The next day we headed to Isalie. A bit nervous to go there as I had heard attacks had just happened the week before. Every time we left Butemebo (where the COPERMA offices is located) we would drive 40-60km on the pothole ridden red dirt road alternately splashing through large mud puddles or becoming engulfed in a cloud of red dust depending on if it had just rained or not. About 15 minutes outside of town in any direction we eventually pass a “checkpoint”.
The checkpoints look like the cross arm from a parking garage but these cross bars are made from tree branches and it is FDRC soldiers and police who raise the bar as they feel. Many times we are waived through, but today we were stopped. They told us they had no money and that they needed some. The guy was in plain clothes, but was obvious by his dark aura and pushy demeanor he was a soldier used to doing what he wanted. We apologized that he was out of money, but told him that we had none. He pressed his face against my window. There was a scar like massive road rash on the left side of his face and eye. He said, “Why do Americans never have any money”. I replied in English, “…Because I knew that you were going to be here”. Luckily, no one translated my response. Surprisingly, he suddenly said OK and let us drive on.
In Isalei it was the “market day” and we were going to check on some women who had been given “petite finance” (micro loans) to start small businesses like selling peanut oil, fish, and some clothing. On the way there we slowed as we came to a hillside lined with tents and a building on top of a hill. This was where the soldier stayed overlooking their layer, the entire valley. It was a chilling feeling knowing that we really were on their turf…even if it was daylight. As we arrived at the market we were the talk of the town and there was no way to blend in.
With people everywhere I lost sight of Amy and just followed some of the other COPERMA team members through some alleyways to the back of the market. After looking around I asked them if it was OK to shoot? They looked for any sign of green uniforms. The coast was clear and I was given the go a head.
I set up my tripod and camera on the stairs overlooking the market. The difficult thing about shooting here that too many people want their photo taken. I can hardly complain as I thought it was the opposite problem I was going to have. But the thing is I have to be quick on my toes if I do not want every shot to be about 200 kids crowed around me grabbing the lens with their hands and dancing! As quickly as I could I set up and began to film. After about 5 minutes I could no longer see the stairs or the market and the crowd of children had amassed in front of me.
Just as I was going to ask them to move one of the COPERMA team members gently said, “…we need to leave. NOW!”. I took my camera he grabbed my tripod and not sure where we were heading. I followed him. Back to the car? But I still want to shoot and where is Amy? In the car was Mama Marie and Fisto the driver neither of whom speaks English. Used to not having a clue what is going on I stood by the door waiting, but they made me get inside. I asked if I could go shoot and they said, “No”.
I began to ask where Amy was and at the same time one of the team members came over to get me. Trying to convince me to leave my camera gear in the car I refused and they reluctantly said, “O.K. follow us”. I was told we were going to an office and by the way they were acting I assumed I needed to be off the main road.
We approached a small building. Amy was sitting inside with four men and one of the COPERMA team members. On the way to Isalie she had mentioned to me that she was going to interview some of the husbands of rape survivors. I assumed these were the guys she was interviewing. With my bag strapped to my back I sat down next to here on a wooden bench. I waited a few minutes for a pause in the conversation and asked, “Are these the guys you were talking about? Is it cool if I shoot?”. Dumbstruck by what I had just asked. She replied, “No these are the police and soldiers. I just got caught taking a photo with out permission and there was a soldier in it”.
I looked around the wooden room. I guess I should have guessed from the old calendar of Saddam Hussein and all of his sons dressed in Camo gear proclaiming “Saddam Hussein the greatest President of Iraq”, that this was not just another interview. She explained they had brought me into the room so she would feel more comfortable. There were three men behind a desk and one very serious looking man smoking. As I looked around and there was also a poster of Obama with his family and Oprah. Next to that was an anti child soldier poster.
Now I was not exactly worried, I felt like this was a manageable situation, but Amy the focus of the investigation was visibly shaken. The funny thing is that morning I had a feeling we should buy some cigarettes in case we ran into any soldiers. Having mentioned that to Amy she has bought some moments before they brought her into the “”station”.
