Friday, April 3, 2009

The Whole Story

This hotel in Rwanda is even nicer than I remembered. I sit on the balcony, listening to the sound of the waves hitting the shore and Bach and it’s so serene that I feel like I could cry.

I’ve been doing a lot of that recently. As I told Don and Stu yesterday, I feel like a teenage girl again.

And I’ve been loathe to write this entry -- to try and make our adventures as compelling as possible, as I write I transplant myself back to the scene, remembering vividly what it felt like so that I can best convey the life of the scene.

But I don’t want to go back to the airfield in Aketi again. Imagining the scene fills me with the same fear of the day itself -- and as I feel my heart sink into the pit of my stomach, all I can remember is how close we nearly were to losing everything we had worked so hard to achieve -- and how near to us failure became for that hour on Monday morning.

I will try anyway, however, to recount it as best I can


Monday, by 9 am, had felt like a long day already. The sun was particularly hot, and both my temper and those of the workers were short as we’d all had little sleep, and they were on the cusp of losing work while I was on the knife’s edge between wild success and disastrous failure.

Though we had given the chimps valium earlier in the morning, it had worn off too by 9 am and they were restless, hungry, and wondering what in the world was going on. Thanks to the Valium, we’d been able to take the chimps across the airfield to the river before the sun came up without being caged, and they continued to be uncaged, romping through the underbrush at the sides of an extremely narrow path cutting through the dense undergrowth where we sat hidden. It was off of the main path, so the countless ladies with their empty wood collection baskets who passed by didn’t even notice us.

It was impossible to find shade, and everyone looked pensive. In addition to sweating, I felt an unusual tightness in my chest, my eyes focussed on the narrow path towards us.

At about 9:30am, my eyes caught sight of an official, but quickly realized it was just Papa B, our extortive “friend.” It was his job to authorize the plane to land, and he’d been the only person told the specifics of our plan. He rarely wore his uniform, so it was rather funny to see as he made his way through the underbrush, trying not to get dirty or rumpled even as the leaves and branches pulled at his neatly pressed shirt.

He was, of course, visiting to discuss the subject of payment -- he was willing to offer us a “discount” but he wanted to ensure that I would pay him before everyone came. Nothing says “I’m going to take this money under the table” than a persistent demand to have the money in secret, right?

He assured us, however, counting the last stack of our meager remaining money, that he would protect us in the hours ahead.

So we waited.

The wait was indeed painful -- I could barely believe there was a plane coming even as I’d booked and confirmed it, and a deep-seated fear nagged at me that the plane would never come. In the interim, we tested out the cages, and discovered problems immediately. The bigger cylindrical cage had its door sticks too far apart, and Bolungwa escaped after only 10 minutes of trying.

As it was already 9:30, we set to fixing that cage immediately.

Aketi didn’t take to being caged, and, frustrated, took it out on Mangé, who isn’t much of a fighter, or a lover. More of a rocker/floor-cleaner. We separated them and left Mangé in the cage and let Aketi roam free, keeping an eye on him as he was still showing signs of valium haze.

Kathé was another story -- she was the only chimp for whom we’d made a wooden planks cage, as she’s far bigger and stronger than the rest of the kids. We’d made many modifications already with the carpenter, and now all that remained was to put Kathé inside and nail the top shut.

Kathé, tranquilized but not tranquil, had other ideas. It took six of us to get her inside, and it took her six seconds to escape.

The side bars were too far apart, despite all of our modifications. We had to think FAST.

I sent guys out to cut small branches, and we worked feverishly to make additional lattices on the sides and prevent further escape.

Laughing at us, Kathé rolled in the grass next to the cage, calm and flopped.

Our second attempts to get her into the cage were easier, but she immediately set out to untie all of the vine-knots that were holding the lattices in place. It was now 10:15am, so I figured it was a good time to get out to the airfield.

Carrying the three cages and Aketi separately, who was sleepy and heavy with Valium, we made our way out to the airfield.

Local people cutting wood and what-not were immediately intrigued and followed us closely, with no mind to our personal space OR the chimpanzees’. It was all I could do to run at them screaming to get them to move back and away from the chimps, but with the help of all of our staff out at the airfield, we managed to get a bit of breathing room.

Out of the protective shelter of the trees, however, it was hot, and as the sun razed our flesh and our patience, I wondered if the plane was ever coming. We put Aketi back in with Mangé, and the heat lulled them into a temporary truce.

As I contemplated despair, Polycarpe looked at me, an excited gleam in his eyes -- “I hear a plane!” he said.

And sure enough, five minutes later, the small black speck was visible from the ground. The plane circled around, becoming louder and louder until finally, it touched down.

Adam ran to me, tears of joy streaming down his face, “It’s here, it’s here!”

I couldn’t believe it! But our work was not done yet.

