Beyond the heart of darkness

  • Article by: FRANK BURES , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 2, 2008 - 11:08 AM

Following Joseph Conrad's footsteps, Bryan Mealer goes by plane, train, boat and bike to find signs of renewal in postwar Congo.

Back in 2003, just as the war in Iraq was being launched, Bryan Mealer was living in Nairobi, Kenya, trying to make a living as a freelance writer. One day, out of the blue, he got an offer to fly to eastern Congo, where he would, for three years, witness a war far worse than the one in Iraq.

Many people have called the second Congo war "World War III" or "Africa's World War." It killed 5.4 million people between 1998 and 2003, claiming more lives than any other conflict since World War II. Mealer recounts that war and its end brilliantly in his book, "All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo."

His first story recalls the Drodo Massacre, in which 1,000 people were killed in less than an hour. As one of the few journalists in Congo, Mealer was able to tag along with the occupying Ugandan Army, interview survivors, sell his story, then fly back to Nairobi.

By then, though, he had come to know people in the war and started to worry about them. So he would call to make sure they were still alive. Eventually, he returned, moving to the capital of Kinshasa to cover the war full-time. Over and over, he flew into battle sites and filed stories in hopes of making the world care. The reporters' mantra was, "If we don't file, it doesn't exist."

The war certainly did exist, but it was more complicated and compelling than he could convey in any of his wire stories.

For his book, Mealer tagged along with a courageous U.N. commander who fought and almost single-handedly got one of the toughest warlords to surrender. He tells of how, when a town was engulfed in fighting, he was saved by a mysterious woman who asked nothing of him. After three years of reporting, Mealer decided he needed to explore the interior that he'd merely been flying over.

Using the only guidebook he could find, the 1951 "Traveler's Guide to the Belgian Congo," Mealer set out to travel the same river Joseph Conrad famously traveled in 1890. For more than five weeks, over 2,000 miles, he ventured upriver on boats and (when the boats stopped) on bikes. Then he set out on the ailing Congolese railroad.

These journeys bring humanity and depth to "All Things Must Fight to Live," qualities lacking in many books about Africa, which deliver only war, war and more war. Mealer gives us so much more: traders who dance on the barge all night long; bike taxis that go for hundreds of miles through the forest; students from the mining district trying to hustle truckloads of coltan (used in cell phones); women pool sharks who take Italian soldiers for all they're worth in the middle of nowhere.

The last chapter is the richest, in which Mealer travels from Lubumbashi, in the far south, to the edge of Lake Tanganyika. Along the way, he sees the odds people are struggling against, and a kind of hope taking root.

Mealer's train is moving north, full of people going home for the first time since the war started, when some of the wheels jump off the track. The entire trainload of people sits and waits for the derailment crew. And, though the crew hasn't been paid in years, it comes.

Using jacks and manpower, the crew lifts the train up and sets it back on its tracks. Then, the engine fires, and they roll on home. Inside the train, there is relief all around: Everyone is hoping they keep moving so that, at last, they can do the same thing with their lives, their homes and ultimately, their country.

Frank Bures is the books editor at worldhum.com, an online travel magazine. He is based in Madison, Wis.

  • ALL THINGS MUST FIGHT TO LIVE

    By: Bryan Mealer. Publisher: Bloomsbury, 320 pages, $24.99. Review: With a mix of courage and curiosity, the freelance journalist embarks on a journey to find the humanity and the hope amid the Congolese ruins. Event: 7:30 p.m. May 22, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

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