MAGAZINE - Under the Volcano by Glynis Horning in Femina, 1994

Femina 1994 - CoverAs Goma’s landing strip appears between the jungle-green volcanoes of Rwanda and Zaire, it’s the children you see first. Dozens of them, scattering from the lick of hot tar until we’ve roared to a halt, then closing around us like flies. From our perch beside the navigator in the great glassed underbelly of the Ilyushin 76 Russian cargo plane, they’re fractured by struts into a myriad surreal images – wide eyes, silently screaming mouths, wildly waving stick-thin black limbs.

The woman crouched beside me waves back, grinning grimly. ‘There were many more last month,’ says Gaynor Schoeman, as we swing on our backpacks and clamber down into the equatorial sunlight. ‘But that was my first trip and all I really noticed were the bodies.’

They lay in heaps around the airfield where today refugees plant potatoes and graze goats. And they line the road to Goma, where they now lie three deep beneath the shallow mounds of lava stone in a mass grave. We pass it in a closed 4x4 of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). ‘You’re lucky,’ quips the Irish army volunteer giving us a ride. ‘On a bad day you can smell the dead. Some say there are 14 000 in there, others 200 000. But nothing is certain in this country – Gaynor knows.’

She knows it only too well. But when the 28-year old South African first hitched a ride in with the United States Air Force in August this year, she knew only what the media had told her. In July a plane carrying the political leaders of Rwanda’s and neighbouring Burundi’s Hutu and Tutsi people was shot down, some say by the Hutus themselves, others, by the CIA. Either way, the Hutus blamed the Tutsis and set about exterminating them. The small but relatively well-armed Tutsi army, which had helped Uganda's gov­ernment troops in that country's civil war, retali­ated and took Rwanda, but not before a slaugh­ter of enormous propor­tions. Some 600 000 to a million people died. And in three days another mil­lion fled across the bor­ders, mostly into neigh­bouring Zaire: the biggest migration in the shortest time in history.

 

But what moved a woman in a country with horrors and hardships of its own to involve herself in this distant turmoil was two images on TV. The first was a recurring one of children, faces blank with terror and despair — some 10 000 of them under the age of six, orphaned or separat­ed from their parents and left-to fend for them­selves in a world gone mad. The second was of a crying man lifting bodies into the back of a truck and begging for help. 'I thought, "I'm strong. I can do that."'

It helped that Gay­nor is a 1,8 metre Ama­zon of a woman, one of the first in South Africa to take up kick boxing; the reigning women's middleweight NFK (National Full-Contact Karate) champi­on, who spars with men and fights black belts because of her weight; the daughter of a national men's judo champion.

It helped too that from the age of 11, Gay­nor and her two younger sisters have sailed and camped their way across the world with their parents, owners of a Durban-based international yacht brokerage. Gay­nor and a fiance later launched a branch in Cape Town. When the engagement foun­dered, she hitched her way around the Medi­terranean on boats, finally returning to Dur­ban to open Ship-Shape, a one-woman yacht maintenance and repair business. 'I'm very independent — I need to be free to do things my own way.'

Under the Volcano - Femina 1994Under the Volcano by Glynis Horning Femina 1994Such as abruptly leaving work for a month and heading for Rwanda. 'The first days were the hardest,' she mutters now, as we roar past Nyiragongo, one of the world's most active volcanoes, towards Goma. 'But you'll see.

I do. We've no sooner pitched our tents in the overgrown grounds of the main UNHCR quarters in this one-goat town, than Gaynor is flagging us a lift in a relief truck to the refugee camp of Kibumba. It's a 30-minute hell run. The narrow tar strip seethes with speeding taxi bakkies, each with 20 to 30 people hanging on the backs, the sides and the bonnets. Vying with these are massive water tankers, children on handmade wood­en scooters laden with firewood, jeeps jam­med with heavily armed Zairian soldiers, and dozens more 4x4s, each flying the flag of one of some 30 relief agencies — from the Red Cross to the Muslim Red Crescent, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and Blessing, which purports to cure by the laying on of hands. And stream­ing along either side of the road and over­flowing onto it are hundreds upon hundreds of refugees in slack-eyed search of food, first-aid stations, firewood or family.

`Hit one and you're dead,' barks our dri­ver, hand hard on the hooter. 'Don't ever stop,' adds Gaynor. 'A driver in front of me did once. He'd hit a child. We put the child in our truck and took him to a hospital tent, but the crowd was after the driver's blood.'

