When war returned to Bukavu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo along the Rwandan border, I dismissed the gunfire as nothing more than a minor skirmish. A peace accord had been signed eighteen months earlier by most of the fractured parties to this hellish conflict. Had no one read it?
Maybe, I reasoned, it was just a group of boys not quite satisfied with the terms of their severance from one of the ever-shifting rebel groups. This isn’t serious
. It will pass.
During my previous mission to the region a few months earlier, there had been hushed chatter among aid workers of a “third revolution,” but war zones are full of such stories – of final chapters in battle not yet written. And, by all accounts, the rumours predated the peace process, so there was no need for concern. There were 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers in the region, and I was confident it wouldn’t take them long to identify the problem and contain it.
I was travelling with a documentary crew, gathering footage for an hour-long feature on the Congo’s devastating war. Our team was set to leave the next day, so I returned to my room at the Orchid Hotel – a Belgian-run auberge
on the sluggish shores of Lake Kivu – and continued packing. Half of our crew, which included my husband, Eric Hoskins, had not yet returned from filming. I did not expect to hear these words at my door: “Sam, Eric’s been detained. Security officials are holding him and the rest of the team at the police station, and have confiscated their passports and equipment. They want to see our footage.” Eric was negotiating for the others to be released after they were stopped for filming in the streets, and was offering himself up as collateral until the officials obtained what they wanted. We had UN permission to film, and this kind of brazen harassment of independent witnesses with camera gear is too often the prelude to atrocity. It was only then that I realized the gunfire we were hearing was a call to arms.
I made a list of discrete tasks: grab a few tapes of footage unlikely to be deemed sensitive and whatever cash we had left; call our contacts at the UN; and, quickly, find someone at the hotel who could take me to the police station. The roads in front of the Orchid were rapidly degrading into battle lines. It was no longer just the crackle of automatic fire I heard; there was the pitched whistling of bullets as well. They’re getting closer
. It was a resurgence of violence that no one was expecting or could explain. Even hotel guests from the American embassy in Kinshasa, who presumably had access to sophisticated intelligence reports, were caught off guard and could provide little information.
I was on the third task, about to climb into the back of a wheezing old Peugeot, when Eric came running towards me from another vehicle. “Get behind a wall!” he shouted. “There are soldiers everywhere. They’ve started shooting.” Eric had lived through a violent coup in Sudan, and his instincts were unquestionably better than mine. As relieved as I was to see him, it was not the time to tell him.
We ran between two buildings. I was unfocused, rushing through different scenarios in my mind, none of them useful and all of them compounding my mounting anxiety. I’d faced several close calls in war zones before this one – attempted car ambushes, the sudden appearance of menacing men in berets and mirrored sunglasses – but never one in which I’d had time to think
. And it’s only when you have time to think, unarmed in the midst of a fierce gunfight, that you understand how utterly and hopelessly fucked you really are.
During a lull in the shooting, Eric and I scrambled to the hotel lobby to find the other members of our team, none of whom had any war experience. It was then that I learned he and the others had escaped after convincing the security officials to follow them to the hotel to view the footage. Once confronted by the violence in the streets, their captors fled in the other direction. The team’s vehicle pressed on, fearing it would be more dangerous to remain separated from the rest of us.
After a torturous night of uninterrupted gunfire and sporadic shelling, a few more details emerged. The Congolese military had arrested a couple of Rwandan soldiers at the border crossing a short distance from our hotel, reigniting the conflict (it wasn’t clear which armed group they were associated with). Residents in the area were now trapped between these warring factions as they took shots at one another, and the only thing we could do was take cover and wait.
