For those of you wondering if I’m dead, I’m not. Thanks for your emails. But others are; I know some of them. After the waves of anger and sadness, death still stands near. It breathes in my ear, it casts shadows. Things slow down in its presence.
Damien Gugliermina was among those who died yesterday in the AirServ crash outside Bukavu. He was a genuine spark among the species, alive with every fