It was the sort of rain that drenched your pants, an unrelenting soaking that moulds skin to cloth.
I was with Al Jazeera’s correspondent Peter Greste, cameraman John Kinyua, and our fixer Jacob* in a small town called Walikale, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. We were in the middle of an old fashioned stakeout outside of a primary school, and the rain just wouldn’t end.
Somewhere inside the primary school, a “politician” (read: warlord) with an arrest warrant outstanding from the International Criminal Court, was hiding away from the prying eyes of UN peacekeepers, the police and the DRC army.
We were in the eastern DRC to cover the presidential and parliamentary elections in November 2011, and Peter had gotten word that Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka would be holding a rally in this district in the coming days. It was my first trip to the DRC, and I hadn’t known much, if anything at all, about Sheka.
Even with the allegations of crimes against humanity attached to his name, he was not a big fish as far as rebel leaders go. Sheka’s story was merely an anecdote in a greater story of democratic dysfunctionality in the DRC. Here was a relatively unknown man, wanted for war crimes, running openly for parliament – He was the very embodiment of impunity, injustice and the fallibility of the ballot, in the DRC.
With more than a dozen rebel groups, factions within factions within this resource-rich, and abundantly confusing nation, Peter understood that each story of pain and loss was a footnote in an addendum to the greater story at play. And he was prepared to chase them all.
But in the town of Walikale, surrounded by lush rain forests, Sheka was nowhere to be found.
We understood he was likely to be in one of the rooms, inside or behind the school. But there was no way into the school, not with throngs of rebels with RPGs resting on shoulders and semi-automatics affixed to their sweaty palms, milling around the school.
We had to wait it out, despite the pressures from editors to file. And when our Land Rover sunk deep into the sludge outside the school, we had no choice but to stick around.
Jacob, our fixer, a hustler who translated and connected journalists with the local community, and someone who sold “souvenirs” from the jungle (in this case he offered me “liquid mercury” at a discounted price), swore he’d get us an audience with Sheka. So we waited while he made his calls and we made ours.
He said he had gone to the same school as Sheka or Sheka’s spokesperson. And it was possible. Given the sparse number of homes and schools in the area, they might’ve all even been related.
Regardless, as we waited, watching for any sign of movement, curious school children dressed in oversized but torn uniforms tiptoed nonchalantly between the armed fighters to catch a peek of us, the anxious strangers. In the distance, with other classes in session, hymns bounced off the classroom walls, out of broken windows, reaching us under the soft, drenching rain.
And then we realised, Sheka, fugitive from the ICC, was using these kids as human shields.
No one could venture into the school without it becoming a bloodbath.
But Sheka did eventually emerge.
With hundreds around him, he marched toward the town centre on the dirt-track-turned-mud-bath, dressed in military fatigues, aviators and dark boots.
Villagers emerged from their homes alongside the road, watched or joined the procession.
His political rally had begun. The UN and the police stood back, and watched.
Peter rushed to the Land Rover, grabbed the tripod and went after Sheka. John unlocked the bags, and grabbed a camera with waterproofing already affixed. Jacob and I grabbed ourselves and gave chase as well.
We slipped and slid, as passerby’s watched, amused by our silly struggle with the sludge.
Beside us, young men and boys marched with guns older than themselves. The platform, Sheka’s pavilion, was a broken down, abandoned, open top, flatbed trailer, that was left right in the middle of the town.
Behind Sheka, a vendor selling roasted dry fish, nuts and roasted baby monkeys, stopped to watch. To his left and right, others gathered on trucks and under leaking roofs of the surrounding buildings to witness the proceedings.
True to his word, Jacob had arranged the one-on-one with Sheka just moments before his rally was about to start.
In the mayhem and the rain, the squadrons of soldiers surrounding the flat deck, and screams and songs of well-wishers, I wondered what Peter would ask Sheka. He would have little more than two minutes to conduct an interview we had all spent the better part of two days, sitting between the trees, nibbling on boiled eggs, and over-ripe bananas, trying to arrange.
There was no time for professional niceties, to buddy up, so to speak, before dropping in a series of “hard” questions as any respectable journalist would, while in conversation with a low-level lawmaker in a provincial locality, like, say, Barnsley.
This man was an indicted war criminal, leading a band of fighters, including child soldiers, and running for elections. Where do you even begin?
But Peter had the stomach for this. He showed no inclination toward stage fright. Surrounded by trigger-happy rebels, an impotent local police, a nerdy UN peacekeeping force, and a crowd assembled either out of fear or devotion, Peter went straight for the jugular.
“How do you plead to the hundreds of charges of mass rape?”
Amid the buzz of the crowd and the gently soaking rain, the world seemed to stop for an instant. Sheka’s guards turned their backs to the crowd and peered at us expectantly. John picked his eye off the viewfinder for a second to catch a glimpse of Sheka. Jacob tiptoed to the edge of the flat back. I just watched.
The journey back to the Monastery, our place of rest, I can report, was a hurried affair.
*Name changed to protect his identity