It is Sunday morning, and we are up bright and early to head to the boat dock. You never can properly estimate travel time in the DRC, so extra hours need to be planned so as not to miss our boat. We are leaving Bukavu in South Kivu and crossing nearly the length of Lake Kivu to arrive in Goma in North Kivu. All of this in the eastern part of the DRC.
Well, I can't wait to update the photos on this blog when I get home. Our two hour speedboat ride on the boat, Marinette, is really no different from the mini-buses I described on the streets of Bukavu. We are packed in like sardines. Four across in a row, 2 x 2, with an aisle so narrow that although I have an aisle seat my legs are right up against the man "across" the aisle from me. And we all have our knees pressed against the seat in front and our bags on our laps. The boat is enclosed, glass windows all around. Most of which do not open. I think the boat held about 32 of us. I don't know if I've ever been in such tight quarters -- you just prayed it would be a quick trip. The petrol fumes did my airways in and I would continue to pay for that even days later. But we are off, only a few minutes behind the "schedule."
Ida and Rona and Thomas from HRW are on the Marinette with Mindy and me. We try to talk to pass the time, but trying to breathe is hard enough. About 45 minutes into the trip, our captain suddenly turns off the engines, and we sit nearly motionless, in our little greenhouse on Lake Kivu. We make out from the HRW folks, who conveniently speak some Swahili and French, that one of our two engines was making a funny sound and so the captain doesn't want to use it. He carries on a great argument with the boat’s only hand, who is riding outside near the engines. After a long while it is decided we will use only one engine. We will chug along at half speed. We have sent for a rescue boat to leave Goma at once and come for us. The one engine we have doesn't have enough gas to get us far.
We are all keeping our eyes peeled for the new boat. Surrender. Finally after another hour and some, we make our way toward a tiny village on the shore. We will get off this floating jalopy and we will wait for the rescue.
Boy were we a sight for the villagers. It was big excitement when we pulled ashore. Everyone came running over to see. Beautiful children came out of everywhere. They were very kind and welcoming. We were so happy to get off the boat and work our legs and lungs. Mindy and Rona and I made our way over to a small hut with a roof that offered some shade. We sat down under the overhang and were surrounded by curious children. I stopped counting at 30. One of the very young ones sat at my feet and very gently began to touch my toenails, painted a very dark red. I don't know if she thought it was dried blood or what exactly, but she was ever so softly taking her finger and would touch each toe, one by one. After awhile she laid one of her hands on top of my toes and just left it there. Perhaps making me better.
A woman in the village had a large basket full of bananas. When we spotted our much bigger boat in sight, we purchased the whole bowl of fruit as a gesture for their warm hospitality and turned them over to the ever-growing bunch of beautiful children to eat. The smiles made the Marinette worth the ride.
Our new boat, a police boat with room for 60 and functioning windows with indoor and outdoor accommodation, was a great relief. It was still two more hours on this boat, but we learned days ago to let go of a schedule.
We arrive in Goma, a city very different in appearance from Bukavu. We are greeted by local HRW staff and a land cruiser. Within minutes we are on our way. It's been about eight hours since we last ate, so a quick lunch is at hand. We have a meeting with a local NGO, Soprop, and we are already well overdue.
Goma sits in the shadow of a volcano, Nyiragongo. It last erupted in 2002. Most of the city was covered. The two-story buildings are now single-story, as the lava spread everywhere and filled in where it found space. The roads seem worse than Bukavu. Like mountain biking on sharp lava rocks.
Crazy. You still serpentine. The population is smaller. And unlike Bukavu, which is laid out much like San Jose, roads going in every direction, Goma was all built largely along a single road that at some point finally forks. So you can imagine the traffic jams on a single road and the state of the road. Lots of flat tires. And without a shoulder, people change the tire right in front of you. Serpentine.
We have a great lunch at the Chalet. The best restaurant in town for ex-pats. Our HRW crew seems to know everyone.
We bounce our way to Soprop. This will be our first experience to see HRW in action. Ida will interview victims of sexual violence and we will observe, doing the only thing we can do, bearing witness.
A room full of women awaits us, and Ida decides to divide the task with Rona and Thomas. Mindy and I will sit with Ida and Jean-Baptiste, our translator, and we will begin. We go in our groups to very small rooms, which are clearly primitive examination rooms, and we crowd around the table. It's after 5pm now, and as the city begins to grow dark, the power goes off -- as we come to learn happens every day, at all times of day, sometimes for hours. So carry a flashlight. We are sitting in utter darkness, with the door closed to give some feeling of privacy. You can just make out the outlines of our bodies.
The first woman comes in and she softly begins her story. I am grateful it is dark, as the tears quietly stream down my face. This trip just got so much harder.
We finish taking testimony and documenting their stories, and then head to Hotel Linda. I can't remember dinner. My heart is heavy. I am exhausted. The nighttime is too short and my room hot and crowded – with lizards, cockroaches, mosquitos. I lie on top of the sheet thinking how blessed am I and everyone I know. Tomorrow is an early start. We will visit a small center for women and men that have been victims of violent rape and torture. We will once again take testimony. HRW works everyday to document these atrocities and press for accountability and justice. Our journey will be well outside of Goma in a small village called Minova. I haven't really a clue what I am in for. All I know is that I am so grateful to be here.