The room was filled with testosterone. Amy and I cracked a few jokes in English about what we could do to get out of this. I threw in a sarcastic comment about pulling out my camera. Amy did not see the humor. We talked and thought it prudent for her to pull out the smokes and ask for a light. That would throw them. Women do not smoke here. As she raised her cigarette and asked for a light, the look of surprise on their faces was priceless! The entire tone of the room changed and they were suddenly at her beck and call. I am not sure exactly what they said, but it was something along the lines of, “… get this girl a lighter, pronto! “.
As a few people scattered to find a light, one man sitting looking at a book got this kind of smirk on his face. As he leaned over the desk towards us, his tone of voice changed. No translation necessary I knew what he was saying. He told Amy, “ You are asking for us to pardon you…but the wrong has to be righted…so maybe you will give us something (a bribe)?” Playing the meek dumb American she pretended to by miffed at what he was asking and raised her pack of smokes to offer to the room. Everyone laughed like you have to be kidding. And as they lit her cigarette I could see her hand shaking.
She let me know they were asking for $200 USD. Now that is a lot of money in the Congo and there was no way in hell we wanted to pay it. All I could think was good thing they have no idea I have almost $10,000 USD worth of camera gear strapped to my back! They explained, they are a professional army and they needed the money for the police chief and the community. At this point, they walked Irvine, one of the male COPERMA team members outside. They basically told him if we don’t get the money you are spending the night. Translation, if you don’t come up with the money you are going to stay and we are going to torture you.
Somehow Amy settled on $120 and her cell phone number for the captain who was sure to let her know he was a single father of four. Mama Marie could barely contain her disgust at a man with four children bragging that he was separated from his wife, but she tried.
As we left the station Amy and I assumed we would be leaving immediately. The COPERMA people were like are you kidding we have work to do. And on second thought we did just pay $120 to be here and take photos. With that in mind we headed of to the pharmacy to interview the husband of one of the rape survivors as originally planned.
Shifting gears we were suddenly in the middle of a very serious interview. It is rare for men to speak out about rape in the Congo and this was Amy’s first chance to speak with one of the husbands. Worried he may be nervous he actually offered way more detail than the women ever do. He was a handsome man with a kind smile and sincere eyes. The father of 15 children, he was proud to have stood by his wife. Unfortunately due to the social stigma many men leave their wife (and children) after she is raped.
He described watching and listening as his wife screamed, but being able to do nothing to help her because the soldiers had guns. How months later they both cried when they tried to make love for the first time since the attack. As sobering as it sounds, he said it all with a smile very open to sharing his story with us. He said during the attack, “I was with God and I knew that [the rape] was from Satan” and that is how he has rationalized the situation. I listened amazed at the lack of resentment and desire to move forward. He smiled and continued to discuss how he and his wife were doing. Life was still not back to normal. She was not sleeping well and had bad dreams sometimes. But he had hope that things would continue to get better. The perseverance and eye to the future of the people of the DRC continues to amaze me. (To read at length about this interview visit Amy Ernst Blog hosted by NY Times - ).
Since much of our time had been taken by the police incident, after the interview and a few photos we had to leave so we would have a cushion of time in case anything happened to the car on the way back to town.
As nine of us piled into the back of the 4 Runner we were all exhausted from the events of the day. And luckily we were ALL headed back to Butermbo.
As we drove home everyone in the car seemed exhausted from the events of the day. Not necessarily down, the car was not as filled with lighthearted conversation as normal. The further away we got from Isalie the more the severity of the situation and what could have happened set in. Good thing Amy’s Godmother had wired her a few hindered dollars for Christmas and she had picked it up that morning otherwise our COPERMA friend would be in a very dark place right about now.
Once back in Butembo we had to jump on the dirt bike exhausted from the last few days. As we raced against the darkness I thought two more rules I had forgotten for the bush (see previous post).
Rule #8 - Always stash extra cash in your bra to pay a bribe.
Rule #9 - Always carry cigarettes on you for the soldiers and if it seem like it will lighten the situation smoke one too…