too pissed. As I was approaching Moba from the northwest there was a UN helicopter coming in to land as well. He was lower and a mile or two closer than I was so he would be landing first. We crossed paths going in opposite directions as we both overflew the airport in the normal perfunctory procedure of scanning the strip for condition and obstacles prior to swinging around to set up to land. There was a thin scattered layer of clouds between me and the dirt strip but the runway looked clear and at the moment I was more interested in keeping tabs on the helo. The pilots were Russian, betrayed by their thick roosky accents and curt, vague and generally unhelpful position reports.
Comfortable with the amount of time and distance I had given them and certain that they were on the ground I came around on a long final, slowed the plane down, gave everything one last look and, content with how the airplane was configured, focused on the approach to landing. On short final crossing the threshold I could see on the other end of the runway what looked like a ditch or...something. That’s weird. I was just here a couple of days ago and don’t remember seeing that there before. I tried to get a better look but couldn’t as I concentrated on the touchdown. As the plane came into contact with the dirt and gravel, throttle going into Beta and gently coming on the brakes the supposed ditch came into focus. That’s not a ditch, those are men. That’s a lot of men. That’s a lot of men lined up going down the length of the freaking runway.
Now, I know they saw me. It’d be pretty hard not see or at least hear a Caravan circling overhead, lining up and touching down. People walking on or across a runway in Congo is a very normal, daily occurrence, in fact it seems to be the case more often than not. You see them, they see you and they get out of way, it’s normally pretty simple. The thought of going around never occured to me - they would, of course, move. Besides at this point it was too late to go around and to deviate from the centerline would mean going off into a deep ditch and the tall grass. But these genius’s apparently thought it would be a good idea to wait as long as possible before clearing out of the way. I looked on in horror at the whites of their saucer-plate wide eyes as they scattered and ran clear as I coasted past not more than a couple meters from several of them.
Those guys are soldiers. Blue helmets to be specific, UN peackeepers.
As I came to a stop, seething at the thought of having narrowly missed these guys my mind was desperately trying to provide an answer as to why these morons had been standing in a huge group on my runway. As I shutdown the ‘vans engine I glanced over my shoulder and watched them slowly form up again on the runway.
You’ve got to be kidding me
I stared on in disbelief as well over 200 armed men gathered back onto the runway and formed up in lines at attention while some pot-bellied commander waited for them to finish while looking in my direction.
I jumped out of the plane, my eyes fixed on the guy who appeared to be in charge and fought every fiber in my body that desperately wanted to storm over and berate him about whose brilliant idea it was to muster the troops for inspection on A FREAKING RUNWAY particularly when SOMEBODY IS TRYING TO LAND!!!
I stood there, fists clenched, trying to ignore the faint, calm voice in my head, pleading me not to go over there and make a scene.
They have guns, it said
“What are they going to do, shoot me?”
They have egos to protect
“Those egos need to be taken down a notch or two”
Do you really think anyone who assembles a large mass of men on a runway is going to listen to reason?
Reluctantly I gave in to it, shot the officer one last dirty look and turned around to find my passengers. Soon everybody was onboard and the soldiers, much to my dismay, were breaking up. I was really hoping to force them off the runway again with my take off but it wasn’t meant to be. I started up the engine, taxied into position and was off again.
Back on the ramp in Goma waiting for the perpetually slow fuel truck to show up I watched the bustling activity go on around me. As there had been yesterday, there were lots of soldiers standing around and loading up onto more Russian piloted aircraft. Except this these soldiers weren’t UN, they were Congolese.
“Papi, what’s going on? Where are all these soldiers going?”
“They are going to Walikale. They go to fight the Hutus”
“Serious? Are they FARDC (the official Conoglese Army)?”
“Some are, but ones with better uniforms, they are CNDP”
“WHAT!? Those are CNDP? What are they doing here with FARDC?”
“They fight together now against the Hutu’s. Eh, I don’t know. It’s very complicated.”
For anyone not up on their Congolese current events/rebel army activity, the CNDP has been for the past +10 years the largest, most organized, and disciplined rebel army in the eastern Congo/North Kivu province. These were the dudes who last November decided to invade Goma, causing a widespread evacuation of the international aid community based in Goma, the displacement of up to several hundred thousand people and a massive humanitarian crisis.
Now, 3 months later, apparently their presence in Goma is a non-event and have evidently joined up with the national army, simply adding another layer of complexity to an already overly complicated and turbulent area.
The fuel truck eventually showed up, as did usual dust-covered, blue AirServ Toyota “Troopie” to bring me back to the house. I had started off this morning tired and I was even more so now. Throwing my bags in the back, I crawled onto one of the dirty bench seats in back and laid down as the driver began our trek back to Base 4. Much like one of those old, rickety, wooden rollercoasters, within minutes my head, neck and back started to hurt and I begin to wonder why I had voluntarily come on this ride, swearing never to do it again if I survived the violent, ground-induced turbulence as we bounced along the craggy roads of Goma. Pulling out my iPod and throwing my hat over my face I closed my eyes, attempted to shut out the world and forget, at least for a few minutes, where on earth I was.