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!

1 comment:

Paradise Driver said...


When "Mother Nature" wants to tell you goodbye, she does go a bit overboard.

Glad you are okay and left us know where you go next.