No other journey could prepare you for Kibumba. This is Terminator territory. A smoky Mad Max wasteland sprawling sev­en kilometres along the road, two kilome­tres across. Here, for as far as the eye can see, nearly 200 000 Rwandans cling to life in lean-tos of wood, grass and donated plastic sheet­ing. To leave the road for the muddy tracks between these shacks is to lose yourself in some dark counter-city, where all the infrastructures are there but strangely skewed. At a make­shift butchery a man meticu­lously slices a goat carcass in its own skin so no sinew is wasted. Standing over a chunk of lava that is the barber's chair, a man shaves heads with a rusty razor — it's the style of the moment, mutters Gaynor, with head lice rampant. And patrons of the shack proclaiming 'disco' are proffered prostitutes and home-brewed beer.

Where normality can't be ap­proximated is in the centres for unaccompanied children and orphans. There are two in Kibumba, run by the Irish relief agency GOAL, each caring for some 1 000 under-sixes. After seven you fend for yourself around here. `They just can't cope with the numbers,' explains Gaynor. 'It breaks your heart.'

Everything here breaks your heart. The toddlers' fingers clutch­ing constantly at your own, lock­ing around your neck when you lift them against your chest, latching desperately onto your legs when you eventually put them down. The processions of slightly older children follow­ing you through the camp, their eyes guarded but quick to laugh should you pull a face, produce a camera or mispronounce a greeting in Swahili.

As Gaynor warns, the babies are the worst. Mel Bates, an Irish doctor who with his doctor wife has taken three months' leave from their practice to be here, es­timates that in the hospital tents the mortality rate for those un­der a year is 50 to 100 percent.

Femina 1994 Rwanda Gaynor SchoemanFemina Rwanda 1994 Gaynor SchoemanHis accuracy in predicting who will die is legendary: they call him Dr Death. I catch his eye over the head of an 18-month-old girl. She lies light and limp as a rag doll in my arms, eyes dull, flies studding her foam-flecked mouth even as I wave them off. He shakes his head and turns away.

Typhoid, yellow fever and cholera have been controlled. Dysentery and shigella diar­rhoea are the current killers, to­gether with meningitis and pneumonia. `We've tried up to three kinds of antibiotics on some of these children and nothing works,' says Mel. 'It's probably the Aids factor.' As many as 30 percent of refugees are estimated to be HIV-posi­tive, although for sectors such as the vanquished Hutu army it may be 70 percent.

But it's the mental torment that is most painful to observe, even for Dr Death. He leads me to a child of three, no bigger than my 11-month-old son. `This is Nyiamayene. She always sits alone. She never smiles. Maybe she never will.' Nyiamayene's mother died in the fighting in July. A pregnant woman found the child lost and in shock among the fleeing crowds and took her to Kibumba. But when she gave birth herself she couldn't care for two babies, and left Nyiamayene here. 'This child has lost her home, her world. And worse than that, she's lost two mothers in two months. You can't cure that.'

But you can try. Gaynor tries. It's what has won the respect and admiration of every relief worker I speak to. Even as she bends to pick up a child, I'm whispered stories of her efforts. The same when I watch her erect a massive storage tent an­other day and load and unload 250 people at a time into the backs of huge lorries for trans­port to a new camp at Kahindo — bodily lifting the weakest to the ground, carefully cupping the bony chests of children in her big bronzed hands and hoisting a skeletal teenage boy across her back. I hear the stories numerous times in the next few days, in various accents. And finally, in the quiet darkness of our campsite, Nyiragongo glow­ing behind us, I get her own account.

When Gaynor first arrived in Goma, a rare independent volunteer with no agency to guide her, she found her niche doing what few others would do: clearing bodies in the babies' tents. 'I still remember picking up that first small bundle,' she says. The grey blanket fell away to reveal a tiny face, small hands clenched and raised above its head. The face was screwed up and angry even in death. What did this baby do to be given such a short life, full of pain, hunger and thirst? The blanket wet my gloved hand with bloody diarrhoea. Seven babies died that night.'

But the living and dying worry Gaynor far more than the dead. 'What's dead is dead. But I saw a young woman die by the roadside one day. She was younger than me. Her small children were crying hysteri­cally, pulling at her arms, trying to tug life back into her. People just stared, expres­sionlessly. I wanted to stop, but the driver went on. It was just another death.'