We introduced ourselves to Joey and Jon, who were two very cool and laid back pilots indeed! They started refueling immediately, as we loaded our luggage into the plane and prepared to the load the chimps as well, still a hundred feet from the plane in their cages.

The bags loaded, I headed over toward the cages, and my heart dropped as I saw the very thing I’d been dreading -- Mr Moibi -- decked again in his blueberry shirt.

At first I fooled myself into thinking that perhaps he was just there to wish us a fare-thee-well, but as he pushed documents in front of my face, menacing me and commencing a loud angry tirade about the $8,000 tax bill, my stomach dropped and it was all I could do to keep myself from falling or puking.

He pulled from his pants pocket a crinkled, torn note -- an invitation, to the ATE’s office -- to discuss the matter of documents and insisted that I accompany him immediately.

My heart raced, and as I returned to the plane to pull the additional documents we photocopied and prepared ahead of time -- a just in case for exactly this scenario -- I felt the rush of fear, that desperate urge to just get on the plane and flee. But the pilots had ten minutes left to continue refueling. It wasn’t an option.

I returned to Mister Moibi and tried to explain clearly, quickly, politely, succinctly, that we were within the Congolese Law, had permission from Kinshasa (the big boys), and that the pilots had a very tight schedule to keep that couldn’t be delayed. All of this was true, but it did not stop him from coming very close to my face, his breath even hot after the morning of equatorial sunshine, and whispering, his eyes narrowed menacingly, “I will take these chimpanzees from you,” he hissed.

He announced to the increasingly large crowd of spectators that we were all going back across the river to the office, and he beckoned to one of his goons (not in a uniform or anything) to grab the chimps.

The goon took Aketi Kigoma by the leg from between the bars of the cage -- and inside the cage there was no way he could defend himself and he screamed, terrified, struggling to release this stranger’s grip.

Everyone was screaming -- the din in an outdoor space was incredible -- and as Aketi shrieked in fear, the other chimpanzees followed suit, shaking their cages, afraid.

We screamed at this man to let Aketi go -- not only was he scaring Aketi, but he was in danger of being bitten or worse!

He did not listen, however, and in a moment of father’s protectiveness, Adam rushed over to push the man away from the cage. The man, startled, stepped back, as Adam placed himself between the two.

We rushed to phone our emergency contacts in Kinshasa. They confirmed that we were within the law, and we relayed this to Mister Moibi, who insisted, louder and louder, that we were not IN Kinshasa.

Mister Moibi, undeterred, clutched the documents and left the field, and we continued loading the chimps and our things onto the plane.

Five minutes later, he returned with a man we knew quite well who worked for the ANR -- an agency I’ve mentioned before is much like the CIA of Congo. Trying to remain calm, though it felt impossible in the heat and suffocation of the crowd, we explained to this ANR man what our plans were, and showed him our documents from ICCN as well as our detention permit.

As I tried to explain rationally our situation, Mister Moibi screamed over me, trying to contradict everything I said. Finally, the ANR man asked him to please be quiet. I could not help but grin.

“Are you contesting the legitimacy of these documents?” he asked Mister Moibi.

“No,” he said, confused. “Yes,” he said. He proceeded to try and relay the history of our alleged tax responsibility.

“Hold on,” the ANR man said to him. “This document [the detention permit] has a stamp on it, and its signed. Even if it’s false, it’s not their fault. They’re within the law” He then turned to us, smiling and friendly, and thanked us for our time in Aketi. He shook our hands, and helped me get into the plane.

Mister Moibi looked crest-fallen. His ally had basically said, even if he was right, he was still wrong!

I knew, however, that it most likely wasn’t over. We hurried ourselves to finish readying the plane, and said tearful goodbyes to our staff. Random people came over and stood in front of us by the plane, as another man with a camera took photographs for money. It was certainly surreal.

We kept looking towards the entrance of the airfield, waiting, but we had so much preparation to do. We had a little extra time, since it took about 10 minutes to cross the river by pirogue, but we would still be happier and more likely to succeed the quicker we could move.

People stood by our windows, asking us for money with obscure hand gestures as we secured the final straps around the chimps’ cages. We closed all of the doors of the plane, as everyone outside continued to make a remarkably loud goodbye. But when the noise seemed to increase significantly, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to turn around and see Kathé, our big female, OUT of her cage and pressing her face against the plane window.

She’d escaped again, and really now, time was a serious issue. I barely remembered to take photographs -- we vaulted the seats, taking Kathé in our arms.

She’d slipped through two of the planks, despite our lattice of sticks and vine, and she seemed completely unable to go back in the way she’d come out. Jon, the pilot, cleverly grabbed some tools and we worked on un-nailing one of the planks to give us enough space to put Kathé back in. We’d had to open up the back of the plane again to let Djodjo and Antoine (two caregivers) in to help. As Kathé cried out in stress, the crowd mocked her, yelling back. It was awful to see.

