Posts Tagged ‘border

16
Jan
11

border crossing series, pt. 389

13 January, 2011, Burundi/DRC Border at Kamivira

This region plays tricks on my concept of time. Increments of fifteen and thirty minutes feel qualitatively the same. I am continuously calculating how much time I need to accomplish a task and then reducing those calculations little by little while still telling myself that the task can be accomplished. It’s like I believe infinitely in the possible, in being able to meet deadlines, reach a destination, mediate an argument, no matter the reality of my circumstances. Often, this thinking is endlessly optimistic, even more often it is abetted by a lack of structure that makes those gaps exploitable; everything is negotiable. At the highest levels, you might call it corruption, but it’s a spectrum; at the lowest levels, it’s called being resourceful or “getting shit done.”

So on my colleague, Molly’s last visit to Uvira on the other side of the border with Burundi on Lake Tanganyika, we had planned to head back to Burundi at 5:30 p.m. Goodbyes, handshakes, hugs and photo-taking mean we actually left at 5:46. And suddenly, even by my calculations, it strikes me that it was a ridiculous amount of time to drive back out of the NGO quarter, weave our way through town, connect to the road that leads to the border, get our passports stamped and cross no-man’s land back to the Burundi side – this was 14 minutes after all, not 15; the whole process usually takes about an hour. Any one of those parts could take at least 20 minutes. And even though there were several announcements during the year with much fanfare about the relaxing of border regulations and longer opening times, we checked and found out the border still closes at 6 p.m. There might be no negotiating on that point, I think, which then might lead to serious “negotiatin’.” Belt, ignition, lights, gas!

The drive is a blur – a rambling, muddy, splashy “pole pole!” blur. I’m one hand on the horn the whole time, the other all a-flickin’ the brights, spinning the wheel, eyes scanning for every possible danger. Bicycles, motorcycles, carts, policemen, UN vehicles, trucks, buses – who knew there would be rush hour in Uvira!

It is exactly 14 minutes when we crossed the first gate into the Congolese immigration section. Beyond the second gate is no-man’s land, the strip of fertile emptiness that divides Burundi and the Congo in our little corner of the world, and beyond that, the gate back to Burundi. Home. We are still in our car and it looks like we have just entered the parking lot from Hell. The last herd of vehicles crossing back after a day of commerce in Burundi has spilled over from the other side. The cars  and buses are so solidly arrayed, there’s only enough room for humans to wriggle by. I find a narrow path for the car but there’s no room to park the car to the side and walk to the row of immigration offices on our right. At the same time, I am scheming, thinking of things to say to shorten the immigration process. I’m amazed I even think this is possible, and I feel a bit guilty but I couldn’t worry about that then; this is the context in which I live and work.

I haven’t rolled up ten meters when all of a sudden I hear, “Jefferson, traverse directement le frontier!” This is like “Advance to Go” in Monopoly, but better. Skip everything and just go. At an international border. I turn my head in time to see my old friend and immigration officer, Fazuli, both arms stretched out toward Burundi, pointing frantically, face full of concern. He’s hatless, has no time for another word and runs off somewhere. It’s just chaos. I do what he says and drive right up to the second gate. An incoming car gets the gate up and just as I’m about to blow through to the other side, a sharp woman’s voice yells at me to stop. I step on the brakes. Another immigration officer. The game is up; she scolds me and demands our documents. Surely, she is going to take them to the immigration office to log by hand and then stamp. “Immigration Procedures – Lose 15 Minutes. Go back three spaces and spend the night in Uvira.” This would be a disastrous result because Molly leaves Burundi for good the next day and there is a ton of wrap-up she needs to do. The loss of an evening and morning would derail the entire process. So it is pure honey-colored joy when the officer glances at our passports, doesn’t even try with my inch-thick document and hands them back to us with a smile. I shake her hand at the same time I step on the gas. We’re off! Home!

