Passengers crowd around the gate waiting to board the ferry
which, since 28 October, has again begun the shuttle across
the river that separates Kinshasa from Brazzaville. Among
them are inhabitants of both cities carrying goods to sell
on the right bank.
There are many who cross the river each morning to return
in the evening with a few extra francs in their pockets. Cars
are rare on the ferry, though. “It’s too early,”
says a passenger. “The chances of them being stolen
are still too great.” The ICRC has decided to take the
risk by transporting over a tanker to supply areas of the
city deprived of water.
The crossing takes 15 minutes. As we approach the landing
stage, we begin to see signs of the damage caused by the conflict,
in particular a round 20-storey building riddled with bullet
holes. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number
of windows still intact.
Once on dry land, we begin the customs procedures: the small
administrative buildings have not gone unscathed either, and
the officials work with meagre means. There are not enough
customs forms to go around, but we manage nonetheless. Making
do is in fact all that is left for the residents of Brazzaville
as they try to rebuild their lives. The streets, empty until
only a few days ago, are gradually coming back to life, as
people go out to buy or sell essential items. The market,
though modest, is back in business: vegetables, fruit and
grains are again available, but not everyone can afford them.
“Manioc is two or three times more expensive than before,”
says one young father who has decided to go home empty-handed.
Petrol and diesel have also become luxury items. Yet there
are still cars out and about. “Fuel is sold by the roadside,”
says one driver of an “improvised” taxi. “But
if you are armed you don’t have to pay.”
It’s obvious that life in Brazzaville after the conflict
is not easy. During the last few days of the fighting, almost
every quarter was affected. Anyone who could find and pay
for transport left with all their belongings, others left
Any buildings or houses that survived the shelling were looted.
Furniture, beds, kitchen utensils, even doors and windows,
disappeared as the conflict intensified. Public facilities,
such as health centres, were not spared — almost every
single one of the 30 centres scattered about the city will
require full rehabilitation. Some were damaged by shells,
others looted. Furthermore, many sectors of the city have
been deprived of water and electricity supplies. The risk
of epidemics is great, not counting the difficulties facing
sick people needing care. At the hospital of Makelekele, an
almost unconscious man arrives aboard... a wheelbarrow.
In one health post nothing is left of the materials that
existed and the interior courtyard has been used as a cemetery.
“We couldn’t leave the premises. Bullets were
flying all over the place, so we had to bury the dead wherever
we found space,” explains a local resident. Thus, men,
women and children lie side by side with combatants. The grave
of one fallen combatant is marked with the wig he wore. For
many this conflict recalled the one in Liberia, with armed
men decked out in colourful wigs, women’s boots, sunglasses
and mascots to protect them from bullets.
With the war over, the humanitarian community is trying to
ensure that the basic structures in the capital continue to
function. Hospitals and health centres ravaged by the conflict
need to be rehabilitated. Technical and material assistance
is also being provided to re-establish water and electricity
supplies throughout the city.
Meanwhile, thousands of people remain outside the city, either
sheltered by members of their family or in camps for displaced
people. Many come to Brazzaville just during the day; the
reigning insecurity and effects of the looting explain this
phenomenon. For, if some members of the militias have been
confined to their barracks, armed men are still roving about
the city aboard vehicles loaded with goods of dubious origin...
What’s more, it is not uncommon for shots to be fired
in and around the city, not to mention the road blocks that
often degenerate into fights.
The return of the majority of inhabitants will depend on
how conditions of life evolve. Humanitarian organizations
are fully aware of this, especially during the rainy period
which makes daily life even more difficult. According to a
number of observers, Brazzaville can only recover if the militias
are disbanded, a regular army is created, basic structures
are re-established in the city and national reconciliation
is achieved at both the political and civilian levels.
“I lost two children in this war,” says one man
who asked us to transport his wife to hospital. “The
violence in Congo has to stop.”