In the vines and canopied trees of the forest, Caleb, Sara, and Christel came to a halt when they noticed crunched leaves, squished down from the humidity, and began to track where the other occupants of the forest may be waiting. It was heart-stopping to hear the deep voice come from the shadows of the trees. “Qui es-tu?”
Christel took the lead. “I am Christel. These are my companions, Caleb and Sara. We are not the government. We are with the Peace Program.”
“No weapons. We just want to talk.”
“Put your bags down.”
“Okay, would you like some water?”
Caleb knew that the chances were good that the expatriates would respond better to them if they were not starving for basic needs. He packed water daily. He also often carried dried fruit with him.
“Water, good.” Now the voice was closer to them. It still hadn’t exited the safety of the shadows, but the the samaritans waited for the voice to continue toward them. Bags were on the ground in front of them and no one moved while the voice neared.
“We are peaceful,” Christel announced. “We will be opening the bag to get water.” Christel reached down, opened the backpack, filled with water bottles, and distributed them to the group, including the newest addition.
Christel pulled the visitor into the conversation. “I’m Christel, this is Sara, this is Caleb, and what’s your name?” he inquired.
After a huge gulp of water, the cleanest water Francois had drank in years, he stuttered, “F-f-f-ran-cois.”
“Nice to meet you. How long have you been living in the jungle?”
“A long time.”
“How long will you stay in the jungle?”
“I don’t know.” Francois collapsed next to a tree. The others sat down too. The dirt didn’t bother them, but seeing someone in so much agony did. Francois’s face had skin overlapping skin and the base of his neck was wrinkled, his eyes were inset, as is often seen with people who are malnourished. “I’m tired.”
“I see,” said Caleb. “What language do you prefer to speak?”
“I speak Kinyarwanda, French, and Swahili. I like Swahili best.”
“Sara speaks all of those languages, but is much better at French and Swahili. I speak both French and Swahili. Caleb speaks English. Sara is here to interpret for Caleb and you, but she will be giving a lot of attention to each of you as you speak. Just remember, speak slowly and clearly so she can communicate with ease,” Christel said. He was the local, with the same color of skin, the same origin, but obviously more well-to-do than Francois, since he was not sentenced to living in the jungle.
The dialogue lasted several hours between Caleb, Sara, Christel, and Francois. The four decided to return to the same spot the next day and continue learning more about everybody.
The Quaker Church and the Church of Emmanuel in Congo had worked together to form the Paix Programme. Caleb had worked for the Quaker Church for a long time and had a degree in global studies and conflict resolution. After awhile, he was recruited by the UN and was introduced to Christel.
Each day, Caleb, Christel, and Sara went to meet Francois. Caleb knew enough French and Swahili to pick up a lot of what Francois said, but relied on Sara when he was unsure of the context or the meaning. Caleb was personable and learned the vernacular of the language that was spoken - not the textbook language. He did a lot of listening. He worked to discover the root of the conflict.
Sara asked him, “Do you see these people as human beings or animals?”
Caleb never hesitated when he responded, “I see them as human beings, like you or me.” He loved people, loved working in the hostile territory and loved being on a mission to bring peace in the wave of conflict.
It took two weeks for the four to come to an understanding, work the “underground railroad” system and get Francois back into Rwanda where he could reunite with what was left of his family. Although, he was pretty certain that the family was likely killed by the Rwandan government in 1994.
Once Francois crossed the border, their focus switched. The UN sent a new assignment: investigate the militia and activities of the national army in the DRC. It was a fateful assignment.
Caleb, with the help of Christel and Sara, worked to understand the rebel armies. He bonded in villages, often laughing with the locals in French. He helped encourage children and he helped be a positive influence in their lives. Christel often accompanied him and Sara on the visits to the local villages. Christel, a wealthier person in the DRC, was one of few who owned a car and a house and had an education. He said he had power.
The stick shelters, shaped like a half-moon, were part of the village landscape. The investigation into the rebel armies took the trio to the villages often and most children and women were very friendly, but often times the men were not to be trusted. Christel could cut through the lies and demand the respect that those with white skin could not.
