Monday, March 16, 2015

Inside The Heart of Darkness (part 6)

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
 of 'Inside The Heart of Darkness'
The next morning we were determined to catch the first mini-bus to Goma, a city sitting on Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes and one of three exploding lakes in the world. Once we were in Goma, along the Rwandan border, we knew we’d be out of harm’s way.

Or would we?

We got to the mini-bus station in Butembo at 7:30 and were among the first passengers to arrive. We made a major mistake not sitting in the first row alongside the driver. The mini-bus was an outdated Japanese model with five rows and fifteen seats total. David and I sat in one of the passenger rows and, as it quickly filled up, realized just how uncomfortable this was going to be.

The mini-bus driver wouldn’t leave until there were five people sitting in each row, which was built to hold three. Each person was forced to sit completely perpendicular to the row directly in front of him.

The trip was excruciatingly painful, even more than the ride to Butembo. I had no choice but to stand up and align my back with the mini-bus’ ceiling for long stretches of time.

“Congo people treat each other like cattle,” an obese elderly woman on the other side of our row said to us in English. “No one cares about life or death in this country or how anybody feels.”

“It’s good we’re leaving,” David said to me with a nod.

We stopped at various towns where the driver would chat with his buddies or leave to buy groceries, but wouldn’t let anyone out for a short break. He even locked the door so no one had a chance to get out. All the passengers passively stayed inside, too uncomfortable to complain.

We were, however, able to open up the windows, but when we did, local peddlers would stuff in whatever goods they could, literally in our face. At one point, I thought the elderly Congolese woman sitting in our row was going to suffocate from all the bundles of onion grass being pushed up in her face.

Military checkpoints were the one place our driver never stopped. Each time we arrived at a checkpoint, he accelerated to blaze past the soldiers on duty. The soldiers manning the posts would try to run after us. The driver would throw a fistful of francs out the window, and they’d cease their chase and wave at our fleeing vehicle to say thanks.

Eight hours later at Goma, my legs and back were so stiff I could initially only walk at half my normal pace. This made us easy prey for a tout to walk alongside us and bring us to a hotel of his choosing. The tout was a short, friendly character who looked like he had some Pygmy background in him. He told us he dreamed of becoming a doctor one day and that escorting folks like us was just a way for him to make some cash on the side.

He took us to a hotel in a somewhat seedy-looking part of town that had a bar and brothel attached. We were escorted to our room by a two hundred pound Congolese prostitute with partially dyed blonde hair, atrocious makeup, and a nice amount of facial hair sprouting from her chin. She tried to rub my back with her hand to gauge my sexual interest in her, but her touch startled me to such a degree that I jumped back in fear.

The room itself was small with only one bed for David and me to share. There was a strong stench of body odor too. But it had a sink with running water, a working light bulb, and a place on the door knob to put our own lock. We were only going to be staying that night and the following night, since our plan from the start was to cross into Rwanda on April 11, my mother’s birthday.

Goma was the epicenter of the refugee crisis stemming from the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and was a central battleground during the first and second Congo wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To add insult to injury, in 2002 Goma was in the direct path of volcanic eruption of Mount Nyiragongo's eruption.  The lava stream measured two hundred to a thousand meters wide. The lava destroyed more than forty percent of the city and more than a hundred people were killed by asphyxiation from the massive release of carbon dioxide.

The aftermath of Niyragongo's eruption in 2002. The city of Goma was completely leveled.

There were no paved roads in Goma. All vehicles travel over carefully placed gravel to reach their destinations. Thousands of inhabitants wandered the streets aimlessly, trying to pick up any type of odd job that would net them a few thousand francs. But due to all the recent chaos, many of the buildings there are fairly new, giving the city a cheerful appeal.

Compared to where we’d been, Goma was an exciting boom-town brimming with opportunity and potential. We marveled at the array of goods on display in the grocery stores and the variety of restaurants. That we were able to eat at Indian food made us feel like we’d emerged from the wilderness for good.

