• Nkunda Arrested in Rwanda.

    Aid, Communication Design

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    This news is just in - the dominant warlord of Congo has been arrested.

    Reuters Story Please read my friend Sean Carasso's accounts with Nkunda himself before he started his organization Falling Whistles--

    NKUNDA & I

    The following is one of the great adventures of my young life. I hope you'll take the time to dive in. I know it is long, but then again, so was the day.

    On this Sunday Sabbath, I met me a pastor. This pastor also happens to be a psychiatrist and indeed a professor. If that weren't enough, he is also a General. And now he has, in the past few years, become a Warlord.

    Today on this Sunday Sabbath, I met the General Laurent Nkunda of the CNDP Rebel Political and Military Organization.

    We had been working for weeks on getting a meeting with the General. Secret names and secret numbers were in full effect when, at 5:30am, our Congolese partner François got the call – Nkunda would meet today.

    He frantically dressed and rode a moto to our home.

    I had stayed up till 2am grieving and writing about the boys stuck in Titu. Who is this Nkunda, this monster of a man, to do such things? The boys open wounds were plaguing my dreams.

    So when François bangs my door into waking, it comes as an exhausted surprise. He is panting, out of breath and has Lindsay outside in her pajamas when he tells me the news.

    "But we must go now, we are already late," he tells us. I run into the kitchen to stuff a couple pieces of bread in my backpack and in my panic look at Lindsay. "I can't go," she says. She is still under contract with an NGO and security concerns forbade her from entering Nkundas territory. In the end it was for the best. A girl in rebel territory is nothing but a target for rape.

    But now I'm going on our most dangerous mission yet, without my wingman! How can I film and watch my back at the same time? She looks me deeply in the eyes and says, "You don't have to go. There might be another time." I genuinely pause and – as well as I can at 6am – consider the ramifications of the day. Taking a deep breath, I hug her and leave. It is Nkunda who has stolen the childhood from the Titu boys. It is Nkunda I have to meet.

    François and I run outside to try and find motos. But what exactly do we tell them? "Ah, yea, I'd like for you to take me up the mountains to the Warlord Nkunda…" Needless to say, we have to stretch the truth a bit. And even then it takes some serious negotiating.

    Standing outside arguing with Moto drivers I can't believe I forgot my jacket. It is so dang cold and the air is wet. But we are late. So I pray for the best and off we go. Less than 10 minutes into the ride, the rain comes pouring down. As hard as I've seen it rain in all of Africa and we're riding straight through the stinging pellets.

    I risk a moment of filming in the rain and capture some absurd footage. Charging at 70 kph, sunglasses down to protect my eyes, shirt and jeans sticking to my body from the rain, and I can't help but smile at the adventure.

    But most striking about this moment is that though I am on my way to meet one of the world's most dangerous men – a man who has killed countless people and abducted thousands of children – I am more afraid of the Moto driving so dang fast on wet roads. "Um, can we slow down maybe?" Perfect, the driver only speaks Swahili.

    For an hour it rains. By the end I'm not smiling at anything - I am just cold. Leather shoes? Soaked through. Backpack? Soaked through. Jeans? Yea, you understand.

    In order to begin the journey into Nkundas territory, we have to pass 4 security checkpoints. At each point we use my Press Pass from the Conference and a permit from a top ranking Colonels to win our entry. What's funny is that the press pass has absolutely no authority outside the conference. But these guards are certainly impressed. At each checkpoint, the military presence grows stronger and stronger. By the end, we're passing a full blockade of heavy machines and artillery.

    After getting through the final checkpoint, all signs of life cease. Every living soul appears to have fled. Truly, we have entered the rebellion. At the sounds of silence, I first feel fear.

    Abandoned homes, farms, churches and schools. The silence is deafening as we drive past empty villages. This road of lava rock takes us over sheer cliffs and boulders. For an hour and a half the only 4 people I see are rebel soldiers. And up the mountains we go.

    Wet, cold and more than a little afraid, I begin to question the necessity of this journey. Then, at that very moment, I see a stray calf. Small, dirty and broken this calf has somehow been lost and abandoned without any chance of survival. He reminds me of the boys at Titu – abandoned. And that settles that. We're not stopping.

    The land is dramatic and all encompassing. Overwhelming cliffs and valleys littered with waterfalls and rainforest. Trees that dwarf American pines and meadows of the most electric green.

