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Goodwill visit to Central Africa

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Sue Segar spent a week traveling with senior members of the South African National Defence Force on the annual goodwill visit to soldiers deployed in the Central African Republic, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo.

We exit the airport building and walk into smouldering heat and a throng of beggars carrying dangly-legged beggars on their backs. We are told to keep walking and not to engage. Go straight to the vehicle, we do not want any diplomatic incidents says the general in charge.

We know that we can be glad we have come through the diplomatic entrance – people have been known to part with hundreds of dollars just to make it through the crooked bureacracy from airplane to taxi.

Welcome to Kinshasa, capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Leopoldville, once nicknamed ”Kin la Belle” (Kinshasa The Beautiful), and now known as ”Kin la Poubelle” (Kinshasa the dustbin.)

Whatever you do, do not take any photographs of airports, soldiers, policemen. And, if you think the Parisiens are hostile and unfriendly, try the Kinshasans for attitude.

We climb into the waiting vehicle which proceeds slowly through the boiling cacophony of traffic, towards the city centre. It stinks everywhere. We drive past trucks so overloaded it’s a miracle they haven’t keeled over. Some have goats and other livestock tied tightly to the top of the cargo. We drive past fields and fields of litter, with pools of green, slimy water in between the piles of rot.

At times we strain through the black mud track which the road sometimes becomes. We marvel at the fact that we haven’t skidded into the other cars veering from all directions into our lane.

We drive past rows of delapidated, unpainted buildings with a far brigher past, where rows of clothing hang out to dry. Small brown rivers choking with litter flow down the side streets between the rows of buildings, making their way into the Congo, a river with a flow so strong it could cover the energy needs of the whole of central Africa.

”This place is like … Hillbrow,” says someone.

”Eish, you can’t say that about Hillbrow, says someone else.

We are in Kinshasa as part of the South African National Defence Force’s annual goodwill visit to the SANDF troops who are deployed in Burundi, Central African Republic and DRC.

Every year, senior members of the force, accompanied by key business and civil society sponsors, take a trip to some of the remotest spots on the continent to bring a little festive cheer to the soldiers and to show appreciation for the role they are playing in peace-making in Africa.

Our first stop was the Kamina Air Force base, in the south of DRC and a three-day drive from the nearest international airport. Here, about 50 South African soldiers assist the United Nations with peacekeeping operations. Inside the remote hangar, where soldiers sleep in Weatherhaven tents, the homesick soldiers received gifts of rechargable lights and headlamps, as well as camouflage Bibles from the Bible Society.

With the muffled sounds of Come All You Faithful in the background, the army’s Chaplain-General, Brigadier-General Marius Cornelissen delivered a simple sermon, based on verses from Ecclesiastes, about a man looking for answers to the meaning of life – and feels that he is just ”chasing the wind”.

Then Lt Gen Rinus Janse van Rensburg, the former SANDF Surgeon General motivated the troops, saying they have been described as ”dependable friends” by their host countries in Africa.”You have given hope to locals. You have helped to bring DRC from civil war to sceasefire to democratic elections and towards reconstruction,” he said. He told them the army has arranged to have Christmas packs delivered to their families back home. The soldiers beamed and, over lunch of fried chicken from home, shared anecdotes and photographs of their experiences in Congo.

At Kamina, Major Louis Van Heerden of Hoedspruit described how, in the evenings after work, she listens to Congolese music. At weekends, they visit a creek not far from the base for relief from the relentless heat.

One thing you notice in the South African military forces is the fact that they comprise mainly black and Afrikaans South Africans. You won’t come across many English soldiers in Bujumbura, Bangui or Goma.

There is something deeply moving about hearing a senior soldier – Sergeant-Major Scheepers – telling a room full of black soldiers in a deep rural spot in Africa that ”I love my soldiers and I will do anything for them.”

South Africa has nearly 3000 soldiers deployed in some of Africa’s most strife-torn areas. SA troops have been In Central African Republic since 2007 at the request of the president, to help with military training, refurbishment of military bases and upgrading of the fighting capability of the CAR Armed Forces (FACA). In Burundi – a country which is moving forward since a successful election – the SANDF is largely engaged in a peacekeeping mission with the African Union. In the DRC, where government and rebel forces are engaged in continuous fighting, the SANDF is, among other things, on an ongoing mission to disarm, demobilise, repatriate rebel troops, before helping to resettle and re-integrate them.

Re-integration is something the SANDF had to deal with after 1994, when former combatants had to amalgamate into the national defence force. We don’t hear much about that process, but, according to Cornelissen, it was a profound and almost miraculous process, involving white soldiers washing the feet of their black compatriots and long sessions during which soldiers from across the previous political divide shared stories and wept at long reconciliation sessions facilitated by the force’s religious leaders.

