Chasing a Congolese rebel leader
1000: We meet the local chief in Bunia who has assured us he can give us access to fighters loyal to Cobra Matata.
1030: We assure him we are not representatives from the International Criminal Court at the Hague and all we want is to meet the soldiers and hear their story.
1130: He finally agrees but insists we travel with someone he knows. He tells us it’s for our safety. This means waiting another hour for another car to arrive so the four men chosen to escort us to Gety village, two hours away, can come along. The place is very close to the Ugandan border.
1230: We are finally on our way and it’s a very bad untarred road. Lots of humps and bumps and a flat tyre along the way.
1430: We drive into the village and immediately notice a group of young men dressed in military fatigues dotted along what looks like the main street. They eye us suspiciously but let us pass and we head straight to the office of another chief – the one in charge of Gety village.
1445: We are sitting in the office of the chief and he tells us we cannot film or talk to anyone because we do not have permission from the government to be there. We politely show him our media accreditation from Kinshasha but he is adamant he will lose his job or be victimised. Frustrated we leave his office making sure we politely thank him for giving us an audience.
1455: We huddle under a tree looking at the ruins of an old Belgian-style colonial home the rebel soldiers have turned into some kind of military base. I imagine what on earth the Belgians were doing all the way out here all those years ago – and notice how beautiful the building must have looked at one time, when the chief’s assistant approaches me and whispers in my ear.
1500: Somehow everything is sorted, they say they have dealt with the government officials and the rebel leaders are ready to meet us. I know I should ask why or about the sudden change of heart. Shadley Lombard, the cameraman, and Jasmyn Asvat, the producer hop into the car with me and we head to the meeting point.
1510: A man approaches me and says he is with the intelligence department. He doesn’t look like he is, dressed in torn trousers and a worn out ‘Vote Kabila’ t-shirt. He says he can make one phone call and we will get arrested. I dismiss him but he looks clearly irritated and leaves.
1530: We wait outside the compound for permission to enter. Rebel soldiers heavily armed guard the entrance. I am surprised at how young many of them look. I am sure there were some teenagers there. But they stare coldly at me and don’t respond when I greet them in French with a friendly, “Bonjour”.
1545: We are allowed inside and sit waiting for the leaders to emerge from an old rundown house.
16:00: Still waiting...
16:15: Still waiting...
16:30: We are disappointed. The leaders come to greet us but not Cobra Matata. He is apparently busy. I think he doesn’t want to be seen on camera. He is after all a man allegedly responsible for recruiting child soldiers and for killing many civilians. There is nothing we can do and we roll the camera.
1640: The spokesperson for the group tells me if the DRC government doesn’t grant them amnesty, allow them to keep their weapons and integrate them into the national army they will go back into the bush and fight. They haven’t heard from state army officials in more than three weeks and they are getting restless – worried government forces could be planning to attack them.
1655: It will be dark in an hour and we have a lot more to film. The soldiers seem comfortable with us and they let us roam around the place more freely.
1715: The intelligence guy comes back and tells our translator we won’t get back to Bunia safely unless we “leave him a little something”. We ignore him and carry on filming but I keep an eye on him. He may be who he says he is and he could make it difficult for us to leave.
1730: We speak to women about the security situation in the area and what should be done. She says the village wants the rebels integrated into the army, hoping it will bring an end to the fighting. But there have been talks of this before which have failed.
1745: It’s too dark for us to film so we prepare to leave. The so-called intelligence officer reappears. Again we ignore him and hop into the car. The three of us have done this before and we know there could be trouble on the drive back. Some government officials won’t be happy we spoke to rebel groups and won’t want the story published. We hide the tape somewhere in the car and hope the vehicle isn’t searched along the way.
1755: We are covered in dust, tired and sweaty – all we want is to just get back to our hotel. We are not looking forward to the long bumpy drive back to Bunia but it has to be done. As expected along the way we get a flat tyre….
2000: We arrive in Bunia.
2130: We are putting together the story, and in comes one of the men who escorted us to Gety village. He works for the chief. He is demanding money or he will make sure we won’t leave the next day. We have plans to fly to Uganda. We call his bluff and ask him to leave. He walks off angrily threatening he will return in the morning and if we don’t comply with his demands – there will be consequences!!!!
0200: We have a flight in four hours and we head to bed. The story is edited and sent to Doha. In the back of my mind I think about the threat and wonder if the gentleman was bluffing. We will have to wait and see...