Saturday 2 April 2016

A Decade Ago...

A decade ago, I was a newspaper journalist, working as one of two seniors for Sunday Times, then Africa's largest newspaper, then as defence correspondent for the Nigerian-owned, Johannesburg-based ThisDay, then later as group special investigative writer for the Independent Newspapers group, based at the Saturday Star in Johannesburg. At left, my press accreditation for covering the implementation of the Pretoria Peace Accords in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003 for Sunday Times; and at right, my press accreditation for covering the "Summer War" in Lebanon in mid-2006 for Saturday Star. Congolese syndicalism (re)emerged around 2000, according to a report to the 21st IWA congress in that year (I had distributed, via a Congolese trade unionist, boxes of French-language anarchist/syndicalist journals in Kinshasa in that period, but I can't claim these were influential). Today, a syndicalist Workers' Force (FO) organisation operates in the DRC.

But 2003 was my first trip there, and I was accompanied by Sunday Times photographer Sydney Seshibedi. Operating out of Kinshasa, we visited the UN observer mission, MONUC, and its Radio Okapi, the main hospital, a cathedral over Easter, and other venues to take the temperature of a society in transition (something that has become one of my main focuses as a journalist). We ate plantain and drank quarts of Skol and Primus beer on the Congo River, visited the original ring, still in use for training, which was the scene for the epic 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (see poster below: I later met Foreman and urged him to revisit Kinshasa, which he had forsworn after his defeat, as I know he will be warmly welcomed), played a game of soccer with the youth, attended a concert by talented multi-instrumentalist Werrason, and visited Claudine Andre's Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary for these smallest of the great apes to the west of the city; they are very endearing but endangered, animals, so please support the efforts so  save them here: I would return the DRC in 2005, but this time, the eastern town of Goma, to cover military integration of the Congolese Defence Force with former rebel forces. A decade later, I wrote about my DRC experiences in my third book, Drinking with Ghosts (BestRed, Cape Town, 2014).

The 2006 trip to Lebanon was precipitated by Israel and Hezbollah exchanging heavy fire, damaging much of Lebanon's infrastructure and killing many innocent civilians in the process. My colleague Julian Rademeyer and I hitched a ride via Cairo into Amman with the Gift of the Givers charity who intended transporting relief aid to Lebanon (Jordan would later, as a result of the Arab Spring, develop its own anarchist movement). We over-loudly applauded a terrible Ukrainian-Russian Abba cover band at our hotel, and then, because the Israelis had shut down the airspace, and had bombed all but the northernmost access road into Lebanon via Syria, Julian organised a fixer who drove us via Damascus and past Homs - not a journey to be undertaken lightly today! - via the Bokayaa border post into Lebanon, driving through a pine forest that was bombed to matchwood by the Israeli Air Force an hour after we passed through. 

Operating out of Beirut, I visited the bombed working-class district of Dagieh, and went as far south as Ghazieh, outside of Sidon, visiting hospitals, morgues, bomb-sites, First Aid stations, refugee camps, and a funeral at which entire families were being buried while Israeli bombers and drones crawled the skies overhead, smoked a hookah pipe on the Corniche, Beirut's beachfront promenade, visited an old Jewish cemetery and an abandoned synagogue in search of Lebanon's last Jews (see bullet-holed edifice below: there are only 60 diehards remaining after they were so heavily victimised in the Civil War), and had dinner with Georges Saad, of the Lebanese anarchist organisation al-Badil al-Shuyu’i al-Taharoui, as bombs wiped out blocks of flats in the very next suburb. Although the experience contributed to my post-traumatic stress disorder, it also gave me a passion for the Middle East that laid the foundation of my friendship with brilliant Lebanese writer Rasha Salti, with whom I am working on an international, multilingual online project on massacre and memory entitled Not Night, but An Absence of Stars.