The week started off just great, as I was in high spirits, anticipating our vacation in Kananga where I grew up, and basically just being away from MPH for a change. I had already been picturing all the fun things we were going to do at Lake Munkamba, at IMCK and in Kananga. I had already mapped out some roads in my mind, hoping to catch glimpses of places I spent time when I was young. I had sent word to a few old Congolese friends that I was coming and was just basically on cloud 9. I even had a few people remark to me on Sunday that I seem to just be glowing with happiness. Indeed I was. This was my dream vacation that I have been trying to plan the whole 4 years we have been out here. To go back to where I grew up and show my husband all the places I knew as a child. EVERYTHING was falling into place perfectly.
For weeks in advance I had been praying about and for this trip. I prayed that all the other missionaries’ plans would line up so that we could spend time together. I prayed for good weather, for safety and good health for all involved. I prayed for MPH to be protected and for Antonio who was coming here to stay while we were gone. The only thing we were apprehensive about, was flying on CAA. I should say, “crashing” on CAA. They don’t have the best reputation and they are currently the only way to travel to Kananga. So we both prayed that our plane wouldn’t crash. I thought I had all the bases covered. Dang it, I forgot to pray that there would NOT be a coup d’etat during our trip!!! I should have thought of this and added it to my list of prayers because on two other separate occasions, we have tried to take a day off from MPH and go to Lac de Ma Vallee and have had to turn back, due to attempted coup d’etats. Seriously, THREE times now, we have planned to be away from MPH for a day or now a week and a skirmish has broken out canceling our plans.
Well, last Monday was NOT a skirmish in my books. It was World War II in 4 hours and I was the target. I’ve been wanting to write about this for the last week, and maybe it’s good that I didn’t write it immediately. I have a little bit more of a sense of humor now.
Jeffery Travel picked us at 5:30 am on the nose. It took us just 26 minutes to get to the airport from MPH, which is now my personal best. I should have known the day would go downhill after these two perfect things. We do our check in with CAA and luggage, and immigration, no problems. We end up in the domestic waiting room around 7 am, thinking our flight was to leave by 8:30.
So we sit in the waiting lounge. I like to watch people. I watched all kinds of people. I thought a lot about how UNSECURE this airport really is. I saw uniformed DGM officials smuggle bottles of shampoo and soap through security and place them inside clients bags. I saw a man pay the security man (who runs the electronic wand over you to check for metal) to keep from having to have the wand run over him. No problem. Money will buy you anything. I saw people with no badges or even uniforms in the waiting room, knock on the glass door to the tarmac, to get a passerby to open the door for them. Easy peasy. Once the door was unlocked all kinds of people stepped over the rope lanes and went in and out that door on to the tarmac. I even saw another uniformed DGM officer go out that door with what I thought looked like a tray with two hand guns on it. I laughed when I saw that, as I thought, “Cindy you have been watching too much TV”. The mind does strange things when you are just sitting and observing people. But knowing what happened next….was I really imagining someone carrying hand guns out on to the tarmac? I’ll never know, but that airport is NOT SECURE!
So, we are waiting and the bing bong bong goes off and they announce the flight for Lubumbashi is leaving. Thinking we were on the Lubumbashi flight that stopped in Kananga first, we got in line. Luckily, at the door I asked the CAA rep if this was the Kananga flight too, and she said oh no madam this is ONLY the Lubumbashi flight. So we head back inside the waiting room. We sit down in back of a Congolese Catholic nun and priest and chat a little about Kananga, as that is where they are heading too.
A little while later, the bing bong bong goes off and they announce the flight to Tshikapa is loading. By this time it was a little bit after 9 am and we thought our flight to Kananga was supposed to leave by 8:30. So I ask a CAA rep when the Kananga flight is leaving. She says in about 20 minutes, just be patient.
So we sit back down. All of a sudden, we notice that the people who had gone outside for the Tshikapa flight were starting to come back into the waiting room. The first few people slowly, and then a HUGE MASS, frantically trying to push through the single door at one time. We stood up and moved towards the back right side of the room, as we quickly deduced that something wasn’t right on the tarmac. My first thought was a fire or something. The crowd in the waiting room now began to slowly part down the middle, like the Red Sea. Half the people to the left, back towards the immigration way we came in with all eyes on the tarmac. We parted over to the right side towards the bathrooms and back of the room. The whole front of the waiting room is glass out to the tarmac. Except for the two corners where there is immigration on one side and bathrooms on the other. The Catholic nun says we need to move to the back of the room, so we pick up our bags and move to the back part of the room by the bathrooms. While I am doing this, I get a text from Marcia Murray saying she is leaving for the airport to come pick us up in Kananga. I am trying to text her to say no don’t leave yet, we are still in Kinshasa. So I have my phone in one hand and my back pack in the other as we move to the back of the room.
