Monday began as any normal day. I went to Birere, the cloth section of town, bought a new supply and headed over to the Shona house. We were in the middle of a meeting, when shots fired out. I called my husband to see what was going on and he said that people were throwing rocks at UN soldiers in Birere and the UN soldiers were probably firing into the air to disperse the crowd. As the ladies and I continued our meeting we heard cars rushing down our quiet little road. Parents were sending cars to have their childen picked up from school in a hurry. These days the town is tense, and shots fired sends the town into panic. Shops and markets are immediately closed in fear of pillaging.
In Goma, there are motorcycle taxis everywhere. This makes up one of the largest forms of employment for young men. While I personally know many wonderful motorcycle taxi guys, as a group they are known for driving badly and having a mob mentality. If one motorcyclist is killed, the other motorcyclists often cut the road with a mob-like demonstration, demanding justice...or perhaps just retribution. They have been at the root of many riots in Goma over the years.
So on Monday, things were getting tense in Goma. People were throwing rocks at the UN because rebel soldiers were approaching Goma. On Sunday a government military base about 30 miles from Goma fell for the second time in the past two weeks. And it appeared the rebels were advancing toward Goma,claiming towns along the way and sending floods of already displaced people rushing towards Goma. The people of Goma, and Eastern Congo in general, are frustrated with the apparent failure of both the Congolese military and the UN soldiers. I am not sure why, perhaps people simply expect less of their own soldiers, but a lot of the frustration is directed towards the UN rather than the Congolese soldiers. Perhaps it is the belief that the UN should have the weight of the entire international community behind it and therefor should have unending resources to fight this war.
And then the UN hit a motorcyclist. Accidentally. The roads in Goma are crazy even on good days and motorcyclists get hit regularly. But this was the UN and the motorcyclist died. The other motorcyclists raised a crowd and shot and killed two UN soldiers. During the conflict the UN soldiers killed 5 people and stormed a number of houses.
We were told to leave. All NGO (non-profit organizations) were told to get their cars off the roads. People often assume NGOs are somehow connected to the UN or atleast supported by it. Even myself, as I walk down the street on any given day, I will be called mzungu (white person) perhaps 5-10 times. I will also be called MONUC (UN solidier) atleast once or twice. This always seems rather amusing to me, that I could in any way be mistaken for a soldier. But suffice it to say that the international community is perceived as one body, and right now, we are perceived as one body that at best is doing nothing, and at worst is aiding the rebels.
So we crossed the border to Rwanda, and are staying in a hotel close to the border. We are probably 3 miles from our apartment in Goma, but of course once you cross the border it might as well be a million miles away.
Monday night, as we tried to sleep in the hotel, we could hear shots from time to time. And we got numerous phone calls from all friends and coworkers in Goma, who were hearing lots of shooting, only much louder, and who were scared out of their minds. The shots were largely coming from the main prison in town, where soldiers rioted and escaped, and guards were trying to regain control. But no one knew for sure what was happening or who was really shooting.
The night here can be a scary thing. During the day, life seems tenable in Goma. But night falls around 6:30 here and from then until morning everyone is on their own. Most people don't have cars, so they can't go anywhere after dark. And these days, even driving around in a car at night isn't recommended. Most people don't have power, so they are often sitting in small shacks with their families, praying for the best, listening to shots echo through town, and waiting for daylight. There is no 911 to call if you have a problem. At best people call their friends, who have little to offer, other than a voice on the other end of the line.
And here we were, with the safety of a border between us, and nothing to offer our friends who we left behind. We were forced to leave because we are foreigners who might be targeted. But by leaving we only cement the view that the international community abandons people. Before we left I had a little girl come up to my door, the child of a neighbor I suppose. She informed me “they'll beat you”, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact voice. I looked over the balcony she was standing on to the crowds in the street and assumed she was talking about the crowds who were watching the motorcyclists riot. I think she meant that if I went out into the streets they would beat me. I am not sure if she was trying to be helpful or hurtful but I suspect neither. I suspect that she was just stating a fact, much like the weather. And this is what is striking about the mob mentality here. There is a sense that things just happen, and normal people can do nothing to change them.
The four handicapped ladies that I work with live in a house together. It is just a small house, with a couple neighbors in a fairly good section of town. But the Shona ladies are young women, living on their own, with no ability to run away if things start going bad. On Monday night they were informing me that they had not even a penny in the house, and only a little food. Like the rest of the population they were scared. After worrying about them all night on Monday, we were able to bring them over here, across the border, on Tuesday. So here we all are. I'm thankful that we were able to bring them over here, but of course they are only 4 people in a population of 500,000.
UN soldiers were apparently able to turn back the latest approach of rebel soldiers on Tuesday. To stem the tide at least for the day. And they were apparently able to keep the population from throwing too many rocks.
About 20,000 people have been displaced in the last couple days. They are marching on foot, all their possessions on their heads, and arriving on the outskirts of Goma. Many of them are fleeing from refugee camps that were overtaken in the latest fighting and burned to the ground. Refugees are fleeing from the place they already fled to. The idea of wandering without a home is very real here. The people of Eastern Congo are used to packing up and fleeing, again and again. It is no wonder that this place, so rich in soil, is so poor. No one seems to be able to stay long enough to plant anything. Or why plant, what a soldier will reap?