There were white people too! Hundreds of them, mostly foreign transplants temporarily living in Goma working in professions geared towards turning chaos into order. We made it, we told ourselves. We casually approached foreigners on the streets, in the markets, at restaurants, and asked them what they were doing in the DRC. We heard the same story over and over about working for some NGO or the UN.

“What are you doing here?” they’d ask us in response.

“Oh you know, we’re just traveling,” we’d answer, to which we’d receive a number of responses.

“You’re what?!”

“Traveling?! Is that even possible in Congo?”

“In three years of living here, you’re the second and third travelers I’ve seen. The only other one was a crazy Japanese guy.”

Listening to their stories of leaving Goma via plane or armored convoy only increased the degree of awesomeness we felt.

On our last night in Congo our stories of adventure managed to get us invited to a house party at a mansion on the banks of Lake Kivu. The soiree was hosted by an American woman serving as the director of an NGO focused on child welfare. There, David and I feasted on delicious hors d’oeuvres and drank nice glasses of wine. For the first time in ten days, we enjoyed pleasant and intellectually stimulating conversation with people other than ourselves.

At the end of the night, the hostess recommended we wait around the neighborhood for motorcycle taxi drivers to pick us up and take us back to our hotel, less than a kilometer away. David and I thanked her for the suggestion, but we had other plans for getting home.

We were ready to leave for Rwanda early the next morning, so this would conceivably be our last experience in Congo. We chose to stroll back to our hotel taking in the city’s scenery and nightlife and marvel at what we’d done on our trip. The path was fairly well-lit and patrolled by police officers every few blocks, so we figured we’d be safe.

It was mostly quiet and peaceful as we walked, except for the distant thumping of music from a few nearby bars and nightclubs.

When we turned off the main road on to the dark side street where our hotel was, a gang of five young Congolese, three men and two women, approached us. Their leader, a muscular aggressive man who could have been any age, offered David and me a fist bump and greeting.

Ca va? Tres bien?” he asked as we politely pounded his fists. How are you? Everything is good? “Ja bra! Rastafari! Rastafari!”

In East Africa, a lot of criminals will try to gain their prey’s trust by saying they are Rastafarians, a religion that theoretically espouses a philosophy of peace and brotherly love. Every time someone bragged he was a Rastafarian, my stomach tightened up. 

The gang leader continued to babble something incomprehensible in French, while the rest of his gang stood by silently. When he stopped talking, he unexpectedly swung his hand in the direction of my front right pocket, apparently trying to reach for my wallet.

I pushed his hand away and stepped back further into the darkness. David did the opposite, backing up onto the well-lit main road. My predator screamed with frustration.

Before I could even think or just move out of the way, he picked up a massive rock lying that measured almost a meter in length came up to me fast, then threw it just high enough for it to land directly on top of me.

I was lucky I managed to deflect the rock with my left arm and watch it fall back to the ground.
If the rock had landed on my head I would have been dead. If he had thrown it at my foot, it would have caused serious damage and my stay in Africa would have been finished.

Sadly, what it did do was dislocate my shoulder. Dislocations are agonizing. I was unable to stand up straight or move my arm in any direction. I was totally incapacitated and vulnerable. Scared and completely unable to defend myself, I lay on my back on the ground and protected my injured shoulder and arm as best I could.

One of the other men in the gang, clearly nervous that his leader had severely injured someone, went through my front pockets trying to steal everything I had. Once he was satisfied he’d cleaned me out for good, he and the others ran away.

David found me lying on the ground and helped me up. I went through my pockets and saw those assholes didn’t even find my money because I’d been lying on top of it while trying to protect myself. The only thing the gang made off with was my head flashlight and a broken mobile phone that had been given to me by a Lebanese businessman we’d met earlier. Ironically, if my attacker had simply asked me for money, I would have given it to him. I wasn’t walking around at night in the Congo with my passport or lots of cash and credit cards. I had the equivalent six dollars tucked away in my back pocket.

David was scratched up as well. While my pockets were being checked, the two women in the group had thrown rocks at him too, though much smaller ones. Most of their rocks missed him, but he did get pelted a few times in his thighs and waist.

We saw three motorcycle taxi drivers parked a twenty meters away watching us. They saw the whole thing and hadn't to lift a finger to help us.

