Flew into Epulu twice this week. The bridge collapsed again. Last time it was repaired with parts from the old bridge at Komanda which had collapsed as well so they might not have been the strongest. I think they were from way back in Belgian times. Anyway, the big truck and trailer rig that took the bridge down was in the river just sticking up above the water line and all around were barges and canoes and cars and loads from all the trucks that were backed up by the hundreds, waiting for the bridge to be repaired. It was like a scene out of the old Mississippi stern-wheel river boat days with hundreds of strong black men glistening in the sun under the weight of 50kg sacks of grain amidst the cacophony of men shouting orders, cases of bottles rattling as they are unloaded, arguing, prodding and the overall buzz of the working crowd. I even saw some of my Pygmy friends each carrying 2 cases of beer on their heads. It was a sight to remember. I often feel like I get to step back in time and see things from the past come alive again all around me. It is one of the best parts of my job.
Then there is the whole “outlaw/lawmen” thing, where law and order are just not part of the equation and there is a casualness toward life and the value of people, where only profit and personal desires matter. Whether you’re wearing the star or not. The ICCN station at Epulu Okapi Reserve was a perfect example of that. The administration building was a burnt out shell. The safe lay on the floor on it’s back, the door ripped off. All the money stolen like something out of the wild west in the United States. I heard more of the story from my friends who had been there when the bandits came into town at night, over the bridge behind a truck then jumped out to have a gun battle with the guard at the bridge. He was killed along with the driver. These were not sidearm six shooters but a couple of 50 caliber machine guns and lots of AK-47s. Vehicles burnt. Homes burnt with people still inside. Women raped. A guard and wife “necklaced” with a tire around them had fuel poured over them and were lit on fire. Many people abducted to carry stolen goods or be “wives” for the militia men. All the research center’s 15 captive okapi killed and left to rot. It was all shocking. Witnessing these things is one of my least favorite parts of this time warp we live and work in.
And yet I get a lot of joy from being able to be a part of the solution. Well, that sounds a bit grand. Sometimes it is just helping to clean up the mess or an encouraging word. So little when you think of it, it’s almost like nothing at all. Still I don’t want to do nothing. Sometimes all I can do is put my arm around someone and say “I am sorry.” I guess, if that is all I can do…I will keep doing that.
A literal Gold Rush mentality; panning in every stream, the opening up of new areas discovered, wealthy “city” people building palatial 3 story houses, while on the outer edges homesteaders live a log cabin style of life, all round out the feeling that we have stepped back into a time that is legendary in American culture and folklore. I really do love bringing my time machine into these places. This turbine engine, auto-pilot, temperature controlled, digitized flying machine that drops out of the sky with GPS knowing my exact position to within mere feet is an incongruity next to scenes where river porters, cooking fires, hunting for food with bow and arrow and holdups from ambushes set up on the dirt roads describe the wilderness that is the Wild Wild East of Congo.