Thursday, 3 April 2008

My Lungs About to Burst

I wake up early this morning, after very little sleep last night from editing. I’m ready to fall asleep in the car, but the drive to Bubanza is so beautiful I don’t want to miss it. Green, smooth hills and mountains. All lush countryside. A warm breeze brushes my eyes. For a moment I forget how exhausted I am that I’m so tired. On the hike down to the site – a suspected unexploded rocket - my legs are shaking. I haven’t been hiking in years, and carrying my equipment every day I feel like I’ve been working out regularly, so all my muscles are already tired. The ground is loose and very steep, sometimes I have to jump over a few rocks or slide down a few feet of mud.

We stop, Didier tells me looking at his GPS, only 650m from the car, but the hike down makes it feel more like a few kilometres. The team sets up their base near a collection of stone houses, a few metres above the suspected field. I haul a fragmentation protection jacket over my head, strap it around my waist and through my legs with the help of Pontien. I pull a helmet and mask over my face.

Digging through the field, following the squeals of their metal detectors, the team finds fragments of the rocket, already exploded, so they can now declare the field as safe.

In this case, the farmer decided to use his land anyway, even before knowing whether it was safe or not. In many other cases, though, the fear of a mine or unexploded ordnance is enough to keep people away from their precious land. Burundi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, and every square inch of land is used. Yesterday, I saw a family collecting plants from in between the stones in the perking area of the FSD base.

After several hours in the sun, my skin is burning, and I’m sweating heavily under all the protective clothing. Now we have to hike back up. I didn’t expect it to be so hard. I’m immediately out of breath and my lungs are in pain, they feel like they’re about to burst. Several times, I feel like I might actually collapse. I’m dehydrated, and not in shape, my lungs burning painfully. At over 2000m, a deep breath feels like I’m just wheezing, barely getting enough oxygen. I keep repeating to myself “smooth...calm...“ with each step, just to stop me from getting frustrated and tense and losing hope. I look at the ground, watching my feet with each step, rather than looking at the steep, loose path ahead. I can hear local children laughing and running around behind me. They’re wearing only flip-flops or barefoot. I remember when I was climbing mount Toubkal in crampons, having to kick every step into the thick snow, and thinking that was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I think this beats Toubkal. At least in Toubkal I could rest when I wanted, I was climbing alone, but here I had to keep up with the rest of the group. I have to stop myself from looking up, because I knew as soon as I see the vehicles, my legs will collapse.

Stumbling to our jeep, I sit in the shade, sweat covering my face and hair, I can’t even sit down I’m so exhausted and short of breath. I’m sipping air through a straw. I suck sugar water from the strands of a chunk of sugar cane that Gabriel hands me, just to get some hydration and energy back.

From Bugume, we drive to Kayanaga where Pontien and Aaron talk to locals who say they discovered several unexploded mines. With their white Jeeps, equipment, walkie-talkies, and my two cameras, the group attracts a large crowd. Soon, kids are screaming and running around us so fiercely Dider has to ask them all to shut up so we can hear the old man describing the mines he says he found. Joseph is short, wearing a ripped tank top that barely hangs over his bony frame. He wears a rough grisly beard. I can’t understand him as he describes the mine to Theo in Kirundi, but he moves around so energetically, acting out the shape of the mine, and the accident that happened in December. At one point, after one of his short stories, everyone around him laughs. Didier and I look at Theo for an explanation, and he tells us “he was describing an accident where a man lost his testicles.”

Theo and Didier follow their incident map closer to the site of the suspected mines, and along the way they meet the local army commander, Seargent Major Theodore Ndikumana. Several accidents have already been reported here, with old and forgotten fragmentation mines surrounding the military base.

I’m so tired and hungry I want to cry. We stop in a room, a store room, with one bulb in the centre, sacks of grain stacked in the corner. I eat fried Makaki fish and friend banana, all wrapped in banana leaves and heated over open coals outside, as I watch the eight police men – our security escort – getting drunk on local Primus beer.

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