Thursday, August 4, 2011

Troubling email from the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa

Early this year, we registered our trip to the DRC with the U.S. Embassy in case of emergency. Once you register, you receive security warnings issued by the embassy and updates on the situation in the country. These past months we’ve received many warnings about protests in Kinshasa and other similar announcements but nothing that sounds too far from home to a pair of Mexicans...

…Until 2 weeks ago, when the embassy issued a more serious warning concerning Eastern Congo, including the South Kivu province where the project is located. Throughout our months of preparation, dozens of warnings have danced before us in different, more unofficial formats (pages upon pages of them in Tim Butcher’s Blood River and Barbara Kingslover’s The Poisonwood Bible, among many others, as well as news reports, and first hand stories), but I guess it’s more shocking when the warning knocks on your door uninvited, two months prior to your arrival. We’re copying portions of the warning below.

We immediately contacted Dominique Bikaba, the man in charge of the project on the ground in Congo, who has been our local contact from the start. We also contacted Ron at Zerofootprint, who put us in touch with the head of another large community project in the area, in order to get his opinion. Finally, we contacted relatives of ours who work at MONUSCO and have been stationed in Kinshasa for three years, who are looking into the situation for us…

We’re now waiting for their replies in order to get a clearer picture… on one hand, it’s strange to me that the only specific incidents mentioned in the warning happened over a year ago, but on the other hand, I know Congo plays by its own rules and don’t dare to underestimate the atrocities that dwell within it’s borders. Needless to say, we’re a little scared and nervous.

Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens
United States Embassy Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Congo, Democratic Republic of the
July 19, 2011

The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) (DRC), and recommends against non-essential travel to eastern and northeastern DRC. This replaces the Travel Warning dated November 25, 2010, to update information on security, safety, and health concerns in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Elements of the Congolese military, as well as rebel fighters, remain a security concern in eastern and northeastern DRC. These armed groups - located especially in the North Kivu, South Kivu, and Orientale provinces, as well as the northern part of Katanga province, parts of Equateur province, and the eastern part of Maniema province - are known to pillage, steal vehicles, kidnap, rape, kill, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians are indiscriminately targeted. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is present near the border with Uganda, Central African Republic, and the Republic of South Sudan. Armed conflicts continue despite the signing of peace accords in 2008 and 2009 and the presence of UN forces (MONUSCO). In January 2009, Rwandan government troops and the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) launched large-scale joint military operations against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels in North Kivu. The DRC-Rwandan operations were followed by joint operations by the FARDC and MONUSCO, which are on-going.

In two separate incidents in early April 2010, one in Equateur province in the western DRC and one in South Kivu province in the east, foreigners were kidnapped by armed militia groups. In South Kivu province, eight International Red Cross workers were kidnapped by a group called the Mai Mai Yakutumba, a group that controls its own territory in the region and was formed to resist Rwandan Hutu forces that fled into the DRC after the 1994 genocide. The region has been the scene of violent clashes that have resulted in the displacement of more than 1.9 million civilians since the start of the conflict.

Travelers are frequently detained and questioned by poorly disciplined security forces at numerous official and unofficial roadblocks and border crossings throughout the country. Requests for bribes in such instances are extremely common, and security forces have occasionally injured or killed people who refuse to pay. In the past year, several U.S. citizens were illegally detained by government forces. Very poor infrastructure (road and air) makes the provision of consular services difficult outside of Kinshasa.

Due to the recent outbreak of Wild Polio Virus in the DRC, you should update your polio vaccination, if necessary, and refer to the CDC for additional guidance. Due to the high levels of air irritants (i.e., dust, burning trash, debris, etc.) individuals with respiratory illnesses should bring all their necessary medications and equipment with adaptors.

All telephone lines in the DRC, cellular as well as landlines, are unreliable. Click here to visit the Embassy website. The U.S. Embassy is located at 310 Avenue des Aviateurs; the Consular Section entrance is located on Avenue Dumi, opposite Saint Anne's church. The Embassy's telephone number, including for after-hours emergencies, is 243-81-556-0151; callers within the DRC should dial 081-556-0151.

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