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Democratic Republic of the Congo: diary from the field

22-06-2006 Feature

In May, Jan Powell spent two weeks with a cameraman producing an ICRC film for the series From the Field. She kept a diary describing the highs and lows of the trip and the challenges of working from the field.

Watch the video produced by Jan Powell during her mission : ICRC distributes essential aid to villagers  

 Wednesday 9 May - Geneva  


  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
The camera crew in action    
    Filming in eastern DRC isn't going to be easy as people have not ceased to tell me since I took on the job - the heat, the humidity, the malaria, the sheer distances and of course the unstable security situation. But after two years co-producing a film series for the ICRC in Geneva entitled ' From the Field', it's a chance not to miss.    
  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
Helping people pick up the pieces of normal life    
    It's going to be a rough few days it seems - filming the ICRC team as they truck in basic supplies to 9,000 destitute families in North Kivu in the far east of the country, a region plagued by conflict and banditry. Earlier in the year the villagers were caught in the crossfire between government and rebel fighters, and h ad to run for their lives. Three months later they are returning to find homes and belongings pillaged.


 Thursday 11 May - Nairobi  

I'm relieved to reach Nairobi airport after a long overnight flight to find my luggage intact. It is a moment of truth - the first meeting with the cameraman. For the next two weeks we shall be virtually inseparable - how we get along together will make a huge difference to the success of our job. 

We don’t know each other but he's easy to spot - the loaded luggage trolleys are a giveaway - two large metal trunks plus five more assorted bags and holdalls and of course the precious camera from which Morris is inseparable. Travelling light as a camera crew amounts to a contradiction in terms. 

At the ICRC Delegation in Kinshasa, we are met by Sadia, the Communications Officer. She is also organising a second group of journalists in DRC to report on the situation further south.


 Friday 12 May - Kinshasa  

  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
Filming in the remote forest of North Kivu    
    There are 18 of us to board the ICRC aircraft, a tiny Beecraft 19, at Kinshasa airport, for the next leg of the journey . Fidèle from the ICRC office is there to sort out the official paperwork. He's obviously a well known character greeted noisily by the ranks of armed guards at the airport entrance. Fidele collects my passport. It is disturbing to hand it over, especially as I gave up my return air tickets to the office yesterday. They assure me its just to sort out confirmation, but I am concerned there may not be time to collect them on my return trip. I am not used to the ICRC wrap-around logistical support and have yet to learn to trust it.

We climb into the tiny aircraft. It's an hour flight to the tiny airport of Mbuji- Mayi for re-fuelling, in the heart of DRC’s diamond mining area which perhaps explains the large number of heavily armed guards on the airstrip. The pilot warns me not to take pictures - I would certainly lose the camera should I be spotted. Morris cheerfully recalls this was where he was nearly arrested last time he was here. I take the hint and put my camera away.

We take off for Kindu, from the air, just a tiny square surrounded by thick forest. It is the last stop before Bukavu, in South Kivu province, our destination that night. After four days solid t ravelling we are at last about to start our film mission.

 Saturday 13 May - Sange village, South Kivu  

  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
Health centre, Sange village, South Kivu. ICRC support programme for the victims of rape.    
    She looks so fragile, perched on the couch where I have asked her to sit for our interview. She faces us in front of the barred window, silhouetted against the light to hide her identity, a condition of allowing us to film her at all. She has delicate features, small hands and feet. Her fingers pick at the covering as she stares at us. She has been persuaded to talk to me - and is clearly having second thoughts. I can't say I blame her as we both watch Morris setting about the business of unpacking the equipment, rapidly filling the small room with the camera, lights, m icrophones and cables. 

I feel intrusive. I know that this girl - let's call her Esperance – was raped a week ago. The questions I have in mind seem inappropriate, the usual journalistic clichés inadequate. Nevertheless we have to start. We talk niceties, where she lives, her little boy of 18 months, before we move on to the point of the interview. Just a week ago, an armed man, a soldier she says, broke into her house. He attacked and raped her at gunpoint. When neighbours who heard her screams came to the house, the man escaped. The neighbours took Esperance to their house, but when her husband came back, he refused to let her come home, accusing her of bringing disgrace upon him. The only other place she could go, she explains, was her mother's house. But she too would have nothing to do with her.