The following day a woman walked into Kibumba camp and sat beside the stores tent. She stared up at Gaynor as she walked by. A few minutes later she gave birth to a dead baby. 'Not a sound passed her lips. A nurse helped to remove the placenta and the woman rested a few minutes, then walked away.'

What kept Gaynor going - and coming back to Goma - is this resilience of spirit and the extraordinary compassion that per­sists. 'There was this brother and sister in a hospital tent lying close to each other for warmth. They were six or seven years old, all skin and bone. I tried to squirt rehydration salts down the girl's throat with a syringe.

Rwanda 1994 Gaynor SchoemanHer eyes opened and she mumbled some­thing. I forced the syringe between her lips but she pushed it to her brother. Only when he'd taken his dose would she accept water.'

But as extraordinary as the courage of these refugees is that of this woman who helps them. 'Gaynor has carried bodies, dug latrines and picked up discarded needles and syringes so the children don't walk on them and get Aids,' says a care worker.

There was bloody diarrhoea everywhere,' Gaynor tells you simply. 'Children lying in it. Covered in it. And no blankets - just cold plastic. Misery on every face. But the rule of the refugee aid worker is make yourself useful. So I found cloths and started to clean the children and the plastic sheeting. There was no disinfectant. The smell of sickness and excrement made me want to puke.'

Conditions have improved in many ways. Disposable nappies have arrived, as have clothing and better food. A computerised identification scheme incorporating pho­tographs has been launched to reunite par­ents and children. And the Irish army volun­teers have built a playground in one of the GOAL centres that opens while I'm there, an oasis of laughter and shouting and squab­bling - normal children's sounds. Even Nyiamayene lifts her head from a burly soldier's chest, a flicker of interest in her sad eyes.

But as life becomes easier in some areas it gets more dangerous in others. Many of the relief workers confide that they are more afraid now than they were last month. `As people's immediate needs are met, they start to want other things,' says an American doctor with the International Relief Com­mission. 'As they gain strength and confi­dence, they begin to take what doesn't be­long to them.'

Flash points are no longer just the food-distribution centres, where there's always the risk of rioting in the rush for rations. A week before we arrived five vehicles be­longing to Medecins Sans Frontieres were hijacked by renegade Zairian soldiers - here are many renegades, given their month­ly pay of just $20. Shortly before, two were shot dead and tied to lamp posts when they tried to rob civilians in Goma. 'I saw one with a knife in his heart and a crucifix down his collar,' our Norwegian UNHCR house manager informs me coolly. 'And they'd shoved a cigarette between his lips.'

Rumour alone can be reason to kill. Four days before we arrived a badly beaten man was hauled from his bed in a hospital tent and finished off by a mob that included chil­dren. 'He'd been seen near a water tanker,' another UN worker tells us. 'And someone suggested that he might be trying to poison the water.' Still, money remains the major motivator. The night we arrive, two Zairians employed to guard pharmaceutical stores for Medecins Sans Frontieres were killed and the stores raided for sale on a thriving black market.

That night and most others, the sounds of gunfire and grenade blasts periodically puncture the night. It makes sleep difficult, especially in a small tent in a dark corner of a property bounded by a lava wall and chicken mesh, where the single guard on gate duty sleeps most nights.

One evening four Zairians are killed nearby by looting soldiers. The next day the radio network linking relief workers crack­les continuous warnings to avoid the town centre - soldiers have put up roadblocks, the red berets of the notorious Zairian spe­cial forces among them. 'They're known to shoot on whim,' says Gaynor dryly as a jeepful speeds by. They rake the tailboards of passing vehicles for no reason. And I've seen them beat civilians.'

Rwanda 1994But the event that shakes me most is different. There are few ways for relief work­ers to counter stress in Goma. You can't eat among the hungry and stress shrinks the stomach. You can't even bite your fingernails — 'with the disease around, it's liter­ally taking your life in your hands,' cracks a health work­er. Some, like her, who've never touched a cigarette, start smoking. Others with­draw into books or a Walkman until their next MARS (Mandatory Absence for Relief of Stress) pass falls due. Most, like Gaynor, party.

On Friday night we party with the peo­ple who do it best — the Irish army volun­teers of the Irish Rwandan Support Group (IRSG). There's plenty of local beer and international blarney. Gaynor and I are drop­ped off around midnight and the party moves to a Goma disco, a dingy room with an ultraviolet light bulb, loud music and friendly local women.

