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 4x4 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.
Were we ordering food, I thought? Within minutes, I got the answer – no. We were ushered down, and there was this old, grey, stick-shift 1980s Toyota Corolla waiting for us, with a driver. I got in the back. We started driving, westward, past the border town, into the Virunga.
After about 10 minutes we hit a police checkpoint. Apparently our security guy went to check in to clear us through. We saw him exit the vehicle, and walk over to a couple non-uniformed men standing by the checkpoint. The checkpoint itself was nothing more than a small concrete kiosk with a bar blocking the road. The car pulled a little ahead and waited.
Ten minutes passed, and we started talking. “What the hell happened to our security guy?” I asked.
Moe said, jokingly, “He probably got arrested”.
But another ten minutes passed, then another. Our driver went to check. And came back and spoke to Moe. Moe said, “He got arrested.”
“On what charge?” I asked.
“They just arrested our security guy?”
And for some bizarre reason we all started laughing. “What the heck”, I said, “Shouldn’t we get this guy out?”
“The bribe is probably $1000”, said Moe. “Let’s go”
“So we’re just going to leave him in jail?” I asked.
“Yes. Let’s go”. And again, perhaps to relieve the tension, we all started laughing again. Moe then said, “Wait. Wait. Let’s only laugh once we have made it out of Congo.” We shook hands, and laughed that one off. I snapped a photo. This trip was really starting to get jacked up. I have no idea what happened to this cat, but he probably paid a much smaller bribe and eventually walked out an hour later. The police chief had sent us a strong message: refuse my services, and I’m going to mess with you.
We were supposed to pick up another security guy at the town of Beni, and they would arm themselves there. But we were under no illusions that that guy was probably not going to be here. We were now going into the Congo, without a guide, and without any armed security.
Please note that there were times when entering this border checkpoint was reasonably safer – but the recent flare-up, not only in the past year, but literally in the past 24 hours, had officially shut the border down. This is a short-hand way of saying: the checkpoint mafia can’t fleece as many goods or people coming in and out, and ratchet up their operations on people that do…
On paper, Virunga is Congolese national park, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a beautiful landscape that alternates between savannah and tropical jungle, and between stretches of plain and rugged mountain – seemingly at every bend or hill you went over. The reality was that it was also patrolled heavily by the ADF. There is no electricity out here, but pockets where you can get cell phone reception. A dirt road cuts through this part of the Virunga – at times you can see evidence of recent attempts to widen the road or to flatten it – but it is generally a dirt road, with potholes, loose rocks, and dust. Our driver, who I’ll call Pockmark (for obvious reasons), was gunning along this stretch at a ridiculous 80-90 kmph (50 and above mph). We were bouncing all over the place and clouds of dust would enter the car. It was an insane ride, and I have a newfound respect for 1980s Toyotas, because this car took a serious beating. Serious beating, and we were zipping along, bypassing the occasional cargo truck, and other trucks packed to the brim with supplies and humanity – there are no buses here. Many of these trucks carried one or two Congolese soldiers with their Kalashnikovs pointed at the sky. That was the extent of any security I saw provided here.
Immediately I could see this trip going bad. The driver had little clue where we wanted to go, and was literally stopping at every village to ask for directions. He was also alerting everyone in the area that a muzungu was here. At every turn, I’d impatiently ask Moe, “Can’t you tell him to get back in the car??”
We continued, with the aim of checking out a gold mine before we got into the town of Beni. Finally, a villager told us – take this road up the hill for five kilometers. You’ll find a mine. We cut off the road, took a right, and started up this savannah like hill. After about two kilometers, the dirt road turned nearly impassable, the grade got steep, and the terrain shifted back to jungle. I was amazed this Toyota was still chugging along with four people inside. One more mud hut, and a couple farmers. Their directions: Continue up the road. When it becomes impassable, continue on foot for 12 kilometers to the top of the mountain – it’s all gold there.
This is ridiculous, I thought from a logistics standpoint. It would be dark by the time we even got to the top. Plus we have no water. I heard Moe and Fedex switch over to Swahili, where I made out two words I was all too familiar with: security and ambush
Finally, Moe said to me, “If we leave the car and go up that mountain, we’ll surely be ambushed. Everyone knows we’re here by now”.
