Where I’m at: Cape Town, South Africa (but more on that later)
What I’m doing: still feeling slightly guilty. Why? How about because I’m not currently living next to this:
Why I’m posting: catching everyone up on significant events. Finally.
It’s been ages since I posted, and even longer since I posted anything worthwhile. Is it because nothing interesting has happened in our lives in Brazzaville? Normally, that might be true, but this time it certainly isn’t. In fact, I’ve been involved in so much interesting stuff – both wonderful and terrible – in the last month that I simply haven’t had time to blog. That, plus the virtually non-existent internet connection at our Brazza home has made uploading pictures nearly impossible. Unfortunately, for the post that I should be getting to fairly soon about my trip into the “Heart of Darkness” in Congo’s northern jungles, the slow picture uploads may no longer be a problem as our computer (which had the pics on it) was stolen at the front end of our South African adventure (which itself will be a subsequent post). See?! Procrastination solves everything.
This post, however, is neither about our happy travels nor about cheeky remarks. As many of you will know by now, on the morning of March 4, half of Brazzaville blew up due to (officially) an electric problem that caused a fire at a munitions depot in the heart of Brazzaville. As you’ll see from the photos that one of our brave (crazy?!) friends took in the areas of the blast – which still have unknown quantities of unexploded munitions at them – the devastation was widespread, awful, and shocking. How a munitions depot sits in the middle of the most crowded neighborhood of a capital city (let alone how it is managed) is a matter of speculation on which I cannot comment publicly due to my official position. But suffice to say, you can draw your own conclusions. Having been in the middle of the action, I wasn’t reading as much of the media coverage (e.g. it was the top story on CNN on Day 2) as we scrambled to start relief efforts, but I think the media probably did a fair job of covering events, so I defer to some of its coverage to permit readers to get a sense of the situation in order to draw conclusions. Let me say, though, that this was not an isolated incident, with this having happened at least 2 other times in the last 3 years at other munitions depots, albeit on a much smaller scale. But for my readers’ benefit, I’ll recount our own role in the story, which will not have been covered in the press (the paparazi have not yet discovered us!), and so which might be of interest.
At about 8am, Sunday, March 4, we were still in bed, having spent a late night out with friends on Saturday night discussing our next post possibilities as we prepared to submit our bid list (NB: we just found out about an hour ago where we’re headed in October 2013! I’ll leave the suspense for a subsequent post !). First, we heard a dull, but serious crash, which woke us up, but which we thought could be anything from a heavy gate being slammed shut to a tree limb slamming one of the tin roofs around. I remember asking aloud, “What was that?” Receiving no answer but “urgagugghhh” from a groggy Colleen, I laid back down. About 5 minutes later, another louder crash came. This time, I was sure that a tree limb had fallen from one of the trees in our yard onto a roof. I got out of bed and looked through the window, expecting to see a very windy morning and tree parts strewn across the yard. As I looked out, though, there was absolutely no wind and I saw our guard walking across the lawn radioing the embassy. I then heard our upstairs neighbor call out his question to the guard about what was happening. Our guard said that Kinshasa, DRC was bombing Brazzaville. Mind you, this is what everyone in Brazzaville thinks all the time, partly due to their justifiable concern about the sleeping giant next door and partly because people are still very scarred by the civil wars in the 90s. Moreover, I had heard this same guard say the same thing when Independence Day fireworks went off last year in Kinshasa, so his statement caused me no alarm. Still, the noises were strange, and I decided to pull our emergency radio into the room and turn up the volume.
