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DRC: Violence, Bloggers Trapped, Sleeping on Floor, and Soldiers Looting

Violent clashes broke out Thursday in the Congo's capital, Kinshasa, between goverment soldiers and troops loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord. Mainstream media and blogs are reporting heavy gunfire, explosions, and looting around the city. The clashes result from a dispute over Bemba's personal guard's refusal to join the Congolese army.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, a warlord turned senator and leader of Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), has taken refuge in the South African embassy in Kinshasa. Bemba was one of four vice-presidents in the Congolese transitional government. He lost the 2006 presidential race to the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, after two rounds of voting. He later contested for a senate seat and won.

Bloggers in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been providing first-hand accounts of the clashes and life in the capital. Some bloggers have been writing hour by hour account of the events.

Congo Girl is critical of the role of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC)

I am uncertain whether MONUC is playing right now. They are not taken seriously because of their mandate to NOT engage in combat. They successfully evacuated a bunch of VIPs to their compound, and my boss here said can't I just call William Swing “the President” (she really confused someone else with that joke) and tell him to make it stop. I asked for his number but didn't get one.

According to Congo Girl, the clashes have resulted in the closure of the airport in Kinshasa:

The airport is closed, so certain people scheduled to leave could not. I am worried about being ordered to evacuate – I would rather stay and get my work done. A friend of mine is stuck in Brazzaville till further notice, and her family is concerned about whether they will make it here for their visit.

Something happened when she (Congo Girl) was blogging:

Ah crap, gunfire on my corner again.

Kate Wolf reports that the kids at the French school next to Bemba's house have been trapped in the gymnasium:

The kids in the French school next door to Bemba's place are trapped inside the gymnasium.

There is a rumour about a rescue mission to get the kids out of danger:

Rumour has it that an armed convoy is being organised to rescue the schoolchildren stuck overnight at the French (and Belgian?) school(s). We may be invited to join. Having got accustomed to my makeshift bunker in the now relatively quiet zone, I am somewhat loathe to join an armed convoy taking me in the direction of the front line, even if it is to the safety of the embassy compound.

Blogger Kate Wolf has been trapped at a friend's apartment in Kinshasa. Fortunately, there is a fresh case of beer in the apartment!:

The good news? We're now trapped at a friend's apartment with a fresh case of beer.

With beer stocks running low, my companions are starting to wilt. But all has been getting progressively quieter over the last few hours and we're hoping to be able to escape homeward tomorrow.

Congo Girl was trapped in her office. She leaves a comment at Kate Wolf's blog:

Dang. Wish I hadn't gotten stuck at the office. A case of beer would sure smooth things over right now.

Extra Extra describes the events as they happen and post an audio file of the gunfire:

I’m not hiding under the bed just yet, but I am wondering what tomorrow’s headlines will say.

12.30pm: OK, I’m under my desk. Explosions and small arms fire in the neighbourhood. It looks like Bemba’s time is up.

2.15pm: Still sheltering from the storm. Word has it that the tanks are out, so things could get even noisier shortly. True to form, Reuters have a report on the situation. + BBC

3.30pm: The bad news is that the fighting is still going on, and the police station next to us had to repel an attack. The good news is that most of the nearest bangs now seem to be outgoing, all the friends I’ve called so far are OK, and our little house is still intact. As far as I can tell, there is a big firefight going on around the unfortunately-named Mandela Roundabout, which features a sculpture of a dove, and is the nearest key intersection to Bemba’s house. A tank has just rumbled past.

5pm: It’s been continuing so long, I even managed to doze off for a bit. But some larger rounds woke me up. Surprisingly, I can hear birdsong in the rare interludes. Nayembi has crawled to the kitchen and is making tomato soup. Lunch, at last!

The Spanish Embassy was hit by mortar fire and the Nigerian Ambassador has been wounded. Kate Wolf reports:

6am:
Meanwhile, the Spanish Embassy has been hit by mortal fire and the Nigerian Ambassador has been wounded in his home yesterday and as last heard, had not been evacuated as MONUC could not yet get to his house.