I couldn’t have agreed more. We turned the car around, but we did pause briefly to take in the scenery, and I took this photo. Then Moe pointed out cracks in the packed dirt around. “See that?! That is gold. It does this to the land. This whole mountain – gold…”
We pressed – a mostly uneventful journey through winding mountain dirt roads. We passed several Uganda-bound trucks. Moe would look at them briefly and state, rather proud of his knowledge, the contents of each truck, and which mineral they most likely contained. This part of Congo was immensely mineral rich.
We rolled into Beni, just past the Virunga area. It’s a sad little town, but there is a roundabout, and there is a stretch of paved road, amazingly enough. Once again, the same scene, though not as rough as the border town of Kisane. Within a minute of being in the town, a white UN marked truck whizzed by, with soldiers that, were I to take a guess, were very Mongolian looking. Moments later, a militia truck, with people inside, partially clothes in fatigues and whatever suited them at the moment.
Who controlled this town anyway? It was, in the words of the counterinsurgent theorist David Kilcullen, a sort of feral city – one that on the surface resembled anarchy, but somehow maintained itself – a mini version of Mogadishu. Shockingly enough, the Wikipedia entry for Beni claims it has 100,000 people. I would have guessed close to a quarter of that, given the level of infrastructure that was low even for regional standards. The photo below was the nicest part of an otherwise giant, sprawling shanty-town.
If I had to describe my experience in Congo thus far, it was as if I was entering a society that knew I was an interloper, but gave me a glance over, and figured I was not a threat, wasn’t worth that much money, and therefore left me alone. I couldn’t help but feel that were I clearly on the look-out for gold, or perhaps even heavily armed, I might have been in more danger. It was clear that the relevant people in town knew I was here – there was constantly that unshaking feeling you get when you know people are watching you, but have chosen not to mess with you, and that if we got out unscathed, it would be because of external forces, not because of any precautions we had taken.
We rolled into a hotel the driver recommended, off the main road and about 50 yards into a side-road. It was walled, and had an 8 foot tall metal gate. Moe explained, “The police chief recommended a hotel. But I don’t want to go there. He tried to cheat us, and they might do the same at his hotel.” And the all too familiar, “Wait here”. I didn’t like it, but I waited in the car, and threw some shades on, and whipped out a local newspaper we had in the car, to try to appear busy and like I knew what I was doing. The logic was that if a muzungu walked into the hotel, we would immediately double our cost of staying there.
About five minutes later, after I digested an article about 23 girls being expelled from a Ugandan school for being “lesbians” (the region is incredibly homophobic), the trio returned, and wanted to check out the other hotel. “It’s not safe in this town”, Moe concluded. Days later, when I had time to properly research the situation in much more depth, I could only agree. Who knows what would have happened if we had decided to spend the night in that town. As in many contested locations in low-intensity conflict areas, during the day, the side with the biggest guns (in this case the UN troops) may patrol freely – but unless the patrols are continuing 24-7, it’s a completely different town at night.
Recent news articles paint a grimmer picture of the town of Beni: it controls a vital four way intersection, surrounded by impenetrable rain forest and the Rwenzori and Virunga mountains, and is thus strategically important. To the north is the Beni airstrip, about 4-5 kilometers away from the center of town – that roundabout I mentioned earlier. The greater area is contested by over 20 armed groups, with the current big dogs (the UN mission, or MONUSCO, and the Congolese military, or FARDC) able to really only patrol within the city limits – and I would even question their ability to maintain control at night. If you do a google search for Beni, DR Congo, you get such fantastic headlines such as “36 Kidhapped in DR Congo’s Beni territory” (October 2013 – Daily Nation), or “UN Force Fires on Ugandan Rebels in DR Congo after Deadly Attack” (December 25, 2013 – Times of India), or from the BBC, also in December 2013: “[20 Women and] Children Killed in DR Congo Attack, say UN Peacekepers”.
We went north about 2 clicks (kilometers), passing into jungle road again, with the odd mud hut here and there, before passing a small developed area, and then, all of a sudden, a beautiful mansion, surrounded by a beautiful (and I say beautiful because most walls here are cracked and dirt stained), white wall. It had a sliding metal gate. The lawn inside was nicely manicured, and I could make out a pool – all in all about 4 beautiful buildings in this compound. And the name: The Albertine Hotel. Parked in front of the white compound wall were two Toyota Land Rovers, fitted to look like technicals. The front one sported a sexy 12.7mm Dshk heavy machine gun. Several thuggish looking men in tight cammies and red bandanas were dismounted, and standing about, with a few more sitting outboard on the side of the truck bed, with their legs dangling over the side. Nope, not the bloods, but apparently Congolese fashion. The trucks also sported red flags.
