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A Soldier's Tale

August 31, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Matthew De Galan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Heading to market. Photo: Matthew De Galan/Mercy Corps

Yesterday we went up north to Kibumba, a market town in rolling hills, between three volcanoes, two in Congo, one in Rwanda. It's a beautiful place, mysterious, with the volcanoes jutting up into the mist and haze. On the other side of the volcanoes to the east are the famed mountain gorillas. All along the road up, there are soldiers. We passed a checkpoint, and were let through. Then we passed a base on a hilltop, then another along the road. Then, a soldier, maybe two, is posted about every kilometer the rest of the way up.

On one side of the road lies the national park surrounding Nyiragongo volcano; on the other side, is agricultural land, and that's where we are heading, with all three vehicles, the whole group together, our objective to conduct focus groups on agriculture, water and sanitation, health and food security.

When we arrived, the town was alive and buzzing. The market was in full force. People were arriving with huge bales of cabbage, green onions, potatoes, manioc. Some carried them on their backs, the produce stacked impossibly high, holding two strips tight to their chest, and with a strap wrapped around their foreheads, slumping forward, walking uphill and fighting gravity. Others, in groups of two or three, pushed bicycles piled high with produce.

It was toward two when we went into the market for our second focus group. Our goal was to find 10 market women and talk to them about food prices and consumer difficulties. Three soldiers were in the market place, and greeted us. One was drunk. He spoke in halting English, smiling the drunkard's smile. When he learned I spoke French, he greeted me warmly, shaking my hand in multiple variations. When he learned my name, he said "That was my little brother's name! You are my little brother! My little brother from another mother!" He said this all in French — Mon petit frere d'une autre maman. He immediately vows to help us, and says he will round up some women for us, right away. So many soldiers here steal, extort, rape women and girls. Is he one of them?

He kept talking to me, his French impossible to understand at times. I called Laura, our team leader, and told her I think this is a bad idea — what kind of a focus group can you have with women when they are rounded up by the same guys stealing their food and raping them? She agreed, and we decided to make a graceful retreat. I would explain that we had run out of time and had to leave, but thanks so very much for your help. You've been great. So nice to meet you. But by then, he was back, with 9 women trailing him, and they filed into the office, looking a bit nervous.

I called Laura again, and we decide to go ahead, as long as he leaves. After a bit of a fuss, he agreed, giving me a drunken salute, feet locked together. The focus group went on, but I couldn't focus. I looked around the room, and in the room next door a boy of 14 or so was cutting up a chicken with a long, sharp knife. He looked at me, unsmiling, and looked away. Midway through, the soldier was back, drunker still, though now he carried no assault rifle. He smoked a tiny black cigarette.

"I have to return to my post. But I would like to have a little talk with you. Can you come with me?" I said, no thank, you, that's very kind. I appreciate your help so much, but I must finish my work here. Perhaps we can speak later?

"But I must return to my post, and you are my little brother, Muteyi. I must talk to you. Please, come with me."

You've been so helpful, thank you. Good luck with your work. Thank you so much. You've been so kind. Now, I mush finish my work Thank you, thank you.

His voice gets louder, more insistent. I think he might get angry, but I keep smiling. It's harder to shoot someone, I imagine, if they're smiling at you. He leans in toward me, and I think he is going to kiss on the cheek, French style. He reeks of alcohol, his eyes bloodshot.

"The women," he whispers slyly, in my ear. "I could tell you about the women." He says something else about the women, but I don't understand it. Finally, he salutes and leaves. The room returns to normal, the women laughing at him, at me, at the tension relieved.