Democratic Republic of the Congo: diary from the field
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. "
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.
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.