David McLauchlin Reports...
David McLauchlin
David McLauchlin
is an award-winning national radio reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is based in Montreal. His personal radio coaching website is HERE.
Posted 12.22.02
Bukavu, Congo


Beware photographing BU T-shirts while in Bukavu

The sixty million Congolese people may own the world's most complete collection of charity clothing.

A walk in the streets is more like a travelogue of small-town Canada. What doesn't get sold at the fall rummage sale in your hometown gets baled-up by well-meaning Canadians and flown to the Congo.

Each T-shirt and shiny suit gets unpacked, shaken out, arranged in the roadside stalls, and sold by hard-bargaining Congolese entrepreneurs with some church connections.

Bowling lanes, GM dealerships, Terry Fox runs, peewee hockey teams are all here, along with the loudest assortment of patent leather shoes, the widest ties, the belts and caps and parkas waiting to be born again in equatorial Africa.

I'm here following a story of pillage, deception and treachery, I'm working among people who use the cover of armed rebellion to make money and enrich themselves with the spoils of a wealthy but politically weak country. In the midst of this mirrored chamber of horrors I dropped my guard when the words from a drinking song walked by in a used T-shirt.

The incongruity created a dangerous situation. We were leaving Bukavu after two weeks feeling our way along the jagged contours of rebel-held territory. It's a place where everything is reversed. Where an official rises in power in direct proportion to his ability to deny reality. Where the retreating Rwandans so control the extraction of diamonds, gold, cotton, timber, and the rich storehouse of Congo's resources they no longer require a professional and costumed army to secure their interests.

They pull the strings on the traumatized impoverished people from a distance.

Sylvain Desjardins is a documentary maker for Radio-Canada with extensive experience in the most violent parts of the world. Bruce Edwards is an award-winning radio producer and film-maker from CBC in Washington who knows how to live out of a knapsack for long periods of time.

We've been travelling and living together, meeting and interviewing among the wildest and hungriest people I've ever met.

They include a genocidal Hutu commander who'd been surviving in the Congo jungle with a platoon of fifteen soldiers for eight years. A sick, bloated, bent-over man who explained genocide to himself as simple revenge for the killing of his parents by the Tutsi.

He'd been foraging his way through the villages of the Congo, feeding his animal needs by robbing and raping and taking what he wanted. Now he's asking the UN to dump him and his men at the Rwandan border and they'll take their chances among their old enemies back home. He predicts he'll be dead within days anyway, but at least it'll be better than wasting away slowly with diarrhea, malaria, and parasites in the wet jungles of the Congo.

We heard many stories.

The woman entrepreneur who made her fortune arming both sides in the civil war by selling Congolese gold in Dubai.

The last Belgian in the province of South Kivu who tries to keep le Club Sportif de Bukavu alive, despite the snakes and softening and general collapse of the place.

The deserter from the Rwandan-controlled Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, who witnessed the massacre of 200 of his fellow citizens one night on a bridge near Kissangani, who watched as the people were shot point blank, their stomachs cut open, weighed down with rocks and thrown in the river.

We traveled with fishermen out on Lac Kivu in pirogues dug-out from long teak logs. In the evening their primitive blues melodies praise the Almighty and honour their ancestors. They let down their nets and light their oil lamps to attract the fish while they sleep in their boats and the lamps flicker in the soft blackness.

When the sun streaks the sky with silver and the nets are full of tiny fish, they haul and sing again: blues for a night away from home, for men and women together, for hard work rewarded.

They paddle ashore, still singing. They carry buckets of silvery smelt to the women waiting in the dawn market stalls. The women spread the fish out on planks and woven grass mats covered with plastic.

Chapters of this story, of the connections between work, war and heartbreak having been recorded, we were waiting under a rusted corrugated roof by an airstrip on the side of a mountain. Men in camouflage leaned casually against AK-47s. Boys carried bottles of cold Fanta or Coke looking for a sale.

I spotted a man with a blue T-shirt on and noticed it was from Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec. On the back were words of a song. I asked him if could take a photograph of it. He shrugged and turned back to the conversation he'd been having with his friends. I took the picture.

purple tee-shirt

The camera sparked a group of official-looking men in the shadows to point and waive their arms. I heard the words "intredit" and "installation haut secret" and "arret."

They started towards me. My friends looked immobilized. Here comes trouble. Someone joked: "it's not an installation. It's a guy in a T-shirt". This only provoked the anger of the rebel officials.

The camera was buried in my bag. A UN official motioned me to an area behind a pole fence enclosing a few rows of wooden benches: the open-air waiting lounge for people travelling as UN passengers.

Though I'm not UN I pretended to be. The UN official barked at the approaching delegation from the rebel ranks and that slowed them down a bit. He motioned me toward the plane.

Other passengers were moving in the direction of the tarmac. I joined them. Up the ramp into the plane. The door closed behind me. I was safe.

But the people we'd met throughout the visit continue living out there.

The ones who survive have developed a cunning that can overcome those who rob them and loot their land and punish them for innocent breeches of imaginary rules.

I am looking forward to getting the interviews out of the country before they're seized, to getting on a plane to Europe and then home to Montreal for Christmas. I'll be wary till the wheels are up.