Thursday, February 21, 2008

Now coming to you from Hong Kong!

This posting comes to you from the Regal Airport Hotel, Hong Kong, courtesy of Cathay Pacific. How did I get here? And what day is it, anyway?!

I was scheduled to leave Amsterdam at 10:40 am Wednesday on a flight to Melbourne via London and Hong Kong (briefly!). But I was thrown off the London flight because the baggage system at Heathrow Terminal Four was broken and they had no means to deal with bags for transfer flights. So anyone flying via Heathrow had to be re-routed. I was put onto a Cathay Pacific flight direct to HK, departing at 13:10 pm. Not bad - much better to fly direct, and it would give me plenty of time to browse the airport bookshops and find a good book for the flight. 

Two good books stuffed into my carry-on bags later, I turned up at the gate, went through security, and waited to board. And waited, and waited, and waited.... eventually we were informed that a member of the cockpit crew hadn't turned up and they needed to find someone else. The flight was rescheduled for 19:00. Lunch vouchers were handed out. Fifteen euros sounds like a lot, but it doesn't go that far at Schiphol Airport: one salad, one fruit smoothie, a capuccino, and a small bottle of water. I read one of my new books and walked around a lot - at least Schiphol is a lot bigger than Nairobi airport! But I was feeling slightly homesick for the Java House Cafe with it's select atmosphere of aid workers and journalists heading off to dangerous places....

By the time dinner was served and we were well on our way to Hong Kong I was exhausted and slept unexpectedly well almost all night, arriving reasonably refreshed. Ground staff in HK are very efficient and we soon had new boarding passes, through immigration, and into the Regal Hotel all without stepping outside. Now for a good hot shower, rest, Chinese dinner, and on to the next flight. Arriving after midday in Melbourne, via Sydney a day late - not a problem! It makes adjusting to the jet lag a bit easier, and a 22 hour flight broken into two segments with a seven hour break in between much more bearable. 

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Back in Rwanda

I successfully arranged the shipping (or rather, air-freighting) of my baggage out of Kigali on Monday morning - something that I wouldn't dream of trying from Congo! That gives you a hint of the difference between the two countries. In Rwanda things generally function and they function without the need for any "palm greasing". There's a lot to be said for that. Rwanda is still Africa, so of course service can be slow, there's an occasional power outage, and people try to sell me phone cards and maps of Africa on the street. But the streets are amazingly clean, there's a new supermarket and coffee bar with wireless internet in Kigali, and a general air of purpose to the people moving around the streets.

Monday afternoon was spent horizontal, recovering from earthquake shock and the long drive. Monday evening enjoyed dinner out with former colleagues from Concern in a new Chinese restaurant - delicious food, and what a superb addition to the choice of restaurants in Kigali! On Wednesday morning I took the Volcano bus down to Butare, where I used to work. Even Butare has changed: buildings along the main street have a new coat of paint, new businesses are open, an old decrepit building in the centre of town has been totally renovated and now houses a training centre for the Rwanda Revenue Authority (no more cheating on taxes!). Other things remain the same: the street children are still there begging from passers-by, the Ibis Hotel still caters to a surprising number of foreign visitors on the covered terrace, the tall, carefully dressed arrogant young university students stroll along the main street.

This afternoon I'll take a mini-bus up to Gikongoro to stay the night with a Dutch friend first met here in 2003, and then tomorrow I'll head back to Kigali, via Butare, for a weekend seeing friends.
From the Sydney Morning Herald
February 4, 2008 - 6:31AM

Earthquakes struck Rwanda and neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday, killing at least 30 people and seriously injuring 350 more, officials said. The two quakes were in Africa's Great Lakes region along the western Great Rift Valley fault.

The first quake, with a magnitude of 6.0 and its epicentre in Democratic Republic of Congo, occurred at 10:30am (1830 AEDT) and was followed by another 5.0 quake in densely populated southern Rwanda at 1:56pm (2156 AEDT).

"The death toll has now increased to 25 from the earthquake. Two hundred have serious injuries," Deputy Rwandan Police Chief Mary Gahonzire said. "Rescue efforts are underway but the number of dead could rise, as so many people are trapped."

