Commentary: Guerrillas in our midst

Sometimes in this job, the effort expended to get a story tells you more than the interview, picture or bit of information you went in search of. Our recent trip to interview Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda required, in order, a United Nations escort, an all-night hike through a rebel-controlled jungle, sleeping in a villager's hut, a precarious motorbike ride up and down steep hillsides, an eight-hour wait for Nkunda once we reached the appointed location, a 45-minute press conference and, finally, a more elaborate U.N. escort that required another eight hours before depositing us at our hotel shortly after midnight - 41 hours after the journey started.

It was eastern Congo at its most - well, Congolese.

It had started off simply enough: I drove with a couple of American colleagues to a Nkunda rally in Rutshuru, two hours' drive north, where we were told that Nkunda was willing to meet with us. Nkunda isn't exactly what journalists would call a "get" Arianna Huffington does less press - but he hadn't done an interview since launching his offensive in late October. We hoped to be back within a few hours.

But Nkunda failed to show for the rally. We now had to meet him in the town of Kitchanga, which was either two hours or five hours away by car, depending on whom you asked. None of us had much food or water, and no one had packed for the chilly Congolese night. And the road was a big unknown.

The roads in eastern Congo are little more than suggestions of roads, bone-jarring tracks where the volcanic rock and impossibly lush jungle are worn down enough for a 4x4 to pass, usually, except at this time of year when fresh rains turn much of the road to impassable muck. Worse, the road to Kitchanga passed through sections controlled by rival militias. We had to stop at a UN base to pick up our escort, and as we waited the day began to feel like it was slipping away.

With the UN's help we made it through the questionable stretch of road, but our cars kept getting stuck. Soon it was dark, we were nowhere near Kitchanga, and finally our car, which we had prided on not getting stuck the entire way, slipped axle-deep into the mud. More than a dozen villagers came down from the hillsides, including a noisy group of children. While we waited to see if anyone could spring or car loose, I taught the kids to sing "Happy Birthday" in French to our colleague Matt, whose could not have picked a worse day to turn 30.

A wise-looking man in a tracksuit came over to me. He was the local administrator for Nkunda's movement, and he had bad news: the road was worse the rest of the way. If we were going to Kitchanga, which was either 5 or 15 miles away (directions in Congo seem to have the arbitrary quality of preseason college football rankings), we'd have to walk.

A car with the other American reporters had already gone ahead, and I didn't want to miss my chance at Nkunda, so even though it was past 9 p.m. I said I was willing to go now. Matt, eager to make his birthday worse, was up for it too, leaving our translators no choice. L'administrateur rounded up a handful of Nkunda soldiers - friendly guys, dressed in crisp camo, with automatic rifles over their shoulders - and said we should leave immediately.

I suddenly began to have second thoughts about walking for several hours up and down a mountain in the dark.

"What about flashlights?" I stammered.

Within minutes, l'administrateur had procured a half-dozen flashlights - crappy little things, Chinese-made, it was pointed out to me repeatedly, but at least now I could see the muck I was standing ankle-deep in, even if I couldn't see my ankles.

I grabbed my backpack, which held only my laptop, satellite modem, satellite phone and a half-liter of water, and we were on our way. Matt and I checked our watches. It was about 10 p.m.

The night air was crisp and cool, and the first hour was actually enjoyable. L'administrateur was good company and we lagged behind the pack with two soldiers as he told a short history of post-independence Congo and pointed out nearby hills from which Hutu militias often attacked them. But I started to waver with the weight on my back and the fatigue setting in, and I took a couple of spills. With each of my slips, l'adminstrateur, ever the party man, pointed out the failure of the Congolese government to build a proper road through this godforsaken forest.

"This is Congo," he'd say, shaking his head.

Somehow, four hours passed. We cut across hills and over slippery streams, ditched the road and trudged through still, pitch-dark villages. Had there been any light at all, we might have had beautiful views of the mountains and valleys around us. As it was, the only thing I could sense was that mud had seeped through my shoes and socks, and I began to worry about worms.

It was well after 2 a.m. when we stopped outside the hut of a local chief and the rebels told us to go inside. Matt and the two translators piled onto a cot while I put my head down on a wooden desk, the way I used to sleep through certain classes in college. The rebels offered us a local honey drink, and I thought I might throw up, so I passed.

About an hour later, when the rebels roused us to keep walking, it was so cold that I feared my teeth chattering would wake the village. Fortunately we had barely an hour to go, and just as first light began to appear we found ourselves in a clearing where a large group of guys were waiting on motorcycles. I had no money - only U.S. $100 bills - but the rebels said that the bikes would take us into Kitchanga free of charge. Our three colleagues who'd driven ahead were already there waiting for us. The rebels had found them a tiny hotel.

It suddenly struck me that Nkunda was completely in charge here. Not once the entire day had we seen a representative of the Congolese government, apart from a handful of police officers in Rutshuru, and it was clear that the Nkunda soldiers were keeping them there just for show. The UN took us part of the way, but their authority was circumscribed. It was Nkunda's people who tried to unstick our cars, who walked through the night with us, who ensured security for the cars and drivers we had to leave behind on the muddy hillside.

It helped, of course, that we were journalists. Nkunda is extremely media-savvy and rarely turns down an interview (hardly a day goes by without a reputable news organization quoting him, often at length). When we finally did meet him in Kitchanga later that day, he began by apologizing for our difficult journey and explaining that he had to bail on the rally because of a last-minute meeting with the head of the UN mission.

It didn't cure anyone's aching feet - one of the correspondents, in fact, had lost both her shoes in the mud and was wearing cheap plastic flip-flops from the local market - but afterward I found myself thinking, against my better judgment, That guy was pretty charming.

I thought of that back home in Kenya this week as I read that:

- Nkunda's forces have quietly threatened UN peacekeepers.

- Nkunda's forces provoking Congolese troops was the reason behind Friday's unrest in the massive Kibati refugee camp.

- Nkunda's forces, along with the government-backed Mai Mai militia, deliberately killed civilians in the town of Kiwanja.

Nkunda clearly has a great deal to answer for, and journalists need to continue to hold his feet to the fire. But he's achieved a great deal very, very quickly, and leaving him out of the diplomatic process, for now, seems to me to be a mistake. Congo is such a vacuum of authority that pretty much anyone with a few guns and a little savvy can claim territory - and often they do. But I've met my share of African rebel groups, and Nkunda's, in terms of leadership, organization and understanding the field of play, is one to be reckoned with.

Read more stories from our meeting with Nkunda:

- Los Angeles Times

- The Washington Post

- National Public Radio

Shashank Bengali covers Africa for McClatchy Newspapers. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya. E-mail him at

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