At the top of the hill, a man was hosing down the side of a mound, while another was hacking away at it with a hoe. This was what was being washed down the sluice. The miners were slowly chipping away this mountain, like ants taking apart an animal 100 times their size.
From the mountain-top, we could also see the town below. We had hiked quite a ways.
We finally had seen enough. I had taken a couple hundred photos, and was piecing together how this gold eventually would make it to Uganda, or out of the Congo. And we were now concerned about getting out. As we ambled down towards the village where we had met the chief, I noticed a little more money getting exchanged. Yes, you guessed it – another “fee”. I’m going to now refer to Congo as Land of 1000 bribes.
I pulled Moe aside as we descended. “What time does the border close?”
“5 PM maybe?” he said. It was around 1 PM.
“We need to get out of here, fast. I don’t want to spend another night here.”
“Yes, it’s too expensive. And too dangerous”, said Moe. To reinforce the point he mentioned that he already got a call from inside Uganda – telling us that we had to leave Congo, and as soon as possible.
Things were already off to a bad start. We had stopped at some no-name village after only about 10 minutes, and Pinky was on the phone again. He stepped out of the car, and disappeared from sight, behind some vendors selling fruits they had grown. Agitated, I told Moe, “Why are we stopped?
“He wants to buy bananas”, Moe aid.
“What the – that’s not what we paid him to do” I said. But I recall Moe being silent, with a worried look on his face. We both knew this guy was tapping into his informant network. Something was not right. And that we couldn’t do a thing about it, and that somehow calling him out on it might make things worse.
We soon found out what had happened, at the next checkpoint. Two village militia-men carrying Kalashnikovs (AKMs) came up to our car. Some terse talking, and I made out the world “camera”. I exchanged eye contact with one of the men, and it wasn’t a pleasant look. Moe, who was sitting in the middle of the back row, turned over his passport. I hesitated, and Moe said to me, “Give them your passport”.
There are a few times in life when you get that sinking feeling – and this was one of them. Giving up your passport, practically at gunpoint, is not a good thing, especially almost 100 miles deep in a quasi-lawless country.
I turned over the passport and the driver maneuvered the car to the side of the road. Moe and Fedex lept into action, and told me, in the back seat, to stay put. They walked over to a mud hut where a couple men were seated, while the armed thugs stood about. I could make out my passport being handed around. Luckily their eyes were on Moe and Fedex and the passports, and I took the time to remove my cell phone and hide it, so it wasn’t on me. Then I took my camera, removed the memory card, and kicked the camera under the passenger seat in front of me. They’d easily find both in a search, but I wanted to hide the memory card, and all I had was a buttoned pocket on my shirt. I wanted to keep the memory card on me in case we were separated from the car. The pictures were more valuable than both the camera and the phone now.
I remembered Moe telling me earlier how on the last Congo trip (with two Chinese gold dealers, no less) he made, he was detained twice by thugs. Just before the second arrest, he took the last of his emergency money, put it in a plastic baggie, and inserted it (you know where). Or so he said anyway. Well, there was no way in hell I was doing that! I told Moe I’d take my chances with bullets kicking the dirt around my feet before I shoved something up there. I had sewn my “get out of jail free card”, several crisp and new $100 bills into the inside of my pants, behind my cargo pocket, and then filled my cargo pocket with stuff. This way, even if I emptied my pockets after a pat-down, or if they inserted their hands into my cargo pockets they were unlikely to feel the bills.
I then sat in the inside of the car, stuck my hand out the window, and began drumming the side. I wasn’t nervous as I should have been, perhaps, but there was nothing to do at this point. Moe returned in a few minutes, the most worried I’d seen him yet. “Quick, get me my coat”, he said. “They want to arrest us”. I complied. And then in about a minute Moe was lightly running for the car, followed by the others in a trot. They hurriedly got in, and slammed the doors, and we sped off.
Moe explained, “They were going to arrest us. We left the province, and these guys were going to call their village boss to come and talk to us. And he is far away, not in the village now. They were going to throw us in their jail until he came. I had to give them $100.”
That’s like a month’s salary out here, I thought.
We gunned it back towards Beni. Finally we dropped off Pinky. And what a relief that was, although that scum was probably pocketing half of that $100.
It was now past 3 PM. It took us over two hours to get to Beni from the border. We had to move.
We had told Pinky that we were going back to the Hotel Albertine to spend another night here. We knew that if Pinky knew of our plans, he would jump on his network, and set up a nasty surprise for us down the road, perhaps getting us outright robbed this time. And now we were bumping along at the usual 80-90 kmph on a dirt road, passing the same assortment of overladen trucks teeming with humanity, mineral-laden trucks, and the odd herd of cattle. It was still intermittently raining.
Around 4:15 we passed our 4th or 5th stranded vehicles (yes, it was that bad). After going passed it, suddenly Fedex, from the shotgun seat, leaned his head out the window and started laughing. “That is the police chief from yesterday!” he said. The same clown who took out half our posse by arresting our security / guide and chasing the other away; the same guy who wanted us to pay $1500 per day for security was now marooned in ADF turf with nightfall approaching. Karma’s a bitch!
Incredulously, Fedex called him, not to offer assistance, but to ask him to keep the border open for us. But we never got a clear answer back. Fedex seemed optimistic as we bounced along.