Fighters are still in the streets below -it looks from here like the post office just got hit- and my hopes of heading home (about a kilometer away) today were more or less dashed at dawn. Let's just hope my friendly host has enough toilet paper for the 9 of us camped out here.

10am
Since watching Kabila's foot soldiers approach a hidden Bemba fighter with an RPG in the street outside, things have been a bit quieter. There are reports that an oil tanker by the river was lit on fire but the plume of smoke we see from the window is in the opposite direction. And of course, the looters trying to break into the NGO next door…

Word is that the lobby of the Memling (one of the big Kinshasa hotels) was hit yesterday, including a female expat.

Meanwhile, Kabila's government has issued a warrant for Bemba's arrest.

11.40am
Things have been quiet for awhile now and word is that Kabila's troop have taken back the city (i.e. now it's their turn to loot). the police are now coming back into our part of the city, which we take as a good sign. They appear to be recovering looted treasures hidden in a flowerbed earlier.

No one quite knows what will happen to Bemba. Aside from the arrest warrant for high treason, we've heard Kabila planned to flatten his compound. We're all wondering: what exactly is the difference between high treason and low treason? Maybe the difference between Bemba's private military and stealing a bit of uranium?

It is safer to sleep on the floor, away from the windows, writes Extra Extra adding that Presidential Guards looted his neighbor's house. And who knocked at his door?:

9.50am: We had a bit of a fright when someone banged on our window last night. When we called out, nobody replied. It turns out our neighbours’ houses were looted by… the Presidential Guards. Woopie-doo.

A blogger's house was almost looted by a Presidential Guard if it were not for the housekeeper. Nayembi writes:

I was informed by our heroic housekeeper that during the night a Republican Guard soldier came through the ‘parcelle’ we share with five other households, looting our neighbours and trying to get into our house. She warded him off, swearing that no one was home and that she didn't have the keys to our place (the woman will get a raise!). Apparently he is still outside our gate terrorising our guards, but hopefully our proximity to the police will finally come in handy.

Extra Extra explains how they helped a hungry neighbor without leaving their house:

We’ve just cut a corner out of the mosquito netting in our back window, in order to pass across some houmous, sardines and bread to a hungry neighbour.

Extra Extra latest post reads: Fighting abates, evacuations continue,

4pm: MONUC has just evacuated the people who spent the night in the Grand Hotel carpark, leading a convoy of about 25 cars through streets populated only by soldiers. You can see the last car of the convoy in the photo above.

As soldiers continue to help themselves to others’ possessions, to a soundtrack of dull, distant booms, Javier Solana ventures a suggestion for the Congo: ‘I think in a country after elections the tendency is – slowly sometimes but as rapidly as possible – to have one armed forces.’ Cheers, Javi.

3 comments

  • […] It’s Saturday. But it’s not your average Saturday; it’s Scavenger Saturday. From now on (until I feel like stopping) I will collect an attribution-only post from another blog and I’ll post it here, giving attribution, of course. First up is DRC: Violence, Bloggers Trapped and Sleeping on Floor, Soldiers Looting by Ndesanjo Macha from Global Voices. Violent clashes broke out Thursday in the Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, between goverment soldiers and troops loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former warlord. Mainstream media and blogs are reporting heavy gunfire, explosions, and looting around the city. The clashes result from a dispute over Bemba’s personal guard’s refusal to join the Congolese army. […]

  • […] Global Voices has a good round up of Congolese bloggers live blogging the fighting in the capital. The Head Heeb has a thoughtful background post on Bemba’s Broken Peace. And Sociolingo has some Facts About Democratic Republic of Congo. […]

  • MF, a dear friend of mine, works for OCHA in the Democratic Republic of Congo, based in Kinshasa. This is her story about the fighting last week, as described in an email to her friends:

