Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Tina van Pelt
“What the bloody hell are you doing in Kinshasa with 17 tourists, we have not had that many tourists in the last two years”. Is the response that Karl got when he phoned the British Embassy to inform them that he had 17 British, Australian, New Zealand, American and Canadian tourists in the suburbs of Kinshasa caught in a war zone.
Little did we know that former vice president Bemba was supposed to integrate his private militia into the national army, but instead he had ordered his militia to fight against President Kabila’s government forces and concerned for his own safety he had sought refuge at the South African Embassy well all hell broke loose around downtown Kinshasa.
The reason we had found ourselves in Kinshasa was to try and obtain a visa for Angola, we were on an overland tour from Spain to Cape Town and Angola and their bureaucracy and now a war in Kinshasa were the only things that stood in our way.
We were told by the British Embassy that there was not much they could do for us unless we could get to the Embassy which at that point was out of the question, so the best thing to do was to sit tight and stay indoors to avoid stray bullets and keep in touch. Which for the following 24 hours that is what we did, until things started to heat up, the ground shaking with mortars landing very close and people shooting at each other in the street, then all went quite, we were informed that there was a cease fire so that the area could be evacuated before the government forces retaliated with heavy fire.
Another phone call to the British embassy at early Saturday morning to inform them of our predicament and a meeting place arranged, followed by a very quick pack up and a fond farewell to our Congolese saviours where we had been camping out, we were off, with Karl behind the wheel and everyone on the floor in the back, 15 minuets later we arrived at the meeting place and were whisked off to the safety of the British Embassy, on arrival we all had to complete forms then we were told to head to the swimming pool area, our eyes lit up at the thought of a nice dip in the pool, unfortunately it was empty, but there was a big pot of tea and porridge waiting for us.
After a relaxing cup of tea and reassuring phone calls to friends and families we were given a briefing on what was happening and what could happen, we were told if things got any worse they could have up to 400 people at the embassy and may well have to evacuate everyone. We were put to work, the boys erecting washing areas and the girls erecting tents and organising food. By nightfall things seemed to have quieten down around Kinshasa with only the odd sound of gunfire and so a
Come Sunday the worse appeared to be over, but we were told to sit tight and were welcome to stay as long as we wanted, by Monday calm was restored and life was back to normal in Kinshasa, except for the odd unexploded mortar lying around. We still had our problem of trying to get visas for Angola, so volunteered out services to help with the packing up around the embassy and were rewarded with a BBQ in the evening, which after 4 months of living off truck food, to sink our teeth into a nice steak and have fresh salad was a treat.
Over the next few days the staff at the British Embassy seemed in no hurry for us to move on and went out of there way for us, letting up camp out on there tennis courts, giving us free run of the kitchen to cook our meals, control of the remote control to watch the cricket and assisting us in every way possible to try and obtain Angolan Visas, even a couple of trips to the hospital for malaria tests and a phone call to the local brewery to get some Primus Beer (the local brew) shirts delivered wasn’t too much to ask.
Come Thursday it looked like we were not going to have any luck with our Angolan Visas and thought it was about time that we let the Embassy have there tennis court and social area back and bid them farewell as we hit the road to Matadi, unfortunately minus Angolan Visas and Primus Beer shirts.