The one guy walking around seemed to be in charge of this troupe, and he had a sidearm awkwardly strapped (rear facing) on his left lower thigh, though he was clearly right handed, by the way he positioned his AKM. He would have had to lean over, grab his sidearm using his right arm, pull the weapon up and then rotate it outwards to fire. And this would have been all but impossible were he sitting down. I dismissed these guys as thugs with limited military training, though they had the word “COMMANDO” etched onto the truck hood. It was all too easy for me to do this, as I was biased in my view of what constituted proper military appearance or tactics.
We decided to take lunch at the hotel, and Moe was anxious for me to try a tilapia, though I honestly was eying the spaghetti on the menu. I reluctantly agreed and we were seated. The restaurant was on the second and top floor, and overlooked the gated entrance. The food was actually pretty good.
The hotel manager then greeted us, and asked that we check out his accommodation. We agreed reluctantly, fearing we would be trapped here. The rooms were pleasant, however, but pricey. The feel of the Albertine is much like that of a good boutique hotel you’d find in many of the world’s smaller cities – small enough to maybe give it an “inn” feel, but large enough to give you some anonymity. Moe figured it would be safer here, however, for me, being non-black and all. However, Fedex, being the Congolese, suggested he himself stay out in town near the driver to save our party money. This was about the only time I disagreed outright with them, who up to now were phenomenal in guiding us to this location, and I insisted that I pay for Fedex out of pocket, preferring to keep the team together. Days after our adventure, Moe would confide, “That was the moment we knew we could trust you. Any businessman here trying to get gold would have let Fedex stay out in town”.
And so, we were effectively, really trapped in this compound now. Moe suggested we take a break, and around 7 or 8 we would get together and get some food – he and Fedex were going to make some calls and see what we could do – not only about finding a mine, but about getting out of here.
I was bored and ambled over to the pool after dropping my daypack off in my room. The pool area was actually quite nice, with a bar, and three or four sections of tables cordoned off from each other – allowing customers to choose whether they wanted to dine or drink on the lawn, on a porch, poolside, or restaurant-side. I noticed a 30ish European female at one end, plugging away at her MacBook (my first thought: UN or NGO), a table with a couple men in military fatigues, and a group of 4-5 middle-aged European-looking men, who I quickly made out to be Russian at the other end of the pool, a couple of whom in swimming trunks and t-shirts. With them were two tall and thin Congolese women, most likely prostitutes, (maybe it was the platform shoes and the skintight, flashy red and orange yoga-type pants they wore?)
I walked up to the bar, and ordered the most Congolese looking beer I could find. And the bartender said that would be $3 (for a 40 oz.) I gave the man a $5 only to have him return it and say, “Do you have any newer bills?”
It was a bill in excellent shape. I jokingly protested, rather stupidly, “This is my country’s money, I can use it there, but can’t use it here?!” and gave him another bill.
I settled back in a table next to the men in fatigues, where I could also see both the UN lady and the Russians, and just took in the scene. And after a couple sips, Moe and Fedex appeared, and Moe immediately said, “See that?” referring to the Russians. “Russian Mafia. They are very powerful here. They have their own helicopters here. Last month, I heard they raided a rebel camp, and stole some of their gold”.
I asked about the women. “Congolese women”, Moe confirmed. Then went on to say, “Congolese women like to wear bright clothing. That’s how you tell them apart from Ugandan women. See those two women there? Bright, bright clothing.” He then explained the plan, “Around 8, the driver and our new guide will come and take us for dinner. Tomorrow, we are still trying to get into a mine.”
Moe and I decided, at his suggestion, to kill time by going for a swim. It was really bizarre, but we figured we had nothing better to do. I’ll never forget just splashing along in a pool, with Russian mafia and Congolese armed thugs around me.
Around this time, a man in a white track suit appeared with his entourage and sat down at the table next to ours, which was already occupied by a couple other people in fatigues.