My eyes were restless, bouncing back from Kathé to the entrance of the airfield and back again to Kathé.

We managed to get Kathé back inside, trying to fortify the lattice with extra straps, ropes and what-not from the plane, ever-conscious as the minutes ticked by.

We finally decided to put the cargo net over the cages to prevent any sort of escape, and once it was secured to the floor, we were ready to go.

The pilots were nearly ready to go, with only the two side doors open still for ventilation from the heat.

About to leave, an official we’d had mixed dealings with previously came over with a policeman.

“The Administrator is coming,” he said. “You must wait.”

At this point, however, the pilots were already behind schedule and we really needed to go.

“We’re with the law here,” I explained from my seat. “And we really can’t wait. The pilots need to be in Bukavu by 14:00.”

“I understand,” said the man, “but he’ll be here really soon!”

“Get out of the plane!!” the accompanying policeman said.

The pilot, Joey, intervened. “We really can’t,” he said, “we’ve got to go.” With that, he turned on the front propellers, momentarily distracting the two men standing below the driver’s side door, allowing us time to close it and lock it.

It was only as the propellers whirred faster and faster that people cleared off of the airfield and away from the plane. We moved slowly to the end of the runway, preparing to turn around to take off. My eyes were peeled, unblinking, at the entrance of the airfield. We wouldn’t be safe... the chimps wouldn’t be safe... until we were off the ground.

The runway was so much bumpier than it had looked as we accelerated towards the other end. But as we felt the wheels leave the ground, Adam and I embraced one another in tears of relief, stress, and fatigue.

The chimps were free. Nothing could have felt better.

The flight felt quick in comparison to the morning, though Aketi Kigoma probably would have disagreed. Most of the other chimps slept (and pooped in poor Jon’s plane), but he spent much of the last hour screaming. Though we tried to comfort him, it was little help. I knew how he felt!

Landing in Kavumu airport, ICCN was there to meet us and guard the chimpanzees from any additional problems.

It still seemed packed, as countless strangers introduced themselves to me, when all I really cared about was the chimps.

Ainare, the interim sanctuary manager of Lwiro, was also there to meet us and it was wonderful to finally meet her in person!

We needed to meet with the DGM (of course) to register our immigration so I sent Adam along with our passports while I handled things by the plane, and talked to Cleve, only to discover that Polycarpe and the rest of our workers in Aketi had been taken to prison.

Even less rational was an arrest warrant that had been issued for Adam, as the story inflated itself with lies and exaggerations regarding his protection of Aketi Kigoma AND the man who was grabbing him on the airfield.

It was a terrible development in a story we’d been hoping could be a finished success, but it was only one of a hundred things going on at the time.

I walked over to accompany Adam at the DGM’s office and was encountered with a new problem -- the visas we’d been issued in Buta in January were INVALID. Not only that, but we’d been sold $45 documents for $300. Thankfully, we had receipts, but the airport DGM was intent on making us pay for our “illegal residence” in Congo and wanted us to come with him ... with the police ... to Bukavu immediately.

Of course, Lwiro is only 45 minutes from the airport, but 2.5 hours from Bukavu, so our going there at 3pm in the afternoon was pretty impossible.

Ainare convinced him to hold onto our passports, and told him we’d be back later that night to discuss options. Because we’d had to untie the plane’s ropes and straps from Kathé’s cage, I’d had fear she would escape from her cage while in the back of the pickup truck. Ainare, a veterinarian, had therefore sedated her but it meant that we were under a quickly-evaporating window of time in which to drive the 45 minutes back to the sanctuary.

The DGM agreed, so off we were, on the never-ending quest to give me grey hairs. I sat in the bed of the pickup truck with the chimps, trying to keep from being knocked unconscious by my own breasts or jettisoned right out of the truck as we rocked and bounced over the muddy, rocky, Congolese roads.

The chimps seemed calmer, probably too tired and hungry to care further.

And then we ARRIVED. I will post photos of the arrival, and I’m sure the staff there has additional photos and video as we released the chimps into a holding cage in the new dormitory as it is being completed.

They met their new caregiver, Claude, and ate and ate and ate. East Congo has such a wonderful variety of food and Aketi Kigoma literally crawled INTO the bucket of food and hoarded the bounty for three hours before he’d leave!

We’ll write later about our further struggles with the DGM, and getting the guys out of prison in Aketi, and our trip out of Congo and everything else, but all that matters now is that the chimps are safe.

We continue to be tired and feel defeated, but this fact -- that, despite its high price in many ways -- the overall success of the Aketi Five will always buoy our spirits.

Thanks again for all of your support, and thank you to Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation and MAF for flying us out, and IPPL for helping us fund the evacuation.

More entries to come, stay tuned.

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