All of a sudden, the glass in the waiting room starts shattering, as AK-47 bullets rain in on us from the tarmac. “crack crack crack crack” I have never heard an AK-47 up close an personal before, but I can tell you it doesn’t sound like it does in the movies. As the shots enter the domestic lounge there is a surge in the group of people I am in to cram into the back bathroom, which was currently being used as a work/storage room. These are the things running through my mind as we all try to push through the door at the same time: “Clay stay close to me”, “don’t drop your phone, don’t drop your phone”, “why are we cramming into a CLOSED room? Shouldn’t we be FLEEING to an open area where we aren’t trapped in a confined space?” “dear God, what is happening?”. So, about 30 of us get inside the bathroom and someone slams the door and props up a loveseat couch up against the door and everyone is saying “shhhh, shhh” be quiet, in Lingala”. The nun who was with us proceeds to take the shoes off the elderly priest, lay him down on the floor in the corner next to me, and then she proceeds to sort of lay on top of him, protecting him with her body and arms. We are the only two white people in the room. Lingala is the only language we hear, inside our room as well as shouting outside.
By this time, there is more gunfire right outside our wall on the tarmac as well as large explosions. I was very thankful for cement walls, as had this been framework and drywall, we would all be hit. I am shaking uncontrollably and now know what it feels like to be so scared you want to crap in your pants. (I didn’t but we won’t go there.) I also felt very nauseous but kept telling myself “you can’t throw up on a priest. You can’t throw up on a priest”. Clay and I sit together on the floor or squat as the space permits. We are holding on to each other with one hand and getting text messages and phone calls from people in our other hands. I call Antonio back at MPH and tell him to lock the gate and stay inside, not realizing that at the same moment, there is gunfire and explosions going on across from TASOK at Camp Tchatchi. That fact didn’t really hit me until later, as I was worried about my own situation at the moment. As tears ran down my cheeks I kept praying “Lord, please move this fighting away from this side of the building where all these innocent people are.” I knew the domestic terminal had at least 200 travelers and workers in it. All the CAA reps and airport reps in our bathroom, started taking off their uniforms or covering them up with other clothing. For some reason, they didn’t want to be associated with the airport. Hmmmm….
All the whispering and chattering in our little room was in Lingala. Neither of us speak Lingala. At this point, we had no idea what was going on or who was shooting at whom. Was it military trying to take over the airport? Was it civilians? We never did actually SEE anyone doing the shooting. We just heard and saw the evidence of it. So WHO was our enemy? Do we trust the airport employees? The soldiers? The police? Once in a while someone would go look out the keyhole into the waiting room to see what was going on. Again, they would report in Lingala and we were lost. The nun kept patting me on the hand and just giving me a look of “don’t worry, it’s going to be ok”. She was quite a woman and I’m sorry I never got her name.
We stayed in this bathroom for about an hour and a half. This all started at about 9:20 in the morning. Unbeknownst to us, it was going on at camp Tchatchi and the TV/radio station all at the same time. Someone had coordinated this all to happen at the same time.
The shooting and explosions finally died down and we opened the door a bit. I don’t know who was in the waiting room, but they saw our door open and motioned for everyone to come out. So we started filing out of the bathroom. My legs were so wobbly that I really couldn’t stand and walk without Clay’s help. We walked back across the waiting room….through the broken glass of the front window and doors, through the immigration checkpoint, where everything had been turned over, smashed and destroyed, into the large check in area, with another hundred or so people. These glass doors were also shattered on this side. Only the bars on the windows and doors were left, and it really felt like a prison. No one could leave. So we find a baggage scale to sit down on, in front of a wall, not a window or door. It is really loud in this big room with people talking loudly. The nun and priest come and sit next to us. We seem to feel comfortable being with each other.
We see another white man, with grey hair in the room with a Congolese friend. We are the only 3 white people in the room. Our eyes meet and he comes over to us and says “English?” We say “yes, we are American’s” He says “I am from a Catholic dioceses in West Allis Wisconsin trying to go to Kananga.” Clay says “hey, I am from Waukesha Wisconsin!” At this point Clay and this total stranger embrace each other in a big bear hug. You don’t need to have a lot in common when you are being shot at, but when you see someone from your home state, woooowhee!! So we now add him to our little group of people sticking together. Four Catholics and 2 Protestants (3 Americas and 3 Congolese) kind of cool.
We finally realize that our vacation plans are squashed. I get a phone call from James a guy I know in Kananga, and he says “Cindy, is there another white guy in the terminal with grey hair and kind of stocky?” I said yes, and James says “great, make sure you guys take care of him!” I assured him that we were already allies. (Jeff from Wisconsin)
So we spend another couple of hours just waiting in this domestic part of the airport. At one point, people just start walking out. But we didn’t know if the fighting had stopped, or if there would be road blocks or what was going on. Soon, these people come back inside. In the mean time, we are getting texts from friends literally all over the world, saying they heard what is going on and that they are praying for us. We are calling people around Kinshasa for advice of what to do. We speak to the American Embassy emergency number to let them know there are Americans at the airport. They inform us the airport is under a lockdown situation. Fine, Mr. Marine, but what does that MEAN exactly? Oh, he means no one in or out of the airport. Fine. I guess I need to learn my coup terminology. He says not to leave the airport until the Embassy has given a green light to get out on the roads as there may be roadblocks. He ends the call with “good luck mam”. Gee thanks. Clay also gets a reply back from his email message to the Embassy and the guy ends the conversation with “good luck.” So, again not like in the movies when the good guys sweep in and get you out of trouble. Sheeezh. By the way, the American Embassy never did give us a green light to leave the airport, by either text or email.