In the early hours, a volunteer is slow-dancing with one. 'A pretty girl in her teens,' says his friend, who was there. But Zairian soldiers are waiting for them as they step outside. They take the young man's money. Then they shoot the girl dead — in the face.

This is the first shocking news Gaynor and I receive the following day. The next is that we're stranded in Goma. The relief flights from South Africa have been abruptly stop­ped — something about the nonfulfillment of a food contract. Our only way out now is via Nairobi, Entebbe or Brazzaville, and we'll be unable to hitch a flight there before Mon­day. But not even this shakes Gaynor. 'The Irish are climbing Nyiragongo,' she says thoughtfully. 'I've always wanted to do that.'

Which is how I come to be sleeping in the shell of a tin hut just below the 3 150m rim of one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world, with seven members of the Irish army and a South African Amazon. Somehow, in this country, at this time, it doesn't seem strange. Just prophetic.

Sitting outside the hut, bathed in Nyiragongo's otherworldly glow, Gaynor and I contemplate the ultimate fate of the people she's come to help. The Tutsis who've taken Rwanda have promised the Hutus safe re­turn. Many Zairians are keen that they seek it and leave the land they're ravaging. The refugees are felling trees for firewood at the rate of 30 square metres a day, much of it in the Virunga National Park, which miracu­lously is still home to Diane Fossey's goril­las. But rumour has it that Tutsi reprisals are planned on a massive scale. And the Hutu army, in its own refugee camp just west of Goma, is threatening Hutu civilians with death should they return. Rumour also has it that the Hutu army plans to retake Rwanda by force and is training daily in the jungle. As if this were not enough, the Hutus and Tutsis of Burundi are poised to stage a re­peat of what happened in Rwanda. Most chilling of all, the old antagonism has been seen to persist even in the children's cen­tres. A relief worker tells how shivers ran down her spine recently when she watched a Hutu boy no older than five run his finger across his throat in a clear message to an even younger Tutsi girl sitting nearby.

`I'm no Mother Teresa,' sighs Gaynor, chin in hand. `I just want to give back some­thing to a world that's given me so much ex­citement, beauty and adventure. So I'll stick around a bit before trying to get out. And I reckon I'll be back. I want to try to make a difference — even if everything erupts.'

Where more appropriate to contemplate it than here. Before dawn we break dog bis­cuits with the Irish and scramble for the summit. As we approach, we smell the sul­phur, hear the roar. 'Like waves crashing,' smiles Gaynor the sailor. 'Mortar fire,' coun­ters one of the Irish.

Rwanda 1994The sight awaiting us has prehistoric power. It stills the mind, shakes the emo­tions and stabs the very soul. A kilometre and a half across, 180m deep, the crater is a smoking mass of solidifying lava with a blood-red liquid centre. Here the earth spills its fiery guts in great, slow geysers that crash and crawl back in lazy waves.

Nyiragongo is due to blow within three years, many say this year. The last time, in 1977, 2 000 people died. Its lava is particu­larly fast, flowing down the cone at 100kph, across a flat area at 60. Relief workers with vehicles might stand a chance, but the thou­sands of refugees, reduced now to a Milky Way of cooking fires on the plain far below us, stand none.

It’s after catching a flight out of Goma on another Russian plane, and sinking into all the conventional comforts of a commercial flight from Nairobi to Johannesburg, that I cry for the first time. It's as Gaynor told me when we said goodbye: 'It hurts more when you leave. It's then that you grasp the reality of what's been happening instead of just getting on and dealing with it.'

A child across the aisle grins up at me from his airline dinner and I'm looking into the eyes of my own 11-month-old, then those of all the hospital babies in Kibumba — huge, hungry, sightless in their misery, sur­rounded by flies they've lost the strength and will to wipe away.

While I weep quietly, helplessly, Gaynor is waving these flies from at least one small face. Making a difference.

Anyone able to donate clothes or toys to the children in the Rwandan refugee camps can contact Gaynor's mother, Kim Schoeman, on (031) xxxxxxx, for their nearest collection point.

We'd like to thank Cuan Opperman of SAFTO, Mike Burton of Time Freight, PJ Olivey and John Coleman of Swift Handling Services, and the Russian and German air crews.

Related article 20 years later Game Changers by Glynis Horning in Edgars Club Magazine April 2014

 

 

 


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