I was in agonizing pain, but I managed to remain fairly calm. We got to our hotel and went to our room wondering what to do: Should we immediately get our things and somehow try to get to a hospital in Rwanda or go to the nearest medical clinic in Goma?

With every passing second, I was in danger of suffering long-term shoulder damage. David grabbed all the cash we had left, no more than seventy dollars in total, and hailed the motorcycle drivers to take us to the nearest hospital.

Hôpital! Hôpital!” he shouted, stirring two of the drivers to action.

David helped me sit up on the backseat of one of the motorcycles as I cradled my useless left arm. He hopped on the back of the other and we were driven a few bouncy kilometers over gravel roads to a medical clinic. When we got off the motorcycles, David offered the drivers a sum they believed was too little. Disgusted by them for not helping us before and for being petty now, David took out another five hundred franc bill, spat in it, and threw it at the ground before escorting me inside the building. 

We sat in the waiting room with three other people in much worse shape than me. They also looked like they’d been attacked by rocks. Unlike me, they were bleeding from head wounds and fading in and out of consciousness. A male doctor came to speak to us and told us that they would only begin giving me medical treatment if we paid a sum of four hundred dollars in cash. David dumped out the remaining seventy dollars we had in Congolese francs, pulled his pockets inside out, and conveyed that that was literally all the money we had left. The doctor relented.

First, a female nurse cut off my black long-sleeve short and took an X-ray of my shoulder. The X-ray confirmed I did not have a break or a fracture, just a complete dislocation. Next, I was brought into another room with a mattress on the floor and another female nurse preparing an IV. The doctor entered the room and put on surgical gloves. They were planning to make me unconscious before putting my shoulder back into place.

That was when I really got scared. I was terrified of having a dirty needle stuck in my arm in the Congo. God knew if their equipment was sanitary. I tried to show them with my limited French and hand signals that I preferred if they just sat me in a chair and forcefully put my shoulder together without any anesthetic. I knew it would hurt like hell, but the pain would be temporary.

Regrettably, the two nurses and medic refused to do things the way I wished and prodded me to lie down on the mattress on my right side. I acquiesced as one of the nurses stuck an IV in my hand. David sat in a chair facing me so that I wouldn’t feel alone.

As I felt the anesthetic flow, I realized I had no idea what I was being injected with. I didn’t know if it was the right chemical or the appropriate dosage. I estimated there was a fifty-fifty chance whatever it was would cause my heart to stop and I’d be dead on the spot.

I began talking to God. Prayer isn’t an accurate way to describe what I was doing because I felt compelled to apologize more than request to be saved. I apologized for my arrogance and stupidity at thinking I could make it through one of the most dangerous places on Earth without harm. I apologized for the pain that my death would cause my family and friends, on my mother’s birthday no less.

“I am sorry for being such a selfish asshole,” I repeated out loud, wondering if I would ever wake up again.

“The last words you actually said were, ‘He threw a rock at me,’” David said with a smirk when I opened my eyes forty minutes later.

I glanced down at myself and saw that my arm was safely back in place and taped up in a sling.
“I watched the whole thing,” David continued. “I think they fixed you up pretty professionally. You can’t take off that sling for a few hours though.”

That meant I wouldn’t be able to wear a t-shirt properly for the rest of the day. No worries, I told myself. That was the least of my troubles.

David and I returned to our hotel and tried to sleep for a couple hours. It was impossible. My shoulder was sore, but that wasn’t the reason. I couldn’t sleep because I was filled with so much pent up rage over what had just happened. No matter what I did I couldn’t fall asleep. After two hours, I woke David up and told him I had to leave the DRC as soon as possible.

David carried one of my backpacks for me as we made our way by foot to the border crossing.  While we passed through border control, two English-speaking Congolese policemen asked what happened to me. After telling them about the attack, they said they were surprised no policeman was there to stop it.

“Nothing else works in your country,” I said bitterly. “Why should the police force?”

I took my passport back after getting my glorious exit stamp, gazed out at the Rwandan countryside, and never looked back at Congo again.

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