    Over 5 million people have lost their lives in this lush land. But the constant rains have swept their blood away and all that remains is the magnificence - empty, silent, terrifying magnificence.

    Such a horrible, haunting waste.

    After an hour and a half on the moto, we reach a brand spankin new Internally Displaced Peoples Camp. The UN military branch, MONUC has a base up here in the mountains and masses of villagers fled towards it for safety.

    On the first day of the Peace Conference I wrote that Nkunda had attacked two villages. I was seeing the result of that attack first hand. Thousands of quickly built grass huts, covered in Unicef tarps to keep out some of the rain, were scattered across the valley floor. A week ago these people had been working farms, going to school and running little shops. With many of their family members killed and their homes pillaged, this camp was their only refuge.

    MONUC asks all foreigners to register with them. The problem is that they have placed an international block on the Press speaking to Nkunda. Warlord, mass murderer, and rebel leader, I still take serious issue with the idea of removing freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

    They most certainly would not allow me to go any further. Plus my visa is 2 days expired and I would have to pay money I don't have. Oops. So I skip the MONUC base and keep moving up the mountain without registering.

    Finally, after another hour, we reach the first of Nkundas dominant military bases. The surrounding hills are barren. They have reduced the entire jungle to stumps. The rebels use the trees to build blockades and forts against invasion from the national army.

    I cannot describe the intensity of this moment. Rebel soldiers surround everything. Every male has at least 1 gun, the commanders have satellite phones, and all eyes are pointed at the mazungoo with a camera. Fast talking or I am in some serious trouble.

    Franscois finally convinces them that we are here to interview "The Chief" and the moment softens a bit. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears. They tell us he has moved on another 2 hours up the mountain. It's rained twice more on us, so we're still completely wet, shivering and my butt is throbbing. I dunno if I can take another 2 hours.

    But they assure us that he'll stay there for us, so off we go. I mean, we've come this far haven't we?

    As we get closer to The General, the towns begin to have life. Smoke coming from kitchens, school kids running, and small market haggling. I'm wondering what is going on? Why does proximity to this ruthless rebel mean vibrancy?

    Higher and higher we climb. When we finally arrive we are put under the watchful eye of one of Nkundas comrades. At first, this man seriously intimidates me. But when everyone else leaves the room, he smiles, pulls out a deck of cards and says, "Play?"

    What?

    So here I am, in Nkundas territory, under guard, playing cards, eating peanuts and drinking Fanta. The people here are the epitome of polite propriety.

    For 3 more hours we wait. The room we're in is a simple, wooden room, with two posters of the most ironic nature. The first is a picture of an African baby that reads "Stop The Violence." The second is a photo history of Saddam Husseins fall. The poster deplores tyranny.

    After our last few hours I just want to fall asleep in my chair, but my adrenaline is working in overdrive to keep me on high alert. This is not the time not to focus.

    Finally, we hear commotion outside. I walk out to see nearly a hundred soldiers bolting through bushes in all directions to secure the perimeter. They are loaded down with every manner of artillery. And they are disciplined. These rebels are at least a step above any soldiers we have encountered thus far.

    A group of nearly 20 women line the driveway with fistfuls of flowers and begin singing and dancing.

    Just then, a retinue of SUVs pull up and the dreaded warlord Nkunda steps out, smiling and waving to his beloved people. They sing his praises and throw flowers at his feet as he walks toward the house. A little boy of about 4 walks up to him and salutes. He smiles with large white teethe and a dimple to return the formal salute. The women croon.

    This is definitely not what I expected.

    He's wearing a slightly see-through blue linen shirt with silver detailing and his glasses have gold trim. Walking with his brand new Air Jordans, he carries an unnecessary cane with a silver bald eagle atop it. This guy looks more like a classy pimp than a renegade general.

    As I'm filming – in sheer awe and wonder at the spectacle before me – he walks up and enthusiastically shakes my hand. "It's very nice to meet you," he says. "Well" I reply, "It's nice to meet you as well." I guess? I think? I'm not really sure to be honest, but I'm in pure politician mode and my only goal is to get this man to trust me. So I put on my best smile, stand up straight and am a model citizen of composure and charisma.

