My first trip to DRC was in October 2008. My team and I were sent there to report on the exodus of Refugees fleeing from the advancing Army of Tutsi leader, General Nkunda. I had never been there before and had no idea what to expect. On my first day we had our first brush with the ill-disciplined Congolese National Army. This is what happened. . .
“Hay my friend, why are you taking my picture?”
I looked up to see the six Congolese soldiers standing over me; they seemed inquisitive rather than angry. I’d been filming Displaced people carrying their lives on their backs along the road that lead north from Goma in the Eastern Congo. It was the first day of my first trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and I felt relaxed.
“I wasn’t taking your picture” I lied – “I was just filming the road”, I smiled and went to walk away only to find myself surrounded. The atmosphere changed, the Commander became agitated, “Show me the picture,” he shouted, his eyes yellow and bulging. He appeared to be on drugs and unstable. By now B. our French Security advisor and Jack the local Fixer were with me, they told me to do as he said. I cued the tape back ten seconds and showed him what I’d filmed. It was a low angle shot of the road, heavily laden people filled the frame followed by his unit in silhouette against the sky (yes I was trying to be arty). If he had concerns about his face being on International TV he needn’t have worried but he still wasn’t appeased. “Give me the tape,” he screamed, spit flying in all directions. I hesitated unsure what to do, the soldiers raised their weapons and shouted in Swahili, all the locals who had stopped to watch suddenly ran, they’d seen these guys in action before and knew this was a dangerous situation. I glanced at B. and he nodded at me, “Lets give him the tape and get out of here,” he whispered. I pulled out the cassette and handed it over as quickly as I could. I didn’t mind as I was simultaneously recording onto my Firestore hard drive recorder.
The Officer snatched the tape from me still shouting incoherently in a mixture of French and English. His anger wasn’t abated, he had a point to prove and ordered me into one of our own Four Wheel Drive vehicles. Three of his heavily armed soldiers sat behind me on the back seat. He and another of his men jumped into the other vehicle with the rest of my team. We set off back towards the town of Goma, I had no idea what was happening, where we were going or what I should say.
I sat in silence as we drove in convoy. I was afraid to look around at the men behind me. I stole glances in the rear view mirror and was annoyed that one of the men wore British style Commando flashes on his shoulder. I’d been embedded with the Royal Marine Commandos in Afghanistan and resented some of the world’s worst soldiers mimicking some of the worlds best. After about ten minutes the lead vehicle pulled over, B. got out and ran back to me. “Right,” he said, “he’s calmed down now but you need to go and apologize to him, explain it’s your first time here and that you are very sorry. He’s taken a bribe from Jack and just wants to keep face by having you apologize.” I nodded, I was still scared but reluctantly climbed out of the vehicle. The Officer stared hard at me as I approached. “Hallo Sir, I’m very sorry for filming you. It was a mistake and I’ll make sure not to do it again.” He nodded and dismissed me with a lazy wave of his grubby hand, trying his best to play the gracious monarch. The atmosphere began to ease, he decided he was happy now but that we should drop him and his unit back where we found them on the road.
This was just one small incident, but it has stayed with me ever since as one of the scarier moments of my career. A tiny taste of the fear that Congolese civilians have to live with every day. During the course of our trip we made a number of films that ran on the BBC Six and Ten o’clock News, you can watch a selection of them below:
Also if you are interested in the DRC and want to learn more about one of the worlds most fascinating countries then I highly recommend the following list of books (If you click on the links below it will take you to the relevant amazon page and if you buy it I’ll earn about five percent of the sale to help with the upkeep of this site – at no extra cost to you)