There were things that Christel needed to take care of in Kisanga due to his brother’s death. He only needed one day. It was the only time that he didn’t go to the village with Caleb and Sara. When Christel showed up at their office the following day, they weren’t there. The secretary for the UN, said she had not seen them. They were not answering phone calls. They had not checked in in over 24 hours. The UN deemed them kidnapped at this point.
Christel’s eyes, for the second time that month, shed more than one tear. Chances of survival after a kidnapping in the DRC were almost non-existent. It may happen one time in a million, but generally it didn’t happen often at all. Maybe once in one billion times someone went missing would they be found alive.
A few days later, the confirmation of the death of both Caleb and Sara hit the news and Christel was faced with his own crisis. His house, both near his brother’s now vacant one and near another neighbor was on a raised platform. The outside, yellow, shined with brightness in the sun and Christel collapsed again, with his phone next to him charging. Thankfully he was the only person home.
His neighbor’s text came in time for him to quietly exit his house and move toward the bushes. He stepped lightly and disappeared into the shadows, as much as possible and said a small prayer for his family. He knew too much. The reports for the UN had been sent. He’d helped Caleb write them. They were written in French. They were explicit about the charges that should be filed for international war crimes. He felt his heartbeat fast. It raced and his breathing increased. It was a horrible feeling to flee. But he knew that he couldn’t stay.
His phone vibrated and he moved toward the shadows, careful to take a peek at it once he was certain no one was watching. His movements were timed with gracefulness an awareness. He read the text, written in French, Swahili, and English.
Go to Uganda embassy.
Christel caught his bearings. He knew he needed to head east from Kisanga and get to Bukavu where he could cross through to Goma.
Much of the area in this part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, had a large lake. The lake was open space, but within miles of it were the forests that he was used to wandering through daily to make connections with the rebel armies. Nevertheless, it was important that he was careful. Before taking steps, he evaluated the safety and when something seemed suspicious, he paused to gather his bearings before he continued on.
Getting through Bukavu was not as difficult as getting through the sparsely populated forest and not knowing what was around every corner. The city was populated and he blended with the crowds. Even from behind, if the rebel armies saw him, they would not recognize him. The city stank like a rotten tomato, forgotten about in the bottom of the refrigerator. He bumped people constantly on the way to the ferry. Not being rude, he just passed them by. In the DRC, it was common to only have a small amount of space to move. He would soon find out that in the US it wasn’t like that.
Ferries left Bukavu for Goma frequently. The range of ferries were anything from a small, private boats to large ferries with standing room only on the bottom deck. Christel chose the mid-sized ferry and moved as inconspicuous as possible. He didn’t know who was to be trusted and who would not be trusted. He didn’t know if the armed guard on the boat was a friend to people fleeing the country or if he would shoot anyone suspected of trying to flee, but Christel took no chances.
The boat ride was four hours of eternity. Christel left his phone in his pocket and silenced the whole time. No one would be able to read over his shoulder. He sat down in a vacant chair, inhaled the smell of the fish in the lake and closed his eyes. Never relaxed, but also didn’t let the swaying of the boat rock him to sleep. No one bothered him. He sat in silence. He sat without attracting attention and as he exited the boat into Goma, he exhaled the longest exhale of his life.
Goma, a city in the North Kivu province of the DRC, bordered Rwanda. Although Christel was not likely any safer in Rwanda than in DRC it was the most direct route to Uganda. Another journey by foot and Christel’s body could not function much longer without some needed rest. The boat ride provided physical rest, but the mental acuteness that he endured during ride was not the relief his brain needed. A safe house was established in Goma. He wound his way to the safe house and once inside the hostess greeted him kindly.
Towels for his face, hot water for tea, and a warm meal was given to him upon arrival. A bed awaited him. Christel collapsed on the bed. He didn’t even take his shoes off before his eyes closed and slumbered.
Before dawn, the hostess was in his room. “Monsieur!” The hostess tapped Christel’s shoulders. “It’s time to go,” she said.
“Where?” Christel asked.
“To Uganda. The counselors will take you. You must go through Rwanda. It is not safe.”
“Okay.” Christel jumped out of bed, grabbed his backpack - the only trace of home he carried with him.