I got a phone call from Nene while eating at Kinshasa’s well known Lebanese diner, Al Daar, with Judith, the coordinator of my centre for children with malnutrition in Basankusu. It’s on the Boulevard 30 June, in central Kinshasa, a busy city road with four lanes of traffic in both directions. It’s only a short walk from Procure Saint Anne where we’d been discussing our work.
“There’s been an incident in the Grande Marché, Kinshasa’s central marketplace,” said Nene on the phone. “The market’s administrator and two policemen have been shot dead. It’s the same group that sprung people from the central prison to release their members. There’s a small prison at the market and they were probably trying to do the same there. Everyone has fled. I’m in Kintambo Magasin and the people fleeing have already arrived here. Do you notice anything happening in the street outside?”
I’d noticed that the Boulevard was very busy; there seemed to be a buzz going on ... but nothing really unusual.
“Go straight back to Procure Saint Anne,” she said. “Everybody is going home – there’s a big panic spreading across Kinshasa because of this!”
I agreed that we would go straight back and wondered about calling our taxi-driver, Petit-Jean, to avoid going out in the street to find a shared taxi.
We had arrived by a little back road, because it’s a bit quieter, and decided to go back to the Procure by the same route. The Boulevard, always teaming with people, is crossed by the Rue Equateur at the next crossroads and we came to this junction in only three or four minutes. The road was busy with traffic and the pavement was crowded with people passing in both directions avoiding cars parked on the pavement and advertising boards placed outside little restaurants and internet cafés. I was carrying a satchel with my laptop, camera, money, tablet, accounts ledger and so on. Judith was carrying a laptop and handbag.
|The Boulevard 30 June in downtown Kinshasa|
As we got to the crossroads, I became aware of a number of street beggars, known as Sheggy, very close to me. One of them said hello, and the others closed in around me. I walked faster – Judith was a few yards away from me. The kept up with my pace and I realised that I was in trouble. I turned on the one closest to me and shouted at him to leave me alone. My shout attracted some attention from other people passing by, but not enough for them to intervene. Judith said, “Just give them a little bit of money and they’ll go.” I continued walking but realised it was more serious than just a small offering - they were about to grab my bag.
I would normally think of the Sheggy as small, underfed urchins. But these were physically bigger and stronger than me – I knew I wouldn’t stand a chance. Judith told me later that there were seven of them. I let out one last shout and ran into the traffic across the junction. As I got to a grassed traffic island I saw a group of uniformed security guards sitting on the opposite pavement. They beckoned to me – and I took their offer of sanctuary.
Once I got to them, they reassured me and told me not to worry. “They’ll go past in a minute,” one of the guards said. I looked back to see what had happened to Judith. I’d assumed they’d targeted me because I was white and that they probably hadn’t connected her with me.
The place I’d run across the road from had a row of little businesses separated from the main pavement by a high metal railing. Several men, two of them Lebanese, stood at the entrance to this enclosure and waved for me to go back to them. I saw Judith being led to them as well and the security guards told me they would look after us.
“Don’t worry,” reassure one of the Lebanese men, “they’ve gone now and we have security guards here. The guards gave up their chairs and we sat down.
“Did they go after you,” I asked Judith. “Yes they did – they stole my money. I tried to open my bag to give them a small amount, but they just reached over with a knife and cut the zipped inside pocket open and took the money.” It was the equivalent of $20 US.
She assured me that she was all right and that I shouldn’t worry. “They didn’t take my camera, phone or laptop,” she declared, “and after all, it’s only money.”
One of the men asked if we would accept a motorbike taxi and we said that that would be fine.
The police by this time were busy checking every passing car at road junctions for the marketplace killers. The Boulevard is normally full of police – but the gangs of thieves recognised that the police were busy with a major incident and chose their moment.
|Grattan - our good friend from the United Nations who took us home|
We soon got back to the Procure. It was 2:30 pm and all the day staff were being told to go home early because of the marketplace incident. When things like that happen, a wave of tension, panic even, spreads through the population. It’s never possible to know if it’s the start of something bigger.
My taxi-man soon arrived and told us that 28 police had been killed. We have no way of verifying that, though, because the TV is State controlled. I let him go, because one of the United Nations people, who we’re friendly with, said he would take us. So we had a little beer in the Procure bar. One of the people who is staying there showed us a video on his phone of one of the policemen who’d been shot. The video showed his body being carried away in a hand-cart.
|A video showing the policeman's body being taken away in a handcart|
The roads were quiet. People take these things very seriously and had already gone home ... and we will see over the next few days whether there will be more incidents like this.
The political situation continues to be tense. The president has stayed beyond his mandate after promising elections would take place this year. This week the electoral commission declared that because of unrest in the east, elections couldn’t take place this year. On top of that, the value of the Congolese currency has almost halved in value against the dollar. Wages are paid in Congolese money, but rents and imported good are paid for in dollars. There may be trouble ahead.
This article was written about events in July 2017 in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.