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Evacu-cation: 10 days in Bujumbura during the November M23 fighting

January 13, 2013

No, we did not get shot at… nor did we ever actually feel in danger.  We high-tailed it outta there way before it got anywhere close to that.

We didn’t even see any rebels (Mom, I’m not saying that in a sulky tone- I’m not that craaaazy…)

Though we did get some funny comments from friends… (excerpt from an email from Lianne to Bordeaux girls: “What are you guys doing for the holidays? Lisa, how was your bday? Liz, how was your trip back to France? Katie, what’s it like to evacuate from an advancing rebel group?”)  Thanks, guys.

All and all, the M23 ordeal in late November ended up not affecting us (me and Jamie) too much.  While the M23 rebels advanced and then eventually retreated north of us in and around Goma, Bukavu stayed relatively calm, our office stayed open (though with reduced activities), and we and many other evacuated expats worked remotely while spending 10 days or so in the lovely city of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi.

It was like taking a mini, anxiety-ridden vacation.

An evacu-cation.

Beach in Bujumbura

The “-cation” part

Bujumbura is no Paris or Zanzibar.  It is a small capital of a small country, set on the northern coast of Lake Tanganyika.  Yet, a bite of pain au chocolat from the French patisserie or an afternoon on the sandy, palm-fringed beaches and you might feel like you’ve been transported elsewhere (especially after spending too much time in Congo…)

This small capital offers an abundance of little indulgences that we sometimes miss in Bukavu.

Tartlets at the bakery

Most of the evenings of our evacu-cation, we took our taste buds on an international journey, hitting up Indian, Ethiopian, and even a Thai restaurant.  We sipped cappuccinos and had our pick of the chocolate croissants, tarts and other pastries behind the shining display windows of a new French bakery or one of the other cute cafes, with wifi so fast that we could even load videos.

One of the days, we visited the Mutoyi cooperative shop with a variety of produce and groceries, as well as baked goods and ceramics.  Jamie and I spent most of our time with our noses glued to the display case of cheeses.  Now, there is only one type of cheese in Bukavu, and although it’s not too bad, it does start to get old after a while.  So it’s no wonder that we drooled over this amazing case of dairy wonders- the fresh mozzarella, ricotta, provolone, and about half a dozen other types of beautiful, fresh, white cheese.

We bought one of each.

In addition to it’s culinary delights, Bujumbura offered a pretty fantastic setting to unwind.  Golden, sandy beaches stretched for miles, outlined by the lapping blue waves of Lake Tanganyika (watch out for hippos and crocs!) and dotted with palm trees and laid-back restaurants and bungalows.  And if we ever needed to relax further, we could pop in to the downtown spa for a Thai massage.

Blue Bay, Bujumbura
Jamie at the beach

Blue Bay, Bujumbura

And, if all these things were not enough, our evacu-cation also offered a great opportunity to bond with our co-workers, which is kind of difficult not to do when a decent sized group like ours is thrown into close quarters by a single stressful event.  On one hand, there were certainly moments where we tried each others nerves, but more often we became a support network for each other, and it gave us a chance to spend time with colleagues that we hadn’t yet gotten to know well.

Not unlike the dorms in college.

Lunch at Blue Bay, Bujumbura

But despite all of these lovely things that made our evacuation more enjoyable, there was an overwhelming feeling of relief and gratitude when we saw that things started to settle down back in Congo, that Bukavu had remained calm and that the evacu-cation would be over without too long of a delay.

The “evacu-” part

Although things ended up calm in Bukavu in the end, it certainly didn’t look like it would go that way at the time.  Many organizations chose to evacuate staff as a preventative measure, just in case, instead of waiting until fighting actually broke out and then trying to get people out in the middle of total chaos.  Which makes sense.

But the night before we left, M23 had already taken Goma and were advancing south much faster than imagined, keeping good on their threat to take Bukavu before heading west to Kinshasa.  Jamie and I packed our small bags with the basics to take to Bujumbura, and then we packed our big suitcases with everything else we own, ready to be sent along to us later, just in case.

Don’t get me wrong, I like my shoes and my pretty dresses made from colorful African pagne fabric, but I was not ruminating on our worldly belongings as we filled up suitcase after suitcase.  I was paralyzed by the just in case.

In case of what?

In case M23 arrived and gunshots enveloped our quiet lakeside city.

In case soldiers died in the streets as they did in Goma, and civilians locked themselves indoors to avoid stray, drunk bullets.

In case DRC collapsed into another “African World War” and we couldn’t go back.

These thoughts overwhelmed my mind the next morning as we said good-bye to our local co-workers (“We’ll be back soon, probably next week,” we said hopefully, hollowly), and as we crossed the border out of Congo, passing by Bukavuans going about their daily lives as usual, no international organization to pay for their hotels in Bujumbura or Kigali.

I felt nauseous.  I felt ashamed.

We arrived in Bujubura, only 3-4 hours away by road, without any problems.  We got ourselves set up with comfortable lodging and working spaces pretty quickly.  We enjoyed the “-cation”, the fun things that the city had to offer.

But sometimes it was hard to sleep at night.  It was hard to concentrate on work, to follow a conversation, with one eye always on BBC, email, text messages, Skype, Facebook and Twitter, eager for, yet dreading, any updates on M23, on Bukavu, on our friends and colleagues.

What kept us on edge more than anything was just not knowing what would happen.

But thankfully, eventually, nothing happened in Bukavu.  M23 stopped their advance and started to withdraw.  We got the news: we were being called back.  Back to work, back to home, back to friends, back to yoga nights, back to our big waiting suitcases.

We were only away for 10 days, but it felt much longer.

View over South Kivu

The new year

All that said, even though fighting didn’t make it all the way down to Bukavu back in November, it still heavily affected areas north of us, and it no one would say even now that it’s all settled now, as M23 still has control of some key areas.

Negotiation deadlines between the DRC government, rebel groups, and neighboring governments keep being pushed back, all sides unyielding in their intransigent terms, which keeps tensions high, and leaves the unsettled feeling in our stomachs.

We didn’t unpack the big suitcases when we left for Christmas vacation, just in case.

This past week, Jamie and I are arrived again back in Bukavu from a wonderful couple of weeks spent with friends and family in Morocco for the holidays (photos coming up on Facebook soon!).  Pending any more security disturbances, we’re planning to stay until the summer.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed for Congo in 2013, and we’re almost done re-unpacking our big just-in-case suitcases.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Glyn Goodall permalink
    January 14, 2013 10:12 am

    Beautiful description of a difficult time, Katie, THankyou.
    and an especially great thankyou for “These thoughts overwhelmed my mind the next morning as we said good-bye to our local co-workers (“We’ll be back soon, probably next week,” we said hopefully, hollowly), and as we crossed the border out of Congo, passing by Bukavuans going about their daily lives as usual, no international organization to pay for their hotels in Bujumbura or Kigali.

    I felt nauseous. I felt ashamed.”
    You are definitely the right people, doing the right things!

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