It is a common story in eastern DRC, where sexual violence by armed fighters is widespread. Rape is considered to bring shame upon the family and the victims are expected to keep the secret and suffer in silence – that way no one is disgraced. Esperance was found by an ICRC health worker in the area and brought to Sange Health Post the morning of our visit. The facilities at Sange are simple but girls like Esperance get practical help - the ‘ morning after ‘ pill and a cocktail of drugs to prevent aids and other STDs. Equally important, it is a place to stay in safety and to talk to others who have suffered similar experiences . 

 Sunday 14 May - Bukavu-Goma  

  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
The road from Bukavu to Sange    
    Our journey to and from Sange had been exhausting but stunningly beautiful - three hours each way over dirt and mud roads, climbing an escarpment which rose to 2000 metres. The journey took us close to the border with Rwanda, through areas known to shelter armed groups and bandits. It was frustrating not to be able to stop and film on the way, but Guilain, our driver was under strict orders to get us back well before dark.

By 8 am on Sunday morning we were on the road again.

It had rained all night in Bukavu. The road rapidly become a quagmire of red mud, deeply holed and rutted, and we bounced and jarred our way north. The road climbed and dipped over the deeply indented shores of the lake, as long fingers of headland stretched into the calm waters. It could have been the Mediterranean coast of Turkey but for the banana plantations and exotic white trumpet flowers fringing the shore. 

  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
The inevitable puncture after hours on unmade roads.    
    Bukavu to Goma is around 180 kilometres. We are four hours into the journey when the landcruiser slows to a halt. The road ahead is blocked by a flimsy wooden barrier and a crowd of 50 or more people who watch us approach. I am calculating how long it will take us to get back to Bukavu as Guilain rolls down the window to talk to the leader of the group - a man in his twenties with a Rambo style headscarf. 

Guilain hands out cigarettes and turns off the engine. We are clearly going nowhere for the time being. They talk in agitated Swahili. It emerges that we are being held up by a kind of informal highway repair team. The rain has brought down a mud slide sweeping away the road ahead of us - the only road this side of Bukavu which will get us to Goma. Our highwaymen are demanding money to pay for their labours in repairing the road - not unreasonable it seems to me, but possibly counter to ICRC principals? 

Guilain valiantly works at persuading the group that we should be allowed to pass in the name of the humanitarian work we are ostensibly about to perform for their fellow countryman, but to no avail. The group look angrier and start to reinforce the barrier. Morris swears loudly, chases the kids away from the car and pretends to sleep - I wish I could feign such indifference. It is an hour before Guilain gives up on negotiation. Five dollars changes hands - our highwaymen are happy and step back from the car to dismantle the barrier.

 Monday 15 May, Goma to Kiberizi  

It feels as if we had been travelling for a week. And we had. With just two hours filming to show for our efforts, it was a relief to arrive at the scattered village of Kibirizi in the centre of North Kivu Province. The village was surrounded by thickly forested hillsides providing shelter for various armed groups refusing to be integrated into the FARDC, the Congolese Government Army. Kibirizi had been the scene of fighting just three months ago when it had been completed looted. Despite the obvious presence of FARDC patrols, there was an uneasy calm.

  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
Kitchen , bathroom and laundry at the ICRC residence in Kibirizi.    
    Our home for the next three days was to be an incongruously pebble -dashed 2 storey house rented for the month while the ICRC field team gave out blankets, kitchen utensils, soap and clothing to 9,000 families in the village and surrounding area. The house offered shelter and a semblance of security but little else - there was no electricity, water was a tap in the yard which worked for a few hours a day, and the toilet was a pit latrine situated, inevitably, next to the wooden hut that served as wash house for the 20 people staying in the house. Morris lost no time in getting out his portable solar shower, leaving it to warm up on the grass outside the house - to the interest of our ICRC hosts who seemed to be made of sterner stuff. 

I was keen to start filming as soon as possible after so many days travel , while priorities in the house were to get the distribution under way with minimum disruption. We came to an agreement with Tanya, our team leader - we would film the ICRC convoy as it arrived in the village loaded with kits early next morning and would fit in interviews with the field team later in the day while they worked. 