Here in Congo, the re-integration process is still a formidable challenge. While we were there, the talks to end the fighting in eastern DRC collapsed after rebel and government representatives failed to reach a ceasefire agreement after three days of talks in Nairobi.

Fighting since late August between government troops and the rebel group National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) under the Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda has displaced more than 250 000 people in eastern North-Kivu province. Nkunda claims that his four-year-old rebellion is defending Congolese Tutsis from attack by Rwandan Hutu rebels and local militias linked with the DRC army.

The North Kivu conflict has its origins in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutus massacred 800,000 Tutsis, spilling refugees and rival fighters into the DRC.

It is said that the average Congolese person has a meal only every three days, a result of war, appalling delivery of services and general corruption in the country. Some lobby groups blame the war in DRC on influential figures in the industrialised world wanting to access the rich mineral resources of the Congo. A UN expert panel has accused Rwanda and the Congolese governments of backing rebels in eastern DRC.

In Goma, a place which makes Kinshasa look positively civilised, SA’s Colonel Barney Klaasin described how South Africa’s 725 troops in the rebel area below the Nyiragongo volcano have had to deal with a range of war time atrocities, from rescuing child soldiers to seeing people’s heads being cut off and to dealing with women who have been raped and then had sticks poked inside them until they have died.

”We survive by dialogue,” Klaasin said, adding that he has an excellent relationship with both the government forces and Nkunda’s people.

We learn that South Africa has helped to register at least 170 000 former soldiers for the DRC defence force.

”Our people travel for days to remote places to set up demobilising centres for rebels. They sometimes work in very dangerous conditions,” said Captain Sonica Van Rooyen, a seasoned Congo hand, who has worked closely with demobilisation efforts. ”One team was travelling in the river in a boat which started sinking. They had to swim to the other side in the middle of the night. I received an SMS in Kinshasa from the one guy saying, ”nou moet jy vir my bid”. (”Now you must pray for me.”)

General Raymond Mdutwana, chief of South Africa’s advisory group to the DRC’s army, described the almost insurmountable task faced by those tasked with disarming and re-integrating rebel soldiers. The Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC) is known as one of the most unstable and impotent defence forces in the world, comprised as it is, after years of war and a serious lack of funding, it comprises various disparate military units.

”What we wished for has failed,” he said of the most recent negotiations debacle. He adds: ”The situation in the east is keeping us busy, so we cannot focus on training. The most difficult aspect of this is the effect it has on civilians. When two bulls fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

We hear, repeatedly how, as some rebels are demobilised and re-integrated, new rebels groupings are formed and new rebels recruited. A vicious circle if ever there was one.

But General Van Rensburg persists, from base to base, with his motivational message to the SA troops. ”Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God,” he tells the troops in Kinshasa.

I am reminded of the Chaplain-General’s earlier sermon about chasing the wind. ”Then I saw all the works which my hands had made, and everything I had been working to do; and I saw that all was to no purpose …”

Now, in Kinshasa, we are driving four vehicles to a single lane, as the driver wends his way along. A policeman, standing precariously in the middle of the chaos, blows shrilly on an orange whistle and bangs loudly on the vehicle, with a baton. I wonder out loud why these cops even bother to try to control the chaos and what can they achieve with those batons? A Congo regular replies: ”I have seen them crack windscreens with those batons.”

We pass the Stade des Martyrs, a stately spectacle among the mess, which is best known for hosting the ”Rumble in the Jungle between Mohammed Ali and George Forman, and which can hold 80 000 people.

As we drive, a pair of young men in a battered old car decide to dice our bus. Their bloodshot eyes lock with ours and they make hand movements signalling pistols aimed at us, handgrenades being thrown our way. One of them yanks something off the back seat. Without losing that eye contact, he holds the thing up by its tail. It is a massive dead rat, with extraordinary long molars.

While his buddy accelerates to keep up with us, he indicates by pointing at the rat and putting his fingers to his mouth, that he intends eating the creature. Then he throws his head back and roars with laughter.

We pass the national police headquarters, a tall shell of a building, burnt out and non-operational, except for a few people peering out from cooking activities a few storeys up.

We reach the Memling Hotel, where, back in the 1960’s, the mercenary Mike Hoare held meetings with the then Congo government in a bid to get rid of the communist rebel forces.

We walk into the air-conditioned lobby full of businessmen dressed in Brussels-styled suits, and workers from the UN, Unicef and the World Food Programme. The sparkling Christmas tree and the shops selling Elle Decor and exquisite diamond necklaces from Switzerland provide great relief from the potholes, the heat and the beggars outside.

© Sue Segar