Fedex immediately told us he was a general. The others at his table were in fatigues, but his shiny white adidas track suit was clearly his status symbol. I recall Iraqi Army officers having the same sense of style. For some reason the officers always wore track suits. It was textbook lame in my book. You couldn’t look more third world than that!
Little did we know at the time that the man in the shiny white track suit was actually Colonel Mamadu Ndala, and two others, possibly men at that table, would be killed by RPG and small arms fire one kilometer up the road in less than 48 hours, by the ADF no less.
It was now evening, and the Russians were ready to leave, but they were clearly drunk, and two of them got into an argument with the waiter off to the side. Eventually they began heaving their glasses against the wall, breaking a couple in the process. The waiter calmly stood there, and I took one last look at the Colonel’s entourage, which also calmly went about discussing the day’s events. I would later find out they were discussing how they had just successfully repelled an ADF attack. Irony can be cruel I suppose.
I have not been able to find any other information from Russian Mafia in the Congo other than possibly hearsay from three people. However, I really don’t know how else to explain the presence of (to put it mildly) misbehaving middle aged Russian men in the middle of a shady compound in eastern DR Congo – other than perhaps, just perhaps they were security contractors or mining advisors or NGOs. But they were certainly not NGO types, certainly not schoolteachers nor missionaries, and quite honestly, did not have the look and feel of engineers or political types. I’ve worked in a lot of conflict areas before, and you can almost always tell within seconds by a person’s dress and demeanor what they do. All I can say is that I crossed paths with one walking around the area, and the look as he muttered at me, was one of complete disregard for me – in fact he was probably muttering for me to get the hell out of his way as he walked past me through a path in the lawn. The most telling signal was that the hotel staff merely took the tantrum that two of the Russians were making in, and the poor waiter stood there for minutes being berated in Russian. Even more telling, the Colonel to my right sat there with his entourage and merely glanced over, and said nothing, or did nothing. I know, because I kept glancing over my right to see what they would do – I certainly wasn’t going to intervene.
Perhaps foolishly, I had requested that we check out a local place – but I had had enough of this hotel for now, and soon, our driver showed up to take us to dinner, with a new friend, our new guide and security guy, who I immediately refer to as Pinky. He wore a bright pink collared shirt, slacks, and suede shoes – a clear cross between a Los Angeles pimp and a washed out club-hopper. Everything he did and acted was shady, how he’d talk to either Fedex or Moe, but not both, how he was always texting or on his phone, how he generally avoided contact with me other than a cursory hello or the odd nod.
We slipped into this festival-like food court, where there were several stalls set up. I had a very mediocre river fish with some mushy fries – all of it fairly flavorless. It was such a let-down, I passed on any beer and was glad when we left, and got deposited back at the hotel.
It was 8:30 in the morning and I was watching yesteryear's b-team music videos, with headliners such as "Karma" and "Girlicious". The rain has just about let up but it had been falling in sheets since about 6. I had had a pretty good 7 hours of sleep. I had passed out shortly after returning from dinner, had had a heavy headache, probably dehydration induced, took a couple paracetemol tablets and passed out.
The electricity had been shut off. I felt around for my LED light, which I had surprisingly remembered to bring, and figured I wasn't going to sleep. Around seven the generator kicked in, and I ambled over to take a hot shower, a luxury out here. After dressing, I had returned to the front porch of the hotel to check my email on my phone. I noticed the 2 42nd commando land rovers parked, the one with the 12.7mm had a cute UNHCR tarp draped over the gun.
The truck was smartly outfitted with railings on the side of the truck bed so soldiers could sit on the sides, facing outboard. How cool, but you were trading a ton of security for that. I did notice the previous day that the “commandos” were heavily armed, and by heavily, of the 8 guys on the back of the rover, 6 had machine guns, not AKMs or AK-47s, but straight up MMGs (7.62x54mm PKs) and two were toting RPG-7s, with the famous conical PG-7 anti-tank warheads inserted.
After the rain let down, I went up to breakfast and made myself a quick plate at the buffet and that’s when I started watching the music videos.