When I turned on the radio, I heard the call sign of one of our wardens (volunteers, usu. American citizens, that help as info passers for the American communities abroad) doing an excellent job of radioing in to check in and ensure the lines of communication were open. Unfortunately, there was no official answer (also not unusual- we don’t always have the most professional or English-proficient local staff). Then, a very violent blast shook the whole house, knocking some things off shelves. I heard Colleen jump out of bed with a start, the dog barking, and then a few seconds later, an audibly shaken wife of the Regional Security Officer (who was supposed to be in Kinshasa for work, but who had returned early, unbeknownst to us at the time) come on the radio and call all American staff to the embassy as quickly as possible. We found out soon that their house had had all of its windows completely blown in by that blast, making the trepidation in her voice understandable. Mind you, we still didn’t know what was going on at this point, and the only (mis)information that we had was that a bomb had hit the city. However, we stayed calm and grabbed essentials (for me: pants, official badge, phone, leatherman, flashlight) and headed for the door. The only problem was that our car was/is broken (another saga for another time; moral: never ask a Congolese “mechanic” to figure out what a noise from your car is). I told Co to stay put as I went upstairs to ask our neighbor, also an embassy employee, for a ride and to make sure he heard the call to come in. As I stood in the 2nd floor doorway talking to him, I turned and looked towards the city. There is an empty lot next to us; at that moment, I heard an enormous blast, and almost instantaneously saw a wave of sound/energy/godknowswhat moving across the lot towards me. A split second later, I was thrown back several feet into the wall and had the heavy door slam into me. Our neighbor and I started to move quickly towards the car and I could hear Co yell that we needed to leave NOW. I yelled back to meet us at the car, halfway between us. Seconds later, dog in arms and not knowing what was happening, we sped away to the embassy. We live close to the presidential work palace, so there are always military around. But that morning, there were dozens all over, all looking frantic and confused. Minutes and many broken traffic laws later, we were at the embassy.
Throughout the rest of the day, we all pitched in to try to figure out what was going on, to attend to the Americans and others showing up at our gates (our embassy being probably the only structurally sound building in the entire city), and then to figure out next steps, incl. needs for recovery. As a Pol/Econ/Consular officer, I was frequently shuttling between helping American citizens, then Allied countries’ citizens, and ultimately anyone that came, as well as trying to get the scoop on the situation and connecting with anyone and everyone. At first, this was nearly impossible as all the phone networks were overwhelmed and radio/tv were shut off. Moreover, not a single Congolese official answered their phones. Those initial hours could have thus been filled with panic, especially as blasts continued throughout the day and some injured started to show up at the gates. But for both the Foreign Service readers and non-government types alike, you should be proud of your diplomats that everyone not only kept their cool, but accomplished an amazing amount in those first few hours with virtually no ICT assistance and incredibly short-staffed. Within hours, we had accounted for all Americans (save 1 child, whom we later found safe), which unfortunately required trips to the morgues (moral #2: as I’ve mentioned to some already, NEVER EVER die in a place like Brazzaville. You do not want to see how your body would be treated; I’ve seen pictures of concentration camps during WWII, and the piles of broken, mangled, and bloodied bodies in those morgues reminded me of those). Moreover, we had kept the press informed and had already gotten relief efforts underway, incl. with plans for what was needed, how we would get it, when we would get it, whom we would work with, etc. Unfortunately, the pictures were just starting to come in, as were some of the awful, but sometimes harrowing stories. One family of friends, for instance, lived just a few hundred meters away from the blast site. Their windows/frames/doors were totally blown in, to the point where glass flew across the room and stuck all over their walls. Their child’s playroom was completely destroyed. They spent every Sunday morning in that playroom. For some reason, they decided that Sunday morning to go to church…for the first time ever in Congo. It saved their life. But lest you read too much into the spirtuality of that, they happened to choose to go to a church on the other side of town that morning. Had they gone to one of the 3 churches near them, they would have fared worse, as all 3 collapsed during the blasts, killing everyone inside. Wow.
There were many stories like that, but not all with the same positive ending. Nevertheless, working virtually 24 hours/day (22 actually) for the next week, everyone pitched in to get much needed help onto the ground. Again, I cannot say enough about how well not only our diplomats, but also family members, our wardens, and the rest of the international community responded. Lives were definitely saved due to quick action, even where slow or non-existent action by other actors jeopardized them. While the city is recovering, it is still in some danger as more of these depots are located around the city (thankfully none near our house), and many areas remain at risk for things as varied as cholera to measles (oftentimes deadly in Congo). The status quo has not been restored, even if the news cycle has moved on.
As you might imagine, there were many more anecdotes throughout the day, many of which unfortunately paint some in lights best left in the dark. To see, for instance, dozens of hospital workers at the city’s 2nd largest hospital and the one closest to the blast site sitting on their hands 4 days afterwards in the midst of literally decaying remains and broken structures, waiting for word to clean up rather than doing it was, to say the least, devastating to my belief in humanity. But as I said, some of these stories and feelings are best left in the dark for now. In lieu of more words, here are some pictures of what used to be an area of town with 250,000 – 300,000 people living in it.
Take care everyone! The next post will be soon and will be decidedly different!