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.