We finally rolled into the border checkpoint, and I’ll admit, it was just after 5 on my watch, and ran into the same ugly building where this leg of the adventure started. I handed over my passport, and Moe his. The seated police officer, a lady in the same ugly blue uniform, took it, stamped it, and then spoke to Moe and motioned for money. Moe explained, “She is saying we can’t bring Congolese money outside the country so we need to give up all of it”. Like hell, I thought. Short of a pat-down they’re not getting this money, and I played dumb. Moe handed over a wad of 500s, probably not more than $3-$4 total. The police officer waved us off. And just like that, it looked like we might make it. The time: 5:09 PM.
We walked back, said goodbye to the driver (I actually hugged the thieving punk), and walked back to the final roadblock holding us from “no-mans land”. At this point, Fedex had left, and I asked where he was. Moe explained, “He is technically a refugee and can’t cross in the open like us. He will find his way across and meet us there”.
We passed the barrier into no-man’s land. There were still swarms of people going back and forth across the border, seemingly without being checked. Trucks were parked alongside. The sky was still murky and the air was humid, but cool. Moe motioned for a boda boda motorcycle taxi, but I said no. It was such a pleasant feeling to be able to walk to freedom that I wanted to savor it. We ended up walking that stretch of 400-500 yards back to Uganda, and it was the most memorable walk I can recall in the longest time.
Moe wanted to shake my hand as we approached the Ugandan checkpoint, and I told him to hold off until we were across, and Fedex had made it as well. And we walked into the Ugandan immigration office, filled in the arrival form, and paid my entrance fee dues. The officer who inspected my passport (the same guy who stamped us out) then actually said, “I’m surprised you made it back”. We continued to the next building, police (who ran customs).
The customs officer who signed us into DR Congo was there, seated behind his rinky dink desk. He wore a red t-shirt underneath a black leather jacket. He said to me, “How was Congo?”
I lied through my teeth, but we all knew it. “Beautiful. I saw lots of green mountains, lots of wildlife”
“Lots of minerals?”
“Yes, there are a lot of minerals there”, I said, not really admitting to anything. We were briefly interrupted by the arrival of Fedex, who stuck his head in the office. I promptly shook his hand.
“Don’t get involved in the gold trade. It isn’t worth it”, the customs officer said. “Look”, he said, pointing to a sack. “We got this last week from a British man who tried to take this across the border. It’s not even real gold.” And we lifted the incredibly heavy sack up and down.
“I’m not getting involved”, I said. “I’m just a student”
We crossed the border, and within moments were passing on the outskirts of Queen Elizabeth park, passing by several safari animals: gazelles, wild board, and the exceptionally rare sight of elephants mating in the wild, then literally crossed the equator and pulled up, in the dark, to a run-down roadside inn, exhausted. I bought us dinners of chapati, a localized Indian bread that’s made with an omelet in Uganda. It was pretty good, and we passed out shortly after. It was New Year ’s Eve, and one crazy way to end 2013.
I met Fedex and Moe again two days later, at the restaurant of the place I was staying at in Kampala. That was the day we found out about the death of the adidas colonel. And a couple other items that sort of tied the events together. Moe mentioned he had received two more calls since we left Congo, telling us we needed to get out of Congo and fast. And my favorite, he also got a call from Pinky, asking us when we were leaving the Congo. But we were already out. And as we drove towards Kampala, we passed no less than four Ugandan army convoys headed towards the border. They were probably there as a result of the Colonel’s death, and possibly to take advantage of the situation. I also met a couple other people, both gold dealers and both of whom, upon hearing of our experience immediately said we had picked the absolute worst time to go into the Congo. I agreed – but I was on a tight schedule. In a few days I would be sitting in a lecture hall at a university in the US, trying to absorb a lecture that, quite honestly, would probably have me yearning for another adventure.
The dealers, a Canadian and a Ugandan, both told me some unbelievable stories, about how gold is supposedly smuggled out of Congo, then burned to a level where its origin can’t be traced, and then given certificates of origin in Uganda. And allegations about how various companies and criminal groups have smuggled gold out to the Middle East, where they don’t have laws such as Dodd-Frank, and ingenious methods including private planes on hidden airstrips, and paying off pilots of major airlines to take small amounts into Mideast countries. Of theories of why the fighting in Congo and South Sudan has persisted, and of the interplay between Chinese and Western corporations has affected the entire gold trade, and of the complex relationships between much of the regional African leadership, and of the relative newcomers, the Russian mafia, and the small time gold dealers who try to make it big. It’s a somewhat familiar story to all of us – just replace gold with oil, or gold with diamonds, or perhaps with drugs in the case of Latin America, and well, there’s already movies, articles and books out for those compelling stories…
Moe and Fedex accompanied me off to Entebbe, where I had a flight to catch, of all places, to Egypt. It was really bizarre to see US military personnel there, the Marines had landed to help evacuate Americans out of South Sudan. I passed a couple of US personnel as I walked into the airport, who must have recognized my MOLLE bag – we exchanged a knowing glance and nod, and nothing more…
There was one last request from both Moe and Fedex: to please get their story out. Moe is happy for me to use his name, and wants to talk. Fedex wants to remain anonymous until his refugee status is cleared – he is most concerned with reuniting with his family that successfully made it to the US. But he also would like to get his story out. And both have invited me back, to explore how much deeper this rabbit hole goes…