Moe soon showed up, and Fedex followed about 10 minutes later. They had good news – the driver and guide could get us to a mine. We were set to go. What they didn’t tell me was that it was in an area basically outside of government control…
Our driver, Pockmark, soon drove in with Pinky. Pinky was dressed in his usual pimp outfit, and after quick re-introductions, we sped off into town, towards that four-way intersection, and then headed west. As it had been raining, much of the road was muddy and the ride was even more brutal, as we were hitting potholes we couldn’t see coming. Days later, I had trouble opening bottles of water – that’s how jacked up my wrist got from holding on to the car handle through all those bumps. Of note, we made a pit stop to what I am assuming was Pinky’s home, one of the nicest homes in Beni, but a hovel by Western standards, so he could pick up some sort of “documentation”, or proof that he had worked in a mine before – he was under the impression that would get us into a mine. It was telling though, because as we parked in the dirt lot by his home, a small crowd gathered around our car, and I distinctly remember feeling uneasy again. After this, we once again stopped – this time to pick up gas (there are no pumps here, just stands that consist of a barrel, emptied out 2 liter plastic bottles, and a funnel). I was already starting to get impatient – why hadn’t Pinky gotten all his stuff before, and why hadn’t the driver already filled his tank. These were all important lessons for the next time, if there was to be one.
We continued west along the dirt road from Beni, passing several checkpoints – each one requiring a minor “fee” or “bribe”. These checkpoints were based around nameless mud-hut villages, and the people manning them were probably extracting their usual fee.
After perhaps an hour of muddy, windy, dirt roads through jungle, we passed a village, and a sight I’ll never forget. It was the usual mud-hut village, and we began to pass a trickle of men in dirty, stained clothes carrying crudely made digging tools walking westward. A few others were carrying buckets or sacks, and another was pulling a donkey along. And suddenly: villagers on their hands and knees picking gold off the street. The rain had washed in new sediment, and with it gold from the mountain. It gives a new meaning to the phrase, “the streets literally ran with gold”, and it was a signal that we were getting very, very close. I had to snap a quick photo as we rolled by, and you can make out people not only picking gold off the streets, but others with makeshift tools getting ready to do the same. As we crawled along this road, we passed even more people with all sorts of makeshift implements: hoes, picks, and each carrying sacks or buckets. They were walking towards that golden mountain…
Within minutes, we reached a town. I distinguish between a town and village here by the level of infrastructure: villages an assortment of mainly mud-huts, whereas towns have a bit more to them, such as a collection of brick structures. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Rundown, that cheesy, but hilarious movie starring the Rock, then you’ll get an idea for what this town felt like. Off to our right (north side) in the distance, was this mountain, half of it stripped by gold mining, so it was covered by eroding reddish dirt. The town center, directly ahead (see photo below), had a really ominous and foreboding look to it. And the landscape was lush, triple canopy rain forest – indeed, the Congo River and her tributaries are part of the second largest rain forest in the world. But the town just gave you the creeps. Moe, in his infinite wisdom, had failed to let me know that we were outside of government controlled land. It was basically rebels, thugs, and villagers at this point.
And the town, like all towns in this part of Congo, looked like post-apocalyptic movie sets. We were parked across the road from one of the more common stalls in these towns, a Boucherie, or butchery, a basic stall that usually had half a dead goat hanging up, and slowly festering meat and animal parts. This somehow just added to the feeling of dread to this place.
Moe and I, the only non-Congolese, sat in the vehicle, while the others ran outside and began talking to people. Within minutes, they returned, with a person – another guide, and he squeezed into the back of this legendary Toyota with us. And we went through the town, and then parked in this lot by some mud huts on the west end of the town.
We hiked up this mountain, through windy jungle trails, pausing once in a while so that Moe could point out evidence of gold mining: the remnants of a sluice here, hastily covered holes there, and then several small abandoned pits.
After perhaps 30-45 minutes, we came across a mud-hut village in a jungle clearing.
We were immediately motioned into a wall-less hut by a couple of the villagers, where the village headman, clearly a Muslim in garb, met us. I sat at the center of a makeshift wooden table (basically a picnic table with two benches), flanked by Moe and Fedex. The driver and Pinky stood by, and several of the older male villagers crowded around us. The situation looked oddly like just about any other key leader engagement you’d have, except I was completely out of the loop. People started talking. More talking. Numbers were getting exchanged. And I heard the dreaded word, “American”, followed by another bit of banter, and then “American” again. What was Moe doing??? I was half paying attention, and half riveted by this scene going off to my right, where a child and a lady were busy hacking the head off of a chicken, literally 5 yards away from the meeting.