Home. But they locked the door. Figuratively. More accurately, they tied the string. When they tie a string across an opening, like a bridge, that’s the warning – the way is closed. In this case, some random non-uniformed person unties it for us to pass. We get on the short narrow metal bridge and travel the 20 meters across only to be halted by a real gate. The officer manning the gate is in a blue beret and matching poncho and he is doing his best to nonchalantly ignore us. He would turn away, stare briefly past our car and then look at the ground again. Another officer, a big fella, in light blue shirt sleeves has come out of the immigration office to watch. I haven’t been in a situation quite like this one. Sort of a half-hearted farce coupled with willful inactivity. Something needed to give. I hop out of the car, and ask Molly to move to the driver’s side, just in case.

Poncho quickly moves toward me and gives me a firm “The border is closed, you can’t cross, etc. etc.” I don’t really hear him because I can quickly see he’s not the problem. Poncho takes his orders from the Big Guy. I ignore Poncho, swing my legs over the gate and head straight toward Mr. Big.

I start walking toward the large officer with all the deliberateness of someone approaching a hibernating bear. In a steady straight line, concentrating. Except, he’s not hibernating – he’s in full-blooded anger mode, yelling at me to turn the car back before I’m even within 10 meters of him. I get closer. For some reason, I believe if I can get near enough to this raging hulk, I can explain to him exactly why we have to cross and he would listen. At this point, I have to believe in something, I tell myself. Now in front of the still blustering officer, I imagine myself standing in front of a roaring lion, fangs bared – probably not open to reasoned dialogue. I wonder if he is going to eat me.

“TURN AROUND!!! YOU ARE NOT ENTERING THE COUNTRY! YOU WILL TURN AROUND AND LEAVE RIGHT NOW! RIGHT NOW!!!”

But it’s all a show right? A show of authority, a show of power, a show. So I can show no weakness, no uncertainty, no grammatical errors, and to an extent, no emotion: no sarcasm, no indignation, no fear.

I direct a string of soothing declarations at him. “We are aid workers. We were told to cross the border. My colleague needs to catch a flight (tomorrow). I understand we are a minute late. That is why I got out of the car to speak with you. I don’t understand your anger.”

The point is not content – like so many things in this region, it’s about style, appearance. By this point, his objections were verging on the bizarre.

“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO COME BACK! WHY DID YOU LEAVE THE COUNTRY?”

What? Why I left has nothing to do with me coming back. It’s not a ‘why’ issue. I say, “You are right – I should have never crossed the border!” It’s turning into a farce, and it would have, except at that moment as the conversation was descending into nonsense, we both catch a surreal sight in our peripheral vision. Slowly, as if it were the most normal and cordial thing, Poncho gently lifts the gate and Molly guides the vehicle at a slow soft roll in front of the immigration office.

We’re both gawking with our eyes, Mr. Big and me, but our mouths are still churning out bullshit. I think it’s at that moment that he realizes he has lost. Somehow, he loses his communication authority over Poncho who, perhaps in a moment of civility or weakness, decides to let Molly just enter. I thought they had worked this scheme out, but whatever, we are back and there is no point in delaying the inevitable. Mr. Big thinks the same, grabs our passports and stalks off into the immigration office. I join him after a few moments and find Mr. Big at his desk in the now very dark office. (Electricity at an international border post? Nope!). He is holding his cell phone up as a light to the passport registry to fill it out. “Take,” he says and I hold up the light. I’m amazed to see my hand trembling a little. No one likes getting yelled at, no matter how calm you try to be. I close my eyes and tell my hand to stop. I reopen my eyes and the hand isn’t shaking anymore – I think – it’s too dark to tell. When the officer is done recording our info, he folds up the passports and hands them to me with a faint smile. We shake hands. The joining of hands – symbolic applause. The show is over.

