Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 24, 2000
Downriver to Dongo: A journalist's ordeal
In the heart of Africa, the hardest part of reporting a story is traveling to where it happened.
E-mail from Congo
Dongo, September 2000 (Maykuth photo)
A rebel carries away captured weapons. 

LIBENGE, Congo - The trip down the Ubangi River to the battle-torn town of Dongo was supposed to be a mere two-hour cruise.

Had we bothered to look more closely at a map and measure the 100-mile distance, we would have known better. And we'd have been better prepared for two nights sleeping on the slippery bottom of a leaky boat, served up as dinner for mosquitoes.

But we departed on the Ubangi in great spirits on a balmy evening as the sun set and a nearly full moon rose, silhouetting the majestic trees that form a solid barrier along the Ubangi's banks. We had cans of sardines, some stale bread, and a case of warm beer. The crew of rebel soldiers that we were traveling with were packing their own sustenance: a seemingly endless supply of marijuana.

The Ubangi is an awesome waterway as wide as the Mississippi, though it is a mere tributary to Africa's mightiest river, the Congo. It forms the northern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, cutting through Africa's largest equatorial forest, a land largely untouched by loggers or farmers because it is so remote, and in such perpetual turmoil that it is not worth the effort to extract the resources.

This northern region is one of the flash points in the two-year-old rebellion to oust President Laurent Kabila from power in Congo, a country profoundly fragmented along ethnic and regional lines. The war has embroiled the armies of six neighboring African nations, eager to expand their spheres of power into Congo's resource-rich vacuum.

Journalists often lament that the greater part of the job in a place like Africa is just getting to the story. Traveling to Dongo on cargo planes and a rickety boat made of hand-hewn wood is right to the point. We spent 30 hours in the boat alone, to work four hours reporting in Dongo.

The journey to Congo began smoothly, filling us - two newspapermen, a radio reporter and two photographers - with confidence.

We took off Monday from Entebbe, Uganda, in a four-engine turboprop crowded with eight tons of cargo: drums of diesel, bags of salt and grain, and 18 stretchers for wounded Ugandan and Congolese soldiers. The journalists were one more line on the manifest: "Five whites as passengers."

At Gemena, we connected to a smaller aircraft destined for rebel headquarters in Gbadolite. It carried a jeep and some weapons the rebels had captured at the front.

In Gbadolite we met the leaders of the Congolese Liberation Movement. They agreed to arrange for us to travel the next day to Dongo, where news was filtering back of a significant rebel victory.

Olivier Kamitatu, the secretary general of the rebel group, said it would be an effortless journey - Dongo by Tuesday afternoon and a return early Wednesday.

Like many time estimates in Africa, this proved overly optimistic.

Tuesday morning we boarded a twin-engine Tupolev plane to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. It was no quick stopover. The Ukrainian crew took the opportunity at Bangui to weld some repairs to the plane's wing, to change a tire, to load some goods, and to take on the rebel finance minister, who carried a burlap bag full of Congolese currency.

Five hours later, we were on our way to Libenge, the closest place on the front where the rebels felt safe flying an airplane. From here on, we would travel by boat.

In Libenge, a town founded by Catholic missionaries and Belgian rubber-buyers, we found the wood-and-sheet-metal craft that was to be our home for the next two days. It had no name. It was long and narrow, about 35 feet long, painted blue, with a roof over much of the deck.

The bottom of the boat was fitted with slats like shipping pallets, which offered some protection from the muddy water that sloshed about. The water came from a visible leak in the bow. Several young soldiers - they said they were 16 but looked no older than 12 - bailed the water with a bent steel pail. It was a constant job.

As the boat shoved off, we positioned ourselves on the roof and cracked open the beer. We made a meal of the oily sardines and bread.

A 25-horsepower motor pushed the vessel slowly downriver under the light of the moon, with fires from a few villages visible on the banks. The soldiers quietly huddled and smoked. Other than the drone of the motor, the river was silent.

Before midnight, the boat stopped in a market town called Mawiya to pick up a second motor and a load of artillery shells.

The boat arrived in Dongo at 3:30 a.m., tying up to the bank just below a warehouse looted by the government troops who had just been driven from town.

A town that doesn't appear on most maps, Dongo is lush with papaya, mango and teak trees, and is at the junction of the river and several roads to interior. Many of its buildings were damaged when the rebels fought for five days to take the town from Kabila's troops. The government troops left behind tons of heavy weapons and the bodies of more than 50 civilians slaughtered in a final act of retribution.

"Kabila must have been surprised," said Ndayisenga Rugaza, 28, one of the commanders who led the battle. "He was sure this town wouldn't be taken."

A few vendors had already returned to the market, though the town had only been recaptured five days before. They sold soft drinks, peanuts, smoked fish and fried bread. Resupplied, we were back on the river by 10.

The return voyage, against the current, went much more slowly. As we passed small villages depopulated by the war, the few remaining residents waved enthusiastically at the soldiers. Fishermen worked the edges of the mile-wide river, standing up in hand-carved pirogues to spear tilapia and other fish.

It was mercifully overcast most of the day, but by afternoon, a thunderstorm developed upriver. The soldiers hunkered under their ponchos as the rain swept in.

As night fell, the damp passengers lay down on the slick deck for a second night of sleep. But the boat was running short on fuel. The boatmen pulled over and dispatched a smaller boat to search for gasoline.

While moored to a muddy bank, someone spotted a snake hanging from the limbs overheard. Later, a rat came aboard, scurrying down the gunwales above the heads of the dozing passengers.

A few hours later, the smaller craft returned with a drum of fuel, enabling us to finally complete our 17-hour return voyage to Libenge.

Thursday afternoon we hitched a cargo flight out from Libenge to Gbadolite, arriving a day later than expected. We were tired and dirty - 60 hours in the same clothes - and slightly gnawed from insects that were undeterred by insect repellent.

But we had the story we went for - about the fate of Dongo. And we had another glimpse of a region so remote that it remains largely invisible to the outside world. home page   
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