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Patience

DR Congo, January 21, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Some of those we're trying to reach today. Photo: Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps

It's 10:30 in the morning, and I'm in a Mercy Corps vehicle on a road eight kilometers north of Goma. We're trying to get to the Kibati displacement camp, which is another four kilometers from here, but are stuck at a military checkpoint. So here we sit in a line with a couple dozen vehicles from various humanitarian agencies, passenger buses, trucks brimming with commercial goods, water tankers and UN troop transports.

The smell of gasoline from idling, decrepit engines fills the air and stings my nose. It's putting everyone in the car on edge.

It looks like Congolese government troops have blocked the road ahead. They're definitely on the move around here, hitching rides on trucks headed north. Aside from the guns, the soldiers look strangely like they're going to summer camp: neon-green flip-flops hang from their backpacks. They climb up the sides of trucks filled with people, furniture and other goods. And then, post-haste, those trucks zip past the checkpoint.

Just now, a jeep with two blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers pulls alongside our vehicle. They have patches on the shoulders of their uniforms that read "Uruguay." A young man in a crisp white Doctors Without Borders vest walks up and asks the soldier at the wheel to light his cigarette.

A couple minutes later, Mercy Corps' security officer — who is accompanying us today — comes back with an update from the checkpoint. 

"They're saying that civilians and commercial trucks can pass, but not humanitarian convoys or UN vehicles," he says.

Wait a minute. The UN can't even get through? What the hell is going on here? I begin to wonder why they might not want us to go up to the camps.

Another one of our field staff explains that there is a massive lack of trust between the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers over dealings with rebel groups.

"I don't like being parked next to this UN vehicle," she says. "It's just not good at all."

A man from Handicap International ambles past the UN jeep and offers a half-hearted "Hola" to the Uruguayan soldiers. Not a minute later, the solider at the wheel gets on his radio and, in one fluid movement, does a U-turn in front of our vehicle and heads back toward Goma. 

We keep waiting as another few trucks full of Congolese government troops thunder past. 

A young Congolese woman comes up to the passenger side window to speak with our staff. She smiles broadly as she talks and seems very interested in our predicament. She tells us her name is Patience. Indeed.

A few humanitarian aid vehicles that were in line before us turn around and head off back toward Goma. We keep waiting. It's been more than an hour now.

Our security officer, who's been negotiating with the military commanders for a while now, comes back to talk with us.

"I was just told that they'll let us through, on the condition that there are no journalists with us," he says, looking squarely at me. I think for a moment I will have to go back to Goma as well, then realize differently.

"So, today I'm part of the assessment team?" I ask, knowing the answer.

"Yes, no photos unfortunately," he says.

We roll up to the roadblock. They want to search our vehicle. One of our staff members asks for my camera, which she surreptitiously conceals under her vest. I slide my notebook and pen into a pouch on the back of the seat.

A Congolese government soldier strolls confidently up to the driver's window. "Are there any journalists in there?" he demands in French. No smile, all business.

"I am not a journalist," I think to myself (which is true, I'm a humanitarian aid worker, but the tools of my trade and my intentions could make me easily confused with one). My three colleagues shake their heads "no."

We are allowed to pass. And, just as we get on our way to Kibati camp, we see a truckload of Rwandan soldiers heading south toward Goma.