I take our passports back and move back to the car. I love their weight in my hand.
In the last three years, I have added pages to my passport three times, the last time incurring a stern warning that I would have to get a brand new passport next time. My passport has graduated from being a pass’port’ to being a pass’book’. “Is that your passport in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Well, both.

I am still moved by the “Welcome Home” the U.S. immigration officer inevitably offers before spending several moments locating a spot to stamp my passport. I still want to respond with a robust “Thanks!” but now I feel guilty, like I can see the doubt in their eyes. Welcome home, they say (pause, looks at all the stamps), but what the heck were you doing abroad?

It’s a somewhat cliché device, but after all the trips to the Congo, each one memorable and recorded with a stamp, the one I’ll never forget is the one I didn’t get.

A part of me is still there.

Officially.

03
Aug
08

congoing

Note:

I am somewhat sensitive to the risk that a personal and anecdotal blog like this one may be viewed as a legitimate source of information based on its access to the situation « on the ground. » I have avoided a more rigorous treatment of the subjects I am here to engage, like the issue of child soldiers, female combattants and soon, the fiasco that is the Congo. Some topics I don’t treat because of personal or professional reasons. I don’t think I am very knowledgeable about the above topics yet, nor am I equipped to properly analyze them. If at some later date, I do acquire those skills, then maybe I will have a blog that isn’t named after me. For now, I am content to have the wide-eyed wonder of an amateur with seats that are almost too close. After all, I came to traumatized Burundi so I wouldn’t have to go to (possibly) traumatizing grad school yet.

 

Monday, July 21, 2008.

Exactly one month after my arrival in Burundi, I am on a bus out of the country. I am on a work trip to Bukavu in South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with my colleague Sean, who is visiting from Chicago.

Before I leave for Bukavu, I stop by the cafe where Gabriel, the Greek baker, dispenses sound advice and good coffee. I mention my trip to him and while he grabs me a croissant, he gives me a number to call if I want to hire a car and driver. He also tells me I should stay at the Orchid hotel in Bukavu (everyone tells me this).

He says, « When you are at the hotel, it’s so beautiful and calm. »

But I say, « But what’s behind, away from the lake, is so terrible. »

He says, « When you are looking out on the lake, you forget everything else. There you are at the edge of Paradise and Hell, » and I know we aren’t talking about religion.

At first, I try to rent a car so Sean and I can drive to Bukavu. The trip is about four to five hours if we pass through Rwanda. Estimates for passing through Uvira on the Congo side range from six hours to “Eternity,” and always given with this warning: « Don’t go that way. »  I ask around for quotes for a car and driver and get prices of $150-200 USD per day. Contrast that with the cost of renting the same set-up in Burundi, which is about $35 USD a day. People say the high prices are because of this or that fee but what they really mean is, « You have to give me a hell of a lot of money before I drive there. » Our budget for the trip is only several hundred dollars. I ask about renting a car and driving ourselves but we won’t get one, people say, because no one would be willing to let a car go to the Congo without supervision. Once we find a bus company in town that goes through Rwanda, we get two tickets for a total of $10 USD each.

Our bus passes through the Hutu-stronghold province of Cibitoke, which is northwest of Bujumbura. The landscape is startingly flat. Even more stunning is the number of passengers on the bus. Usually, in Burundi and many parts of Africa, the bus simply would not leave town until it was crammed with five or six people to a row. On this bus, some rows only have three people. When there are empty « seats » like this, the driver sometimes cruises around town, honking wildly and slapping the side of the vehicle to attract passengers. In this case, we just take off. I think that’s the first time I’ve been on a van/bus (matatu) where we don’t even hit the displayed seating capacity, much less the inflated one. By the time we get to the border of Burundi and Rwanda, there are only four passengers left, and we still continue on. The meaning is pretty clear: no one wants to go to the Congo.

