My border crossings in Congo have become rather intricate afffairs with the complexity of the process increasing in proportion to the amount of time spent in Congo. I really had not realized exactly how bizarre this seemingly simple (and ‘official’) process had become until this last week, when three very typical border crossings led to accusations that I am: 1) participating in the arms trade, 2) traveling with a fake passport, and 3) carrying (and producing!) fake visas. It seems that the longer I stay in Congo, the more explaining I have to do in terms of justifying my existence. Unlike a worker for a large NGO or a consultant with a clearly defined arrival/departure date, I just sort of keep ‘sticking around’, which has led to lots of stories forming in officials’ heads about why exactly I prefer to spend so much time in Congo rather then spending more time in more ‘familiar parts of the world.’
As Congo has been thoroughly upset through the last few decades by the gamut of foreign threats, it is not so surprising that border guards and soldiers could be extremely cautious. But, these guys in Congo take it to a while new level. One of the complicating factors, in my opinion, is my designation as a ‘student’ which leaves a lot of room for people to fill in what ever they think might be your real intentions here. If you say you are a student, guards often test out a hypothesis of you being engaged in intelligence gathering for a number of countries, typically including Rwanda and Uganda. If this theory is quickly dismissed by some well-placed manufactured stupidity (e.g. asking the guard, ‘Where is Uganda?’) then other theories quickly surface, such as mineral trading or political ‘agitating’. Education in eastern Congo is looked on as a tool for outsiders to become better plunderers, better critics of the government, or better informed as to the atrocities going on daily in Congo. In this unique circumstance, Western education doesn’t open many doors, but can keep you from going through ones you have a right to pass through.
The truly disturbing part for me, however, is how ready and willing the border guards charged with curbing foreign threats from arriving on Congolese territory are to accepting any small amount of money to let any possible trumped up violation vanish into thin air. After any accusation, an offer will eventually arise hinting that a few dollars will make all these problems disappear. Accused of moving AK-47s in checked baggage? ‘Irrigate’ the guard a bit and this baggage goes through without so much as a once-over. Has your passport’s validity been questioned? Pay a little and you could pass the border with bar coaster with your name scribbled on it in purple crayon. No one is undertaking the heavy questioning and suspicion I meet at border crossings for any reason except to get paid off and any questions of legality or protection of civilians, even in cases where guards might find someone doing something less than above board, will always be quickly swept under the rug by border guards looking for a quick payout. I consider it a point of pride to refuse these and all bribes, and rely on a healthy does of patience and competitive spirit (‘I can wait out even the most persistent corrupt guard’). Getting accused of horrendous things isn’t scary. However, understanding how easily these things occur in this atmosphere of complete impunity (despite a well-manned border patrol) is the scary part. The fight against small arms, counterfeit money, and all other undesirable inputs will always be futile if it only takes a little money and negotiation to bring them onto Congolese soil.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Jul 7th, 2009