THE BLOG

The Most Dangerous Road

03/02/2015 11:54 GMT | Updated 01/04/2015 10:59 BST

The bus was stifling, and the smell of evaporated sweat and petrol hung heavy in the air. I squeezed myself onto the back seat with my new friend, Dieumerci, the nephew of a pastor I had stayed with in Bukavu, and tried to get comfortable.

The bus was just preparing to pull off when the glint of a Kalashnikov flashed across my eyes. I tensed as I saw a soldier board the minivan, and turned to Dieumerci.

He smiled reassuringly. "That man is here to protect us. He's a Congolese army soldier".

I had never felt so much relief at learning that a representative of an army renowned for its indiscriminate murders, raping of civilians and general lawlessness was in the vicinity.

I was trying to get to Uvira, a Congolese town near the Burundian border where I was planning to organise a peace conference. The road to Uvira through Congo was frequently attacked by the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), radical Hutu rebels responsible for the Rwandan genocide and countless subsequent atrocities. The safest way to get there was to leave DRC, travel south through Rwanda and Burundi, and cross back. My attempt to obtain the necessary visa for this, however, had been a disaster:

"Excuse me," I had asked the woman at the Directorate-General of Migration in Bukavu, "how much is a double-entry visa stamp?"

"$400," she'd replied, unsmilingly.

"But," I'd said incredulously, "I was told it would be $70".

"Not my problem".

Sitting on the trundling bus now, I could feel the tension dissipate slightly due to the presence of the soldier. Four people had been killed on this road the previous day.

Shifting slightly in my seat, I looked down at the screaming baby in the arms of the woman next to me. An open sore stretched down its leg, bleeding, and coated in dirt. I passed an antibacterial wipe to the mother and explained that it would help clean the wound. She dabbed the sore, causing even more agonised sobs from the baby, and tied the wipe round.

I looked out the window into the dense forest we were passing by. Still on edge, I imagined militiamen concealed behind every tree we passed, waiting to leap out and stop the bus. The road clung precariously to the side of a cliff, and a look to the left revealed a drop of around four hundred meters. Every few minutes, we would pass evidence of a landslide, the slippery scree above us unstable and crumbling.

We passed occasional forest fires and Dieumerci told me that the fires started when people burned their rubbish. One fire in particular seemed to engulf the forest; the flames reached halfway across the road, and, as we passed it, the sweltering heat tore through the bus.

The road deteriorated rapidly and our pace slowed. The bus banged up and down as we navigated pothole after pothole until a tyre exploded beneath us and the bus screeched to a halt. We had broken down in the middle of Congo, an hour from the nearest village, in the midst of FDLR territory.

There was an eerie silence and the heat seemed to fold in around us.

We all got out of the bus and waited in the road. How many bandits lurked in those trees? How many genocidaires hid here from the Rwandan authorities? We were in the area in which the people had been killed the previous day and were mere hours from sunset.

Thankfully, the driver's skills came to the fore and within thirty minutes he had replaced the tyre. We filed back onto the bus and he started up the engine. We picked up speed, the road improved, conversation re-started, and the tension seemed to lift as we came closer to Uvira.

When taking public transport in the UK, we complain about delays, engineering works, and a lack of air conditioning. On the route from Bukavu to Uvira, the threat of forest fires, bandits and death by machete is a daily reality.