We arrive at the border around noonish. It’s sunny, it’s warm, the landscape is gorgeous. Sean and I get out and go to the border patrol office to get our Burundi exit-stamps. Sean gets his and crosses over to the Rwandan side with the van. I step up to the window and hand over my passport, which I have opened to the page with my entry-stamp. Instead of looking at the stamp, the officer, a blue-clad policeman with a raw cut under his right eye, flips through to the other pages, looking for something. Did he not see that I had generously done half the work for him by opening to the relevant page? But he keeps flipping, turning the passport this way and that. The cut under his eye smiles and frowns as he concentrates and narrows his eyes. He stops flipping. The cut is frowning. He says, « Where is your visa? »

I try again and turn back to the page with the entry-stamp. He shakes his head. « No, that is not the right visa. That is only for three days. It is expired. Your stay in Burundi is illegal so you cannot leave. »

It takes me a second to realize what is going on. A country that won’t let a person leave because of an expired visa? As if I need another reminder that I am not in the U.S. I try to reason with the officer, try to invoke the infalliability of the empirical evidence before us: this is a stamp that I received upon entry for which I paid the fee of $20 USD, hence I have a visa, right?

« No. »

« Ok, » I say. « So what form do I fill out to get the visa? Who do I need to see? Is it this office here? » I ask, pointing to the chair next to him.

« No, you have to go back to Bujumbura. »

Here, I might say that my blood ran cold at his answer but that is strictly a Northern Hemisphere thing, where the rules are rigid and the weather cold enough to give the expression meaning. But in Burundi, it’s just too hot for blood to ‘feel’ cold and rules…what rules?

So I try to appeal to a higher authority. « Where is your commander? » I say.

« No. »

Right. I look all around. The scenery again: bright, green, beautiful…and totally empty. There doesn’t seem to any suggestion that another person will pass by today. I turn back to the officer.

« I cannot go back today. I have to go to the Congo. » I don’t believe I’m saying those words. I say, « You really don’t want me here, talking to you all day. » He has no idea the danger he is in. In fact, it turns out, he really just has no idea.

I say, « Ok, so tell me what I need to get the visa. This is a border crossing. »

« Go back to Bujumbura. »

I look around again. Not a person in sight.

« No, tell me how we can solve this here. » Ok, I am officially trying to pay you off.

« You need a visa and you don’t have one. »

« Yes, I know that. You don’t want me here and I don’t want to be here, but I’m not going back to Bujumbura, so let’s find a ‘solution’. » Is he for real? Is he this dense?

He sits back, looks up at me. He looks confused. Then, « Oh, oh, ok, come into my office and we will discuss. »  The cut under his eye is beaming.

I wonder briefly what he saw inscribed in my expression that made him understand. Was it desperation? A propensity for conspiracy? Or did he just need a few moments to get it?

I enter the office from the side door and walk over to the officer’s right but he doesn’t look up at me. He extends his open left hand across his body, still looking out. He is insisting on secrecy. I feel a little ridiculous. I am hoping Sean can’t see me. I look out the window, expecting to see an army truck pull up to arrest the corrupt foreigner. No luck – still no one, except Sean (looking toward the office) and the van.

« Ok, no problem. Give me something to get a few beers. A little present. »

 I love this – he still feels the need to dress up the bribe, as if I care what he spends it on. I wish he had said that he was going to pay his kids’ school fees instead – that’s what everyone in the Congo says. I already know I only have a 10,000 franc bill in my wallet – about $8 USD. That’s going to buy a lot of beers. Sadly, I’m going to be party to both corruption and alcoholism.

We drive on to Bukavu.

 

(I find out later from a friend that he knows the commander of that border post. When he hears my story, he tells me I should have called him because he could have gotten me through. Turns out the commander is an old friend of his. The lesson is clear: next time I find myself about to bribe someone, I should call everyone listed in my cellphone first.)

In the next few days, I will write a post about the trip to eastern Congo. Hopefully.
I’ve been super-busy and kind of run-down recently, but this blog is a good space to gain perspective so I’ll  try to keep it going. Thanks for reading.




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