An evacuation into Congo, a satellite phone and worlds colliding

By Johan Eldebo, Senior Humanitarian Policy Adviser

During security management training we sometimes joke about how bad it would be if you had to evacuate into the Congo, given the reputation Congo has of war, violence and disease. Well, last month we did. I was in the Central African Republic for the third visit in fifteen months, this time with two of my colleagues from the UK, there to perform a context analysis and evaluate how likely developments might affect our emergency work in the country.

After a few days, violence escalated significantly in the capital. We could hear loud artillery and see the sky light up with explosions from our hotel. The decision was rapidly taken to leave by boat and cross the river into the DRC, as most streets and the airport were inaccessible.

The following few days of trekking across Congo to get to Kinshasa to fly to the UK contain enough anecdotes for a small book, one that could sound both like a hilarious comedy and a really scary and dangerous experience. But I don’t know that I’ll ever quite be up to the task of writing it.

Many things stand out for me from this trip, several that need more thinking before being written, but here are three:

If we are serious about helping the most vulnerable and attempting to make a difference for men, women and children in the hardest places, then we must actually go there from time to time. CAR ranks near the bottom of many lists of development indicators. There is plenty of conflict. You can buy a hand grenade for a dollar. But that's the place where humanitarian aid really makes a difference, and I've met many inspiring people who have dedicated their lives to working there, and in similar places, that most of us would rather avoid.

Working in such places comes at a cost, even if it is just a short visit like my last one. CAR has one of the highest rates of attacks on aid workers in the world, and we have to be aware and prepare for them. That means stringent security planning and management, with the resulting stress levels. We carry around Quick Run Bags (QRBs), which contain most things you may need to stay alive for 48h in case of emergency and evacuation; lots of granola bars, water purifiers and Mentos - for the sugar kick. You always know where the primary and secondary exits are of any building or area you are in.

These realities cause stress - not just to those who are on a trip, but also to those at the end of the phone line across the world. During our evacuation I stayed in touch with a small number of people via satellite phone, as normal phone coverage wasn't available during our 24 hour drive through the jungle. I shared some of my stress with those people and needed their support during the journey. But in doing so I transferred some of my stress halfway across the world, at a cost the people supporting me. Those conversations stay with you.

Then we come back to the "normal world".

We’re relieved to be able to drink tap water, not drag around a QRB, nor need a satellite phone, but some things don't fully go back to normal. At least not yet. The intensity of the experience lingers for a long time through an uneven and unpredictable process. Walking by a boat may bring back memories of the evacuation boat. Fireworks may trigger an instinct to determine where the artillery strike is coming from this time, and where it may land.

Meanwhile the people part of the experience have scattered across the world for their next assignments, so the people who ‘get it’ are no longer around. As the worlds collide and I try to adjust back to normal life, I sometimes even find myself missing those conversations at remote airports or satellite phone conversations from the jungle. Re-connecting back home becomes quite a journey; you don't come back quite the same way you left.

Yet as impactful as this experience may be for us visitors, many of our staff stayed in CAR throughout and the local population live with this every day. That is enough motivation to keep working on these issues.

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