So the embassy tells us not to move. Friends who have been through this before tell us not to leave the airport. However, while we are waiting, I am trying to arrange for a car to get there to take us home. Jeffery Travel sent all their buses back into town. IMA doesn’t have any drivers near by. However, Nancy Allan called a bunch of people on our behalf to put the word out. One Congolese lady that works with Nancy, called me and said her brother in law lives near the airport and has a car. I just needed to tell her once we could leave and she would send him to get us. That was very sweet from someone I barely know.
Once who ever was in charge at the airport gave the all clear to leave, boy, we did not want to stick around any longer than we had to. We had no idea what the roads would be like, or if the fighting was still going on back here near MPH. We and our Catholic friends started walking around to the front parking lot of Ndjili airport. We saw most people just walking along the road front but there were also cars going by. It just so happens that Jeff, the guy from Wisconsin, still had his driver and car at the airport. He got trapped and couldn’t leave when all the fighting started. Jeff told us that his driver was taking him back to St. Anne’s and that he wasn’t leaving without us. His driver was actually a representative with the government and the Catholic folks trusted his judgment in going into town. So we piled into a Jeep Cherokee type vehicle (8 of us) and started to leave the airport. Once in the car I figured I had better notify someone that we were on the move into town, so I am talking on the phone as we leave the front gate of the airport. It is then that we see dead bodies, in civilian clothes, lying on the ground. We counted at least 6 out front. I was shocked and I don’t remember if I finished the phone conversation or not. I’m not sure what I expected to see when I left, but up until this point we had only seen evidence that there was a battle, we never saw real human beings doing it. Seeing the bodies, just brought home the reality of what we had just been through.
We knew we could stay at St. Anne’s if we had to and couldn’t get the rest of the way home. Heck, we figured we were right across the street from the American Embassy and Marine House. We figured we would go over and knock on the door since we had our passports, and ask if we could come in to the Marine house for a beer! We figured they owed it to us for telling us “good luck” over the phone.
Nancy Allan helped us out by calling one of the IMA chauffeurs to come get her car and come downtown to fetch us. I’m not sure what scared me more; the fighting at the airport or Mayele driving 120 kms /hr down 30 Juin all the way home! Wow, that was a fast ride. All the stores were closed and not many cars on the streets. It was about 2:45 pm by this time. We just wanted to get back to MPH and our cats. By this time, there was no more fighting anywhere. The government troops had everything under control at all 3 places.
We were welcomed back to MPH by Antonio, two workers and Mike and Jill Lowery. Mike and Jill had been staying here at MPH as a vacation to themselves and to help watch over MPH while we were to be gone. It has been a Godsend to have them here with us all week.
I never really did break down and cry like I thought I would or came close to several times. We talked about it all with Mike and Jill and Antonio, and were making jokes before the night was over.
A few observations during all this: there was no one in charge. No one in authority to trust, giving out orders. When the soldiers came through the building, looking everyone up and down, it sent shivers through my spine. Was he one who started this, or was he a hero who helped stop it? I didn’t know who to trust.
There was no one speaking a language that we were familiar with and could understand what was going on. It was a very lonely feeling. (Not lonely enough to make me go learn Lingala mind you.)
Sitting in that cramped bathroom with 30 other Congolese, I did not feel white. Even though I didn’t understand the language, we were not treated any differently than anyone else.
I was happy to have my husband there to help me when I really needed it, but at the same time I wonder if it would have been easier for me if I didn’t have to worry about his safety as well as mine. I don’t know if this is a common PTSD feeling or not, but I sometimes feel I would rather not have to be worried for someone else’s safety. The worry seems to double with every person there that you care about.
We did finally get out two checked pieces of luggage back, in tact. We are very thankful for that. We also might get a full refund on our airline tickets, which we are also very thankful for.
We appreciate all that God did to protect us that day. In the midst of it all, God was there guiding every single bullet and piece of shrapnel and holding his arms around us. It is a miracle that more people were not killed that day. We give Him all the Glory and recognition for His protection, peace, grace and healing in our spirits.
As people keep telling us, “well at least you have a great story to tell!” Yes I do. And I don’t plan on having another one like it, so this one is going to just get embellished over the years to make up for it. This week we were trapped for four hours, but in a few years, the story may have evolved into being trapped for four days! Seriously, it was very, very scary at the time and physically my body didn’t really respond well for a few hours. But with God’s help and a few good friends, my spirit is going on. I am terribly disappointed that my dream vacation didn’t happen. Kinshasa and MPH are very tiring and I want to see other parts of Congo. Why did God allow this to happen to us? I haven’t a clue. I can only trust that HE knows what HE is doing and what HE has planned for us next. God is GOOD ALL THE TIME!