    But all my best charisma is no match for this man. He is Charm and Persuasion incarnate. Dwarfing any American politician with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, he masters the room. There is not a question I can ask him to which he doesn't have a rehearsed answer.

    At first he brings his wife and child into the room with me. Clearly attempting to communicate, "I am a family man" for the camera. After we began our conversation, he allows them to leave. Now it's just us, man to man.

    For 3 hours we talk. We laugh, we are secretive and conspiratorial, we pretend to be earnestly honest. And the man lies and lies. He lies more persuasively than most truth tellers. He lies with conviction, passion, articulate vision and staggering intelligence.

    After weeks of being frustrated by the Congolese lack of optimism, here was a man with optimism, insight and apparently a deep concern for his country.

    And I learn why the villages began to come alive the closer we got to him. He gives his followers a good life. Security and moderate prosperity are what he offers to those who are alleged to him. He'd be a great leader if everyone just blindly followed him. It's only how he handles the blasted opposition that earns him the bad-rap.

    "What about the child-soldiers?" I ask. "Why would I want a child to fight for me?" he responds. "Soldiering is a calling, a passion. Men should charge forward because their Will and Heart push them. Not out of fear for me. Children would be terrible soldiers, so small and afraid."

    "What about the raping?" I ask. "I am a pastor!" He protests. "I give every soldier a Bible and in each village we bring the twin principles of Justice and Christianity. We are an army of compassion."

    "What's next for Congo?" I ask. "Education!" He says enthusiastically. "Once we finally have Peace, we can then pour all our money into lifting the intellects of our children. They are our future."

    This guy is good.

    Even after two days at Titu where boys who had escaped Nkunda were held prisoner. Even after the boys told me they had been thrown into ditches and had, for days, been tied up with ropes so tight it broke the skin. Even after speaking with a boy who had been forced to kill a shackled prisoner. Even after hearing the heart breaking story of little boys armed only with whistles being forced to the front lines.

    Even after all this, he nearly wins me over. Truly. His charisma is like perfume, luring me into his deceptions.

    I know he's lying. I know he's a warlord who has massacred like few rulers on earth. And yet I want, desperately, to believe him. With his vision and his intelligence, he could pull this country out of desperation.

    But it was he who had caused so much of the modern desperation. His ability to persuade is so finely honed; I have to keep reminding myself.

    Finally the interview ends and I realize it is near dark. He politely invites me to dinner with his family. But we are still 5 hours away from home! Most of the trip is through rebel territory and I don't know what to do. Ride through in the dark? What are my other options? Crash with the good ol' General over at his place?

    He can see that I'm worried about the time, so he pulls out his satellite phone. He radios out and says, "Attention all troops. There is a mazungoo with a big beard traveling down the mountain. He is under my personal protection. He is not to be disturbed and if you see him in need, you are to give him any help required."

    He then offers us beds at any one of his bases. You know, in case we get too tired or something.

    Oh holy hell. WHAT AM I DOING HERE?

    I thank him earnestly for his time then turn to our smiling, card playing guard to thank him as well. And off we go. The moto drivers are livid. Not only did we bring them into Nkundas territory, but we kept them till sunset. I've never ridden so fast on rocky roads. Streets filled with cows, goats, families, firewood and food, and our motos rip through, honking at everyone in site. Kids and animals alike are darting out of our warlike path.

    And then the rain comes again. And we are soaked through.

    And darkness sets in.

    In nearly total darkness, my moto skids out on a wet rock. OW! My leg is badly bruised and I'm jumpin around like a fool. But a far worse situation has come up – the moto is broken. Hopelessly inept with regard to motors, I run under a cliff overhang to get out of the rain. Protectively hovering over the priceless footage of The General, I am shivering and afraid as the stars come out. All we've eaten since 6am is a couple pieces of bread and some peanuts. Stranded and hungry, this is gettin real. Real real.

    For a full hour I sit in the mud under the cliff. Finally they get the moto working. Oh praise God.

    We begin driving again but by now the fog has set in from the rain. It's so thick we can barely go 3 or 4 kph. We're headed up a sharp hill and I feel a strong presence behind me. I turn and see a man bristly walking just behind the moto. "Oh hell!" I reel back to punch him in the neck. Off balance and turned around, its a terrible punch. He falls to the ground laughing at the scared mazungoo. Turns out he's a stupid shepherd who thought it was funny that he could walk faster than my moto could drive. But how could I know? We're surrounded by an effin army man.