By late morning, the shelling had begun to intensify. Bullets ricocheted through the hotel kitchen window. Along with everyone else, Eric and I made frantic calls to UN authorities, trying to assess the security of our location and wondering whether we should risk moving. Unbelievably, the Internet in the business office was still working, and I managed to send a couple of emails to my mother in Toronto: “Everything okay. Departure slightly delayed. Back in a couple of days.” We have an unstated arrangement when I’m in the field: I don’t tell her where I’m going and she doesn’t ask, so long as I send her regular emails letting her know I’m alive. The advice we received from United Nations and Canadian government contacts over the phone was consistent: “Stay where you are, keep your heads down, and stand by for further instructions.” Two guests from the hotel came running up from the garden area saying they’d come under fire by the water’s edge. No one was injured, but it was an ominous warning: it meant we were in the militias’ crosshairs.
Shortly afterwards, it sounded as if the rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) were landing dangerously close – so close that I immediately dropped to the floor, prompting an unflinching Congolese man in the lobby, who’d obviously endured much worse, to jokingly say, “I see you do not enjoy the beautiful music we play here in the Congo.” It is still one of the most reassuring things anyone has ever said to me in the midst of a crisis. A few of the hotel staff had access to a small but impressively reinforced “panic room,” while the rest of us huddled together in what we deemed to be the safest area: a cramped guest room on the lowest level of the hotel, built into the side of a hilly ridge and protected on three sides. Of course, if an errant RPG were to have landed in the hotel lobby above our heads, the entire building would have collapsed upon us. Despite reassurances from UN officials that we were “not the targets” and therefore not likely to take a direct hit, a significant proportion of the roving armed groups were drunk and stoned teenage boys whose weapons training would have been limited to “Pull here.” Whether we were targets or not, the boys’ spectacularly bad aim was worth heeding.
At first, we casually mingled in the room, introducing ourselves to the other thirty or so people who’d taken refuge along with our team – local hotel staff, guests, and others who happened to be visiting when the shooting started and the roads became impassable. UN helicopters beat overhead and for hours it sounded as if the front line had landed right on top of us. During a momentary reprieve we filed out of the room, only to be forced back in by a sudden and dramatic escalation of explosions.
Eric and I crouched with the other members of our team at the back of the room, pressed against an armoire. People huddled together in the bathroom and under furniture, staying low to the floor. Mortars were landing on the hotel grounds. With each forceful bang, fine fragments of plaster showered down on us. But the worst was about to happen: the sound of running above our heads. Urgent, confused steps were heard between the eruptions of gunfire. Doors were repeatedly opened, then slammed – whoever it was, however many there were, they appeared to be searching for something, or someone.
No one dared speak. A man by the window reached above his head and gently pulled the curtain closed. Eric and I looked at one another, and I could tell by the pained expression on his face that we were having the same thought: “They’re in the building.” There was one other woman in the room – an American embassy employee. I knew it wouldn’t be long before she and I would be dragged outside and raped. And what would happen to the men? Some would be mercilessly killed as a statement about who’s really in charge of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Others would be shot so that an itinerant group of pubescent boys might feel the rush of holding absolute power over life and death. After what had been a decade together, I knew that under no circumstances would Eric submit to the violence and degradation making its way towards us. More than anything, I wanted to tell him that he needn’t be brave, that brave meant certain death, and survival was all that mattered. Then, another bone-shattering bang, after which the footsteps could be heard directly outside our window. I couldn’t breathe.
Fear, in war, is absolute.
More than two hundred people were killed during the outbreak of armed conflict in Bukavu that cornered our team in late May 2004. To my shock and surprise (and enduring gratitude), it was not a group of rebel soldiers behind the door but a Canadian volunteer peacekeeper, Chuck Pelletier, armed only with a short wooden baton, the price tag still conspicuously attached. He’d been staying at the hotel on temporary assignment and was in regular communication with MONUC (the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) operatives. When it became clear that the risk had escalated, the UN peacekeeping force deployed armoured personnel carriers (APCs) through the crossfire to collect everyone trapped at the Orchid. They had already moved many residents from our street, as combatants had attacked homes a few doors away from the hotel, raping and shooting civilians. Chuck organized us into numbered teams, then, in groups of seven, we ran single file to the APCs as the volleys continued. At MONUC headquarters, we joined hundreds of others fleeing the violence. The UN made no distinction or special accommodations for internationals, who were mostly Belgians, Americans, and Canadians, which is as it should always be in such circumstances. Congolese and foreigners trapped in insecure areas, including the Orchid, were evacuated together and treated with equal consideration at all times.