A final round of exchanging phone numbers, and we got up and walked to the north end of this village. Moe pulled me aside and quietly said, “We had to lie so they would let us see the mine. I told them you were an American investor and that you want to help them get a machine so they can dig the gold out. They only use hands now.”
“Oh great Moe. I’m screwed when they find out I’m not. Can I at least take pictures?”
“Yes, take all you need.”
We took some photos in the village and then continued up the mountain, again through jungle trails – careful to avoid a couple processions of army ants. The air was getting misty and I could see my breath. The ground started getting very rocky in parts, and I noticed that the rocks were predominately quartz. The weather was also getting warmer now and I could feel the sweat starting to trickle down my head. It was another 15 minutes of hiking and then we came across the actual mine. And it was huge! All around were more quartz rocks. And capping it was this massive dirt mound.
We finally reached the summit, and you could see the pit. It had been dug – completely by hand. It was at least 80 feet deep, and perhaps well over 100, because the bottom of the pit was filled with muddy water. Fedex explained, “They’re saying they can’t mine in this part today – because of the rain. It has filled in the hole”
GOLD. GOLD, EVERYWHERE
We got back up to the top of the hill and continued on yet another jungle trail before seeing this. A huge swath of sand. And the sand was shiny (despite the cloudy sky). It was covered in gold sediment, as far as you could see. I’ve never seen anything like this. I can only imagine what this would look like on a bright, sunny day, and I know my poor photography skills on my compact camera can’t do it justice.
Rock, with gold in it
We pressed, this time reaching the top of this hill. And I got another sense of the destruction that had happened to this mountain-top – stumps and logs strewn about, trash here and there, and erosion.
This part of the mine utilized a sluice-system. Gold-laden sediment, like we had just seen, was flushed down a series of channels in water, where the heavier gold would sink and get trapped in specially marked areas (usually another channel or a plank would be placed in intervals to trap this golden sediment). Eventually the water would be stopped, and workers would retrieve the golden sediment, and take it down to the village to further separate the gold out using the aforementioned buckets. The process on the Congolese side in small mines such as this one was fairly straightforward. From there, the golden sediment could be further refined using mercury or certain acids (which can dissolve / separate gold).
At the top of the hill, a man was hosing down the side of a mound, while another was hacking away at it with a hoe. This was what was being washed down the sluice. The miners were slowly chipping away this mountain, like ants taking apart an animal 100 times their size.
From the mountain-top, we could also see the town below. We had hiked quite a ways.
We finally had seen enough. I had taken a couple hundred photos, and was piecing together how this gold eventually would make it to Uganda, or out of the Congo. And we were now concerned about getting out. As we ambled down towards the village where we had met the chief, I noticed a little more money getting exchanged. Yes, you guessed it – another “fee”. I’m going to now refer to Congo as Land of 1000 bribes.
I pulled Moe aside as we descended. “What time does the border close?”
“5 PM maybe?” he said. It was around 1 PM.
“We need to get out of here, fast. I don’t want to spend another night here.”
“Yes, it’s too expensive. And too dangerous”, said Moe. To reinforce the point he mentioned that he already got a call from inside Uganda – telling us that we had to leave Congo, and as soon as possible.
Things were already off to a bad start. We had stopped at some no-name village after only about 10 minutes, and Pinky was on the phone again. He stepped out of the car, and disappeared from sight, behind some vendors selling fruits they had grown. Agitated, I told Moe, “Why are we stopped?
“He wants to buy bananas”, Moe aid.
“What the – that’s not what we paid him to do” I said. But I recall Moe being silent, with a worried look on his face. We both knew this guy was tapping into his informant network. Something was not right. And that we couldn’t do a thing about it, and that somehow calling him out on it might make things worse.
We soon found out what had happened, at the next checkpoint. Two village militia-men carrying Kalashnikovs (AKMs) came up to our car. Some terse talking, and I made out the world “camera”. I exchanged eye contact with one of the men, and it wasn’t a pleasant look. Moe, who was sitting in the middle of the back row, turned over his passport. I hesitated, and Moe said to me, “Give them your passport”.
There are a few times in life when you get that sinking feeling – and this was one of them. Giving up your passport, practically at gunpoint, is not a good thing, especially almost 100 miles deep in a quasi-lawless country.