    About five minutes later we see a makeshift blockade across the rode. We stop and a man in dark fatigues comes out of the shadows. I inhale sharply as he puts his AK in my face. This is the atrium of my fear. This is it. Too many risks, too many chances, I am done.

    But as soon as he sees my skin and beard, I see my fear reflected in his eyes for having threatened Nkundas protected. He lowers his weapon and stumbles through a "you can go."

    I am shaking. I had stared down the barrel of an automatic rifle in the dark of the Congo jungle. Despite the fog and the rain, the moto floors it. Better to fly off a cliff than encounter any more situations like that.

    As it turns out, we have to go through the same episode 4 more times. Each time a soldier barges out of the bush and points his gun at us. Each time they see my face and quickly let us pass.

    After the second checkpoint, I see a mountain lion, or some kind of jungle cat, run across the road. As scared as I am about the rebels, it hadn't occurred to me until that moment that there is much more to fear than men with guns. I barely breath 'till we're out of the mountains.

    One more time my moto slips on wet rocks and this time, from pain, exhaustion and fear I loudly release a string of explicatives off the cliff of the mountain. The friggin pain man! I hate being bruised when I'm cold and wet. This sucks.

    Finally, round 9:30pm, we get a phone signal on top of a mountain peak. I call Lindsay to make sure she knows we're okay. Panic stricken, she screams into the phone. I pull it away from ear and respond, "We're fine Linds. Don't have any time to waste. Still comin down the mountain. Today has been crazier than I ever could have imagined. Lots of love. Bye."

    She later told me that she had spent the day back at Titu. The soldiers brought out men covered from head to toe with open, searing burns. Using her silly first aid packet, she tried to treat them as well as she could. The suffering here staggers all imagination.

    Why is this happening to us? The UN can't get into Titu, but Lindsay is there with band-aids and Neosporin? The Press can no longer see Nkunda, but he courted me all afternoon? There is something strange and far larger than us at work here. I feel it. Providence is guiding our steps.

    Another hour and finally I see a national army checkpoint. We had been on motos for nearly 5 hours. Safety.

    But of course they won't let us through. Two people coming from Nkundas territory at 10:30pm? They think we're spies and they aint letting us pass until they're certain otherwise.

    It takes half an hour, but we're released. Two more checkpoints stop us. After they find out where we've been, each wants to lecture us about Nkundas lies. "He's a deceiver," they all say. "He's funded by America and Rwanda."
    "Yes, okay, whatever. I just wanna go home. Can we please go home?" is the best response I can muster. It's too late for political debates.

    And then, just like that, we are on the only stretch of decent road in all of Northeast Congo – the road from Sake into Goma. Free at last, free at last. The motos reach 90 kpm and I there aint nothin I can say to slow 'em down.

    Stretching my arms out, cocking back my head and screaming at the moon, I have never been more thankful to be alive. The stars were out in all their glory. With wet feet, wet hair and my body aching I let it all out in unending wolf-like howls.

    Flying down that road at such a reckless speed, I just let go. I start flapping my arms like wings and laughing with pure release. We have made it. I am alive.

    In the end, we paid the Moto drivers triple the agreed upon rate. I never intended to put them through that kind of ordeal.

    With the exception of New Years Eve when we had an armed guard, this is the first time I have been out in Goma past 8pm. Security concerns keep us inside our compound. Previously, I had felt strangled and restricted by the gates surrounding us. Tonight, stepping inside, I am free.

    We had done it. Despite the international blockade and the untold barriers, I had sat with The Chief himself. The pastor responsible for so much of the suffering around me had answered my questions.

    And the world will see how dramatically his deceptions contradict the stories of his victims.

    Though, laying down, I can't help but wonder; how will I ever tell this story? What will people believe? I barely believe it myself. Nevermind. I can worry about such things tomorrow. For now, to bed. At the end of this Sabbath Sunday, I only want rest.

    I slept like the dead. Thankfully, I am not.

    -- Sean D. Carasso

    Wandering Scribe, Falling Whistles www.fallingwhistles.com <http://www.fallingwhistles.com> www.twitter.com/seancarasso <http://www.twitter.com/seancarasso>

    "If you came here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you came because you believe your liberation bound to mine, then come, and we can walk together."

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