As the sun began to set, UN personnel announced there would be a distribution of mats to women only. The covered areas were overflowing with evacuees, and the only available space was outside on the lawn beside an exhausted contingent of South African peacekeepers. Under normal circumstances, I would have protested the decision to give mats just to women. And as the only woman on our team, I didn’t want the guilt of reclining comfortably on my spoils in front of my stiff-upper-lipped compatriots. But once I realized the temperature was dropping, I was wearing a useless T-shirt, and the grass we’d be sleeping on was wet, I got over myself. “We’ll share it!” I announced to the others as I sheepishly trundled off, elbows up. (True to my word, we took turns throughout the night.)
The next day the UN began to move people to the other side of town in buses under armed escort. Areas of Bukavu through to the airport were reasonably secure, and MONUC wanted to avoid turning their compound into a displaced people’s camp. During a briefing by a MONUC representative after boarding the bus, in which we were told to rest our heads on our knees and our hands over our faces in the event of bullets flying through windows, he declared that we were “not to panic,” but he would be making the journey with us “lying face down on the floor.”
This, he explained, was so that, in the “unlikely event that our driver is shot, I may resume driving.” Our bus driver didn’t say a word, but he flashed his boss a look that read, “Here’s a better idea, asshole: I’ll lie on the floor and you
To say I am lucky to be alive doesn’t fully capture the extent to which I recognize this to be true, for as long as I can claim it to be. And hopefully, I’m not nearly done yet. Most of us come into this world amidst a frenzy of pain and emotion and unpredictability, and too many of us leave in the same way. If between the two certitudes of birth and death lies a generous period of love, family, and friendships, free from the shackles of violence and poverty, it is a life to be coveted. War, and the pursuit of war, destroys us. It turns teenagers into killers, neighbours into génocidaires
, and politicians into executioners. War is humanity at its most primitive, despite our attempts to dress it up, distance ourselves from it through technology, and frame it in acceptable terms – a battle for good in the face of tyranny or despotism or fanaticism. In the end, all wars are only one thing: people killing people. This is not to suggest that there cannot be justifiable reasons for responding militarily to acts of aggression that destroy civilian lives. But war in and of itself is ruinous to civilians and must always remain a measure of last resort. It ought
to be difficult and complex and governed by frustrating processes for achieving global consensus.
The last decade has witnessed an extraordinary if not devastating political appetite for war, made possible by a prevailing belief in its primacy in solving international threats. The rhetoric of “killing scumbags” in Afghanistan and elsewhere has perpetuated a kind of nationalistic fervour in which there is little room for thoughtful dissent, even as the human and financial costs of waging war reach levels that are wholly unsustainable. Annual military spending is now at the highest point since World War II (higher than during the Cold War), with the United States footing half the bill. During his first year in office, President Barack Obama authorized more attacks against suspected terrorists (habeas corpus notwithstanding) by unmanned drones flying over Pakistan than George W. Bush did in his entire presidency. In the process of hitting its targets of armed militants, the Attack of the Drones has also killed civilians, at a ratio of fifty to one. Names and locations of targets are also proposed by the mercurial government of Pakistan – a military serfdom under whose auspices Osama Bin Laden “hid” for years. No doubt there is some kind of process of intelligence-gathering in place to verify submissions for extrajudicial execution. But “military intelligence,” as Groucho Marx once cracked (before Bush rendered it prophecy), “is a contradiction in terms.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Damned Nations by Samantha Nutt, M.D.. Copyright © 2011 by Samantha Nutt, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Signal, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.