By 6.30 in the evening it was already dark. For a co uple of hours a generator provided power to recharge batteries and the VHS telephones that linked the ICRC team. By 9 o'clock it was a relief when the noise of the generator engine was replaced by the glow of kerosene lamps. With his extra powerful head torch, Morris settled down with last week's Sunday newspaper. I sat outside in the dark heat listening to the chirpings and whirrings of a myriad unidentified insects – I hoped that I'd remembered to zip my mossie dome shut as I watched them fly in through the open windows. 

 Tuesday 16th May - Kibirizi  

At four in the morning I woke to the sound of a megaphone - the first summons to the crowd already gathering on the football pitch in the middle of the village. By 5.30 the whole house was stirring. After last night’s leftovers for breakfast, the field team left to set up the cordoned alleys, desks and umbrellas where the villagers would check off their names and queue patiently as the ICRC lorries disgorged their bundles. 

  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
Queuing for their kits in the heat of the sun    

Morris and I gathered our gear and set out to film misty rosy dawn shots over the heads of the gathering crowd – by late morning the strong tropical sun cast harsh shadows which would not help our footage. By 7.30 am we were jolting back through the village at high speed - the lorry convoy was already on its way, arriving from the Butembo depot ahead of schedule, and we needed to catch it en route before it entered the village. 

  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
ICRC convoy entering the village    
    By nine we were back at the football pitch, with the humidity making any rapid move ment uncomfortable. The crowd queued patiently in the heat, the women chatting and soothing the babies slung on their backs while some of the older people looked confused and anxious - it had been a long walk, followed by a long wait and now more checking and double checking of identities. There was a sense of ‘so near yet so far’. Would they get their precious bundle after all this? But that day not a single name went missing. 1,782 bundles were handed out to 1,782 individuals, registered, checked and cross-checked. It was impressive if not downright miraculous.

Slinging the bundles on their heads, the columns of people dispersed. They had been advised to go home in groups for safety. By 14.00 the last lorry had been emptied, but I had another chapter in my film report to finish - a portrait of at least one family taking its precious bundle home. We had already identified our family, Issa and Aimee and their five children. But to complete our film sequence I needed to film them en route for home – which was proving a challenge. Our camera attracted huge attention wherever we went. Crowds of curious children gathered within seconds of us opening the camera bag, followed by staring adults, often suspicious. 

Our film star family rose to the challenge, submitting to retakes as they unpacked and repacked their Red Cross gift parcel for longshots and close-ups. They told me once again the story of how they had escaped from the village by night. " My own family were unhurt " , explained Issa, " but my younger brother was killed on the way. "  

  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
Driver and head chef, George, prepares fish for dinner    

By the time we had finished, it was well past curfew hour but I was satisfied we had the material we needed. Arriving back, the atmosphere in the ICRC house was less tense - two days down and three to go and, so far, no ‘incidents’ - code for disagreements - over allocation of kits, or with the armed men we knew were not far away in the surrounding hills. The team could relax for the evening.

The next morning would be another early start and a visit to the FARDC barracks, a half hour drive away in the Virunga National Park. Morris and I hoped we would be able to get the pictures we needed of soldiers in action. For the field team it would be a chance to make contact with government forces and check out the security situation before the journey home. 

  ©ICRC/Jan Powell    
“… so near yet so far …”    

 Tuesday 23rd May, Kinshasa  

Today I begin the long haul back to Europe and Morris back to Nairobi. With our mission accomplished and 15 hours of video rushes in the can, there is time to reflect rather than worry about overhead shadows or the mobs of children ruining the shot. Waiting amidst the chaos that is Kinshasa airport, I was struck by a sense of respect for the ICRC team in DRC. In the face of an extremely fragile security situation, they are bringing back order and hope to lives which have been torn apart by conflict - from providing the essential household items missing in Kibirizi, to rebuilding the shattered lives and emotions of rape victims in Sange. It struck me that one of ICRC’s main tasks is to bring routine and normality back to daily life. But there is nothing routine about ICRC’s work in the field.