Contorted into cramped sitting positions for hours in Tata 207 pickup trucks and Mahindra jeeps emblazoned with ‘United Nations’ and practising the sidewinder motion in slush, I confront dark images of Africa’s World War — as the Congolese conflict has come to be known in this continent — in every patch of the country’s volcano-studded geography.
As we advance toward Masisi, much of which is controlled by rebel militias, famished children stretch their hands and yell at the top of their lungs: “Monike, biskwi!” It’s an impassioned plea to the Indian peacekeepers escorting me in the three-jeep UN convoy. “MONUC, biscuits!”
Alas, the peacekeepers serving MONUC — the French acronym for the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo — aren’t carrying any on this day, though they usually do. Belching black smoke and kicking up clouds of dust, the four-wheel-drive Mahindras navigate through swathes of the mineral-rich land that are held, in patches, by President Joseph Kabila’s Kalashnikov-toting soldiers, some Hutu extremists wanted for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the rebel militia pledging allegiance to the handsome general Laurent Nkunda.
The rebels demand US dollars to let the vehicles pass through their territories. We are out of harm’s way in the UN convoy, but the boys from the 10th Battalion of the Assam Regiment are strapped in their bulletproof vests, fingers tenderly resting on the trigger of the Insas rifle.
Four hours on the road and only two or three vehicles have passed by, one of which was a Toyota 4Runner ferrying UN military observers. My mind goes back to the Indian TVS bikes that are the pride on the streets of the eastern city of Goma. There, the bikes zip by on streets dotted with hair salons, pharmacy shops and kiosks vending airtime.
But the Masisi road — now a dirt track — has a sinister feel to it.
There’s not a soul in the villages straddling it. We stop for a few minutes to walk through Congo’s ghost villages, its shame. You will find them everywhere. Caught in a vortex of human misery, millions have fled their homes fearing bloodshed to live in hellish, overflowing camps for ‘internally displaced people’ that dot Congo’s beautiful landscape.
Major Shardool Sharma and I share a tent at Masisi. It has an attached toilet, though makeshift.
We hit the sack after stuffing ourselves with pizza baked by Major R.N. Sharma. The army base he commands had given sanctuary to dozens of terrified international NGOs last month when dissident general Nkunda’s Tutsi fighters slammed a furious assault into Masisi. Two weeks ago, we would have woken up to deep-throated bursts of heavy-calibre fire and rockets hissing over our heads. There could be an action replay anytime.
We soon find ourselves cramped in the same Mahindra jeep making our way to another deployment of the Indian Army at Mutabo, on the fringes of the Ugandan border. We hit our destination after a punishing eight-hour drive through an ecosystem of banana plantations, rainforests and isolated savanna.
The landscape has changed. But Congo’s miseries haven’t. Armed guards dwarfed in the trenches, 12-foot concrete walls strung with razors, and omnipresent children screaming “Monike biskwi”, don’t let you forget that.