The acting governor of Congo's South Kivu province, Bernard Watunakanza, told Reuters by telephone from the eastern town of Bukavu that aftershocks were happening "every 20 or 30 minutes". "Up to now there are five dead and 149 seriously injured. Many people are traumatised," he said.

An official from Congo's UN peacekeeping mission, known as MONUC, said buildings had been destroyed in Bukavu. "There is lots of damage. Many buildings have been hit. Lots of houses have completely collapsed," said Jacqueline Chenard, MONUC spokeswoman in Bukavu.

Earthquakes are common in the western Great Rift Valley - a seismically active fault line straddling western Uganda, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and neighbouring Tanzania.

In 1994, a magnitude 6 tremor in the foothills of western Uganda's Rwenzori mountains killed at least six people. In 1966, a magnitude 7 earthquake killed 157 people and injured more than 1,300 in the Semliki Valley, also in western Uganda.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Goodbye Bukavu!

It was snowing in my room, tiny white and grey flakes tumbling from the ceiling. I needed to remove my mosquito net from the high ceiling and had just placed a tall bar stool onto a coffee table, ready for me to climb up onto, when the room began to shake, hard, much harder than anything else I'd ever experienced. I stumbled for the security of the door frame, not daring to think I could make it safely downstairs. I thought it wouldn't stop, but eventually it did, and I dashed down the stairs in a shaky daze, out onto our strangely sunny courtyard; a calm, bright Sunday morning suddenly transformed into fear and chaos. The guard's radio barked urgent messages relayed from house to house checking how we were, then the phones began ringing. My legs were wobbling so bad I could only sink onto the warm concrete laughing and happy that we were all OK. But every time I got up to go inside and recommence my work, taking down the mosquito net, carrying my suitcases and boxes downstairs, the ground rumbled and shook again, over and over, every five or ten minutes.

When I eventually forced myself inside, up the stairs, and faced the stool on the table, gazing up at the mosquito net hanging from the high hook, I wondered - am I being brave or just stupid? I had planned to leave at around 9 am and was already late. I wanted to take down the mosquito net to give to friends who could use it; I had to get the boxes down the stairs, and there was also a dresser to get down the stairs. Together with Laura, my colleague and housemate, we eventually got it all done. But every time we went back into the house it went against every instinct to stay out of a building, and it seemed like every time we went back in and headed up the stairs, the earth shook again sending us dashing for the front door laughing and shaking and wanting to cry all at the same time.

The cats hated it; very frightened, they took shelter in the generator shed and only reluctantly stuck their heads out the door when I called them, every after-shock sent them scuttling back into their bolt hole.

Our guard heard that his son had been injured, but couldn't get treated at the hospital because there were too many people already there. He left to be with his family. We waited for a new guard to arrive, taking and making phone calls to check with others. I went up to my room for a final check, flecks of plaster covered the tiled floor and tiny cracks ran along the edge of the ceiling. I was very glad I wouldn't need to sleep there again. The after shocks kept coming, and even when they didn't I imagined them anyway (and am still imagining them from time to time when a truck rumbles past or I hear an unfamiliar noise). Finally, all the bags and boxes and suitcases were loaded, and I left Bukavu for the long 6 hour drive up to Kigali.

Along the road in Kamembe and beyond on the Rwandan side of the border we saw collapsed buildings and walls, crowds of people standing around looking at the damage. In the final count it looks as though around 35 people were killed in Kamembe, many of them in a church that collapsed during the Sunday morning service, and maybe 6 people in Bukavu with many more injured. Although in Bukavu the damage to buildings was significant, it's possible that on the sunny Sunday morning many people were outside their homes and no children were in the schools that collapsed.

My expat colleagues in Bukavu spent Sunday night sleeping out in the open, as I probably would have done, had I not been in Kigali already, where they had felt the earthquake but not as strongly as Bukavu/Kamembe which had clearly been the epicenter.

Contract over, I'm spending a week in Rwanda seeing friends in Kigali and Butare (now called Huye, but to me the university town once known as Astrida will always be Butare). After that I'll be in Amsterdam for a week for debriefing at HQ and a few days to see friends and visit museums, and then a very long flight down to Australia where it is now summer. I had two excellent good-bye parties and will post photos of those when I'm in a place with much faster internet access. Goodbye Bukavu! Goodbye DR Congo!