Today was a wild day and one I don't think I'll soon forget. Woke up at sunrise to head, once again, to the border and attempt to gain entrance. The details of this whole ordeal are a little confusing, but let me give you the basics as well as I understand them.
Apparently they changed the immigration laws two days ago and now we need our Letter of Invitation emailed to the Chief of Immigration who will then respond via email with a Letter of Admittance. Which of course sounds very efficient and logical because we live in an era dominated by smart phones baby, if it ain't 3G it just ain't fast enough, but this isn't an iPhone holding Chief, this is Congo and oh my goodness, could it go any slower. So now we're waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Apparently for some guy, somewhere, to check his email and just.press.reply. Of course all of this is to be expected, but it's taking me a couple days to regain African Patience.
The guy won't reply and we've sent the email three times over two days and it might just be time to start thinking of alternatives. After fruitless attempts I head back to the hotel to wake the fellas and let's at least be productive. It's 9am and we can interview Rwandans, write blogs, organize accounting, take meetings with NGO's (Non-Governmental Organizations, essentially the non-profits of the developing world), research the economy, review local budgets, the list goes on and on. Jon is ready to roll, Dan a little disgruntled, Red is hungry and Dav doesn't look so good. Wonder what's going on there...
Jon heads off with a fellow named Kenneth, who is actually quite remarkable, and we hunker down to work. Kenneth speaks four languages and believes language is the silver bullet solution to the problems plaguing his home. Like a quest against Babel, he has studied and studied and now teaches and teaches, attempting to bring cultures together by giving them the simple chance to have a conversation with one another. The west likes to claim credit for Social Entrepreneurs, but these guys here are the true heroes. This kid has so little and has not only survived, but thrived and is now living for others. This is seriously inspiring stuff.
We find a beautiful balcony at the front of the hotel to set up shop and just as we're diving into work, a car skids up to the front gate urgently honking. The hotel security runs to let them in and Kenneth and Jon come storming up. "The soldiers are coming the soldiers are coming!" Like Paul Revere, we're called to action and go guys go, gotta grab that equipment, set yourself straight and let's move boys move. This is our first day truly "in the field" and the team is a little slow to respond. I've no doubt that by day 4 they'll be hardened and trained, but today the cameras, pens and monopods still feel clumsy.
Off we go and what is happening right in this moment, I've certainly never seen anything like it, but what do I know really? Must be hundreds, hundreds, could it be over a thousand? maybe even thousands, so many soldiers, I simply cannot count, meticulous and marching, meticulous and marching, meticulous and marching.
Pouring across the Congo border, well over a thousand Rwandan soldiers are marching back into their homeland. But why? Who are these guys? Why are they so public? So clean? Many unanswered questions in this moment, but the commotion leaves no time to pause, jump right in and start asking questions.
Though we're on the Rwandan side of the border, I'm still hesitant to show my camera. Creep a shot, and maybe another. As I get closer and they ignore me, my confidence builds. Closer and closer, moving in and wait a minute - these guys don't seem to care at all. Nobody seems to care. This is not normal. Walking up to the soldiers, they almost welcome the camera. Directly up to RPG's and filming, nobody pays me any mind and this.just.cannot be right.
Running to keep up with the march, soon I'm alone and sweating. Leading the parade is a truck packed with speakers blaring the Rwandan national anthem, grab a moto and follow the sound. After about an hour of meticulous and marching, there is a field ahead. A soccer field? Some kind of field and by this time they've picked up a crowd of who knows how many, definitely over a thousand Rwandans celebrating the return of their troops.
Marching and meticulous and eventually one entire side of the field is lined with Rwandan soldiers and the other entire side of the field is lined with Rwandan civilians. The music is still blaring and I'm a little confused about the climate, cause everyone seems happy, but there is a hesitation in the air. Side to side the soldiers begin swaying to the sound of the music, step snap, step snap, slowly moving and feeling their freedom.
A single soldier walks forward with some slight swagger and begins to dance with a still hesitant sway. Two others trail delicately behind him. His swagger turns to dance and others begin to break rank and step snap their way forward. This slow forward motion begins to happen down the line and the momentum is heading toward something significant, but I can hardly tell what.
And then it happens. The moment. That single soldier brave enough to walk forward just breaks. And dances. And another walks forward with a whistle and starts blowing and the other soldiers fall-in and the dancing spreads. Gaining enthusiasm, hundreds of AK's and RPG's and every other kind of terrifying tool become props in this dance and they shake and stir in ways that seem to be from a long forgotten era.
A sound from behind and turning there is a boy coming out of the civilian crowd perfectly imitating the lead soldier as he breaks into the same dance and boom. He breaks the hesitation of the civilians and these two crowds come after each other en mass.
Standing in the middle of the field and watching the two groups head toward each other, I feel like I'm living through Braveheart when the Irish rush the Scottish and meet in the middle with nothing but handshakes and hugs.
Colliding together and becoming a single intermingled force, what follows is an hour of pure, unbridled celebration. Rwandan soldiers dancing with guns held high among Rwandan civilians hugging their brave men. A man puts his camouflage hat on what appears to be his son. Another wraps his jacket over the shoulders of what appears to be his wife. Trying to film, I just can't help myself, so caught up in the moment. I'm dancing like a fool with the camera held high.
In the passion of the hour, they dance and dance and sweating and smiling, this moment feels like a good one, but who can be sure. If nothing else, it's deeply human and that seems to be the thing so rarely shown - their camouflage hides more than just their bodies, it hides the humanity within even these men of war.
Thirty or so trucks pull up and the whistles turn from tools of music to tools of command and the men pile in. Men hug wives, children hug fathers, thirty dusty minutes later and off they go.
So many unanswered questions, time for basecamp, internet and someone who knows what exactly is going on.
Asking anyone who will listen, what we can gather is this: The President of Congo, Kabila, made what seems to be a unilateral agreement with the President of Rwanda, Kagame, to allow Rwandan soldiers into Congo to begin ousting the Rwandan rebels within Congo, the FDLR. Sound confusing? It's gets even trickier, but we'll do our best to explain over the coming weeks. With few hard facts available, the Rwandan soldiers seemed to be operating under Congo control. This parade was their public exit from Congo, proving to the world that they would in fact keep their word and leave at the agreed upon time.
And this explains why they so relished our cameras, because that was their job - to put on a show. The day seems to have been organized for PR purposes but a local NGO researcher warns us - "Not all is as it seems. Never be so foolish as to believe what you're told here. Today the press will announce that Rwanda has left Congo and the FDLR has been ousted. But there are still Rwandan soldiers out there in the jungle, some maybe in fake uniforms, and the FDLR is only been scattered. They'll be back. It's even possible that this is a set up by Rwanda. The FDLR will come back as a force and the Congo army will not be able to handle them. Then the Rwandans will return to save the day. Or maybe not. All I know is this - don't believe all you see."
A day filled by human expression has left us breathless, but all signs point to her accuracy. In the coming weeks we'll have to learn to take her advice, or leave more confused than we came.
Sean D. Carasso
***Because of slow internet and posting constraints, the circumstances of this blog happened over a month ago, however understanding this element of the ongoing FDLR problem is still pertinent.***
Photos by Dan Johnson