    Dear all,

    I (we) have gone through “sheer hell” these past few days. We knew something was in the making. As I was driving to work on Thursday morning, I saw the UN Mission (MONUC) soldiers had reinforced their troops around Bemba’s house (he is the former vice president who also happens to have lost the first democratic elections last year). Bemba is also the man behind last August’s fighting and the continued recurrence of violence last fall. Luckily for me, I had to go to the Chinese Embassy to get my visa for the big trip of my life. On my way back to the office, I realised that Bemba’s troops (we recognise them with their red bandannas) and the Government troops were positioning themselves to start fighting. It was eerie. People were fleeing, by foot and by the hundreds. I thought: “I am dreaming all of this!”. I asked my driver to hurry home.

    The heavy gun and mortar fire broke out just after I arrived home and it went on for a seven hours marathon. As the UN Secretary General mentioned: the civilian population was “seriously threatened by fighting in the heart of the city”. Well, it just happens that the heart of the city is where both my office and my little bungalow are located. Charming isn’t?

    There are many stories to be told; children stranded in schools, colleagues stranded in our building, and several friends and acquaintances stranded at their offices. All of us cut off from the world for a solid two days. Some did not have food but most had enough water. Since I am known to be a little squirrel, as I always leave food in my office, my colleagues could help themselves in my pantry!

    I spent Thursday afternoon on the floor of my bathroom, as I felt my kitchen floor was not secure enough this time, as it has a big window. The sounds were unbearable, I tried to read, to write, to pray, to listen music… I just sat there, motionless. It sounded as if a constant fire works exploded but with an intensity difficult to describe to someone who has never heard such sounds. When grenades exploded near by, my little bungalow shook like a palm leave. I feared bullets landing inside my house, as it has been the case for several people.
    I was in constant touch with friends and the MONUC soldiers. My cleaning lady was with me and she was very scared. I had to calm her down. This helped me to stay composed and alert. She and some 15 staff working in my compound stayed overnight. Luckily, I had enough rice to feed everyone…

    Just as last August, I was the blind witness to a war. This one was worse, though. In fact, some told me that the fighting was the worse Kinshasa had known in 20 years! Casualties are heavy this time, some 700 persons were killed: 500 were soldiers and the rest are civilians. One young woman was sipping a drink at the bar of a hotel, another was killed watching TV and a colonel and his kids were shot dead when he was trying to bring them home from school prior to the start of the fighting! Homeless women were found dead with their babies on the street, as they were trying to flee for a secure shelter.

    A friend of mine described how the streets were full of corpses by Thursday night. By dawn the next day and just prior to the start of the battle on the 2nd day (it started at 5h00 in the morning by the explosion of the oil reserves), the victim corpses were quickly dumped in the Congo river… That’s why official statistics only mention 160 losses!!!

    There were many acts of bravery. Kids from a primary school had to be evacuated, as they were in the eye of the storm. Imagine little kids being transported in armored vehicles. They were repatriated at the French Embassy and were good as gold… For OCHA, our main casualty is a house converted into an office: it was damaged as shelling fell against the wall. Many windows were shattered and received bullets. I also found many bullets in my garden at home.

    My neighbor received “lost bullets” in his living room and my other neighbor’s bedroom was cribbed with bullets. My UNICEF friend was evacuated by courageous Uruguachos during the battle as the building received some mortars shells. Luckily, they did not explode. If they had, both UNICEF and the Spanish Embassy staff would have been killed.

    On Saturday, by lunch time, after 48 hours, just like all of us in Kinshasa, I finally ventured outside. Shops were full of people sharing stories and buying food. Yesterday, the boys and I ordered wine and made a toast to life.

    Yes, I do thank God that I am alive and well and that I will soon be getting the hell out of here, as my old friend Tom ordered me to do! Enough of this life!!! I am off to motherhood in a peaceful environment…

    Yours,
    MF.

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