It was going to be a long day so it worked out well that I had a flight down to Beni the afternoon before and could just continue on to Goma and start from there in the morning. My sister Lu was evacuated out of Rumangabo because of heavy fighting there and so I stayed with her and went out with friends of hers to the UN for a “Opening of the Olympics” party. Incongruous. I had flown in among much helicopter traffic going to and from the fight only 20 miles away. I guess wars are always like that, but it is like shifting gears between 5th and reverse. Not natural and it could mess with things other than your mind.
The next morning saw us out at the Goma airport loading up for a flight to Walikale to see if humanitarian workers could move back into the area after M23 had taken over the town the week before. At that time they had been evacuated out by UN helicopters but the need there had not gone away. Now M23 was gone and they wanted to get back in if it was safe. Walikale is an interesting place. With mining for cassiterite and gold it attracts attention, good and bad.
It is good to be part of the helping side of things and as I circled down through a small hole in the clouds, which were not supposed to be there according to reports, I followed one of the few paved roads in this country to where the painted lines running across the road with dots about 5 meters apart down the center line, marked the section of road that was also the local airstrip. Although it has been used for years as a runway, this section has some lovely, golf course like features. These include a narrow little “fairway”, (7 to 8 meters wide) with deep ditches on each side just begging the plane to fall in them, a nice dogleg in the middle, and turnarounds that will catch someone, again, if we are not very careful. Planes have already fallen over the side.
It is “first in, last out” if there is more than one plane there and I was going to be on the ground 3 hours so I was thinking I could be taking off every 15 minutes to let road traffic pass. As it turned out, there was a little path down in the middle by the military camp that was not quite as steep and I was able to push the Cessna 206 off the road so vehicles could pass. I would still have to move if another plane needed to land, but there was no traffic this day.
I went to talk to the colonel to get permission to take pictures of the strip so the rest of our guys would have a better understanding of how things were here and we had a great time finding out about each other. He had been at our base in Nyankunde at worse times when cleaning up after a massacre and knew some of the doctors from the hospital there. One of the officers asked if I had any Bibles. We usually have some Gideon Bible New Testaments behind our seats and I was glad to find 4 still there. I handed them out, giving the first one to the colonel. I admonished them to read them and the colonel pulled a weather worn, beat up copy of the same thing out of his breast pocket and said, “I read mine every day till it is now worn out”.
I walked the “airstrip” up and down getting the length and width, slope and altitude and taking pix of problem areas. There are also huts all along the sides, but we would have to be able to get through the big ditches to reach them, and there is little chance of that. People in the area are quite plane savvy so all the foot traffic was not as much of a concern as I originally thought. After 3 hours of fun with the local population, my passengers came back and we took off for Pinga. On my Thursday flight there had been militia and government troops there. Everything is amazingly fluid and unusual here.
Leaving Goma in a rush to get back to Bunia before dark,I took off with warnings from the tower to avoid flying over Rutshuru because helicopters were returning from the fighting there. In spite of the warning, rain around the base of the volcanos forced me to stay quite low and close. But I guess everyone had the fight rained out of them. Trying to “keep your powder dry” I guess.