I turned over the passport and the driver maneuvered the car to the side of the road. Moe and Fedex lept into action, and told me, in the back seat, to stay put. They walked over to a mud hut where a couple men were seated, while the armed thugs stood about. I could make out my passport being handed around. Luckily their eyes were on Moe and Fedex and the passports, and I took the time to remove my cell phone and hide it, so it wasn’t on me. Then I took my camera, removed the memory card, and kicked the camera under the passenger seat in front of me. They’d easily find both in a search, but I wanted to hide the memory card, and all I had was a buttoned pocket on my shirt. I wanted to keep the memory card on me in case we were separated from the car. The pictures were more valuable than both the camera and the phone now.
I remembered Moe telling me earlier how on the last Congo trip (with two Chinese gold dealers, no less) he made, he was detained twice by thugs. Just before the second arrest, he took the last of his emergency money, put it in a plastic baggie, and inserted it (you know where). Or so he said anyway. Well, there was no way in hell I was doing that! I told Moe I’d take my chances with bullets kicking the dirt around my feet before I shoved something up there. I had sewn my “get out of jail free card”, several crisp and new $100 bills into the inside of my pants, behind my cargo pocket, and then filled my cargo pocket with stuff. This way, even if I emptied my pockets after a pat-down, or if they inserted their hands into my cargo pockets they were unlikely to feel the bills.
I then sat in the inside of the car, stuck my hand out the window, and began drumming the side. I wasn’t nervous as I should have been, perhaps, but there was nothing to do at this point. Moe returned in a few minutes, the most worried I’d seen him yet. “Quick, get me my coat”, he said. “They want to arrest us”. I complied. And then in about a minute Moe was lightly running for the car, followed by the others in a trot. They hurriedly got in, and slammed the doors, and we sped off.
Moe explained, “They were going to arrest us. We left the province, and these guys were going to call their village boss to come and talk to us. And he is far away, not in the village now. They were going to throw us in their jail until he came. I had to give them $100.”
That’s like a month’s salary out here, I thought.
We gunned it back towards Beni. Finally we dropped off Pinky. And what a relief that was, although that scum was probably pocketing half of that $100.
It was now past 3 PM. It took us over two hours to get to Beni from the border. We had to move.
We had told Pinky that we were going back to the Hotel Albertine to spend another night here. We knew that if Pinky knew of our plans, he would jump on his network, and set up a nasty surprise for us down the road, perhaps getting us outright robbed this time. And now we were bumping along at the usual 80-90 kmph on a dirt road, passing the same assortment of overladen trucks teeming with humanity, mineral-laden trucks, and the odd herd of cattle. It was still intermittently raining.
Around 4:15 we passed our 4th or 5th stranded vehicles (yes, it was that bad). After going passed it, suddenly Fedex, from the shotgun seat, leaned his head out the window and started laughing. “That is the police chief from yesterday!” he said. The same clown who took out half our posse by arresting our security / guide and chasing the other away; the same guy who wanted us to pay $1500 per day for security was now marooned in ADF turf with nightfall approaching. Karma’s a bitch!
Incredulously, Fedex called him, not to offer assistance, but to ask him to keep the border open for us. But we never got a clear answer back. Fedex seemed optimistic as we bounced along.
We finally rolled into the border checkpoint, and I’ll admit, it was just after 5 on my watch, and ran into the same ugly building where this leg of the adventure started. I handed over my passport, and Moe his. The seated police officer, a lady in the same ugly blue uniform, took it, stamped it, and then spoke to Moe and motioned for money. Moe explained, “She is saying we can’t bring Congolese money outside the country so we need to give up all of it”. Like hell, I thought. Short of a pat-down they’re not getting this money, and I played dumb. Moe handed over a wad of 500s, probably not more than $3-$4 total. The police officer waved us off. And just like that, it looked like we might make it. The time: 5:09 PM.
We walked back, said goodbye to the driver (I actually hugged the thieving punk), and walked back to the final roadblock holding us from “no-mans land”. At this point, Fedex had left, and I asked where he was. Moe explained, “He is technically a refugee and can’t cross in the open like us. He will find his way across and meet us there”.
We passed the barrier into no-man’s land. There were still swarms of people going back and forth across the border, seemingly without being checked. Trucks were parked alongside. The sky was still murky and the air was humid, but cool. Moe motioned for a boda boda motorcycle taxi, but I said no. It was such a pleasant feeling to be able to walk to freedom that I wanted to savor it. We ended up walking that stretch of 400-500 yards back to Uganda, and it was the most memorable walk I can recall in the longest time.
Moe wanted to shake my hand as we approached the Ugandan checkpoint, and I told him to hold off until we were across, and Fedex had made it as well. And we walked into the Ugandan immigration office, filled in the arrival form, and paid my entrance fee dues. The officer who inspected my passport (the same guy who stamped us out) then actually said, “I’m surprised you made it back”. We continued to the next building, police (who ran customs).
The customs officer who signed us into DR Congo was there, seated behind his rinky dink desk. He wore a red t-shirt underneath a black leather jacket. He said to me, “How was Congo?”
I lied through my teeth, but we all knew it. “Beautiful. I saw lots of green mountains, lots of wildlife”
“Lots of minerals?”
“Yes, there are a lot of minerals there”, I said, not really admitting to anything. We were briefly interrupted by the arrival of Fedex, who stuck his head in the office. I promptly shook his hand.
“Don’t get involved in the gold trade. It isn’t worth it”, the customs officer said. “Look”, he said, pointing to a sack. “We got this last week from a British man who tried to take this across the border. It’s not even real gold.” And we lifted the incredibly heavy sack up and down.
“I’m not getting involved”, I said. “I’m just a student”
We crossed the border, and within moments were passing on the outskirts of Queen Elizabeth park, passing by several safari animals: gazelles, wild board, and the exceptionally rare sight of elephants mating in the wild, then literally crossed the equator and pulled up, in the dark, to a run-down roadside inn, exhausted. I bought us dinners of chapati, a localized Indian bread that’s made with an omelet in Uganda. It was pretty good, and we passed out shortly after. It was New Year ’s Eve, and one crazy way to end 2013.
I met Fedex and Moe again two days later, at the restaurant of the place I was staying at in Kampala. That was the day we found out about the death of the adidas colonel. And a couple other items that sort of tied the events together. Moe mentioned he had received two more calls since we left Congo, telling us we needed to get out of Congo and fast. And my favorite, he also got a call from Pinky, asking us when we were leaving the Congo. But we were already out. And as we drove towards Kampala, we passed no less than four Ugandan army convoys headed towards the border. They were probably there as a result of the Colonel’s death, and possibly to take advantage of the situation. I also met a couple other people, both gold dealers and both of whom, upon hearing of our experience immediately said we had picked the absolute worst time to go into the Congo. I agreed – but I was on a tight schedule. In a few days I would be sitting in a lecture hall at a university in the US, trying to absorb a lecture that, quite honestly, would probably have me yearning for another adventure.
The dealers, a Canadian and a Ugandan, both told me some unbelievable stories, about how gold is supposedly smuggled out of Congo, then burned to a level where its origin can’t be traced, and then given certificates of origin in Uganda. And allegations about how various companies and criminal groups have smuggled gold out to the Middle East, where they don’t have laws such as Dodd-Frank, and ingenious methods including private planes on hidden airstrips, and paying off pilots of major airlines to take small amounts into Mideast countries. Of theories of why the fighting in Congo and South Sudan has persisted, and of the interplay between Chinese and Western corporations has affected the entire gold trade, and of the complex relationships between much of the regional African leadership, and of the relative newcomers, the Russian mafia, and the small time gold dealers who try to make it big. It’s a somewhat familiar story to all of us – just replace gold with oil, or gold with diamonds, or perhaps with drugs in the case of Latin America, and well, there’s already movies, articles and books out for those compelling stories…
Moe and Fedex accompanied me off to Entebbe, where I had a flight to catch, of all places, to Egypt. It was really bizarre to see US military personnel there, the Marines had landed to help evacuate Americans out of South Sudan. I passed a couple of US personnel as I walked into the airport, who must have recognized my MOLLE bag – we exchanged a knowing glance and nod, and nothing more…
There was one last request from both Moe and Fedex: to please get their story out. Moe is happy for me to use his name, and wants to talk. Fedex wants to remain anonymous until his refugee status is cleared – he is most concerned with reuniting with his family that successfully made it to the US. But he also would like to get his story out. And both have invited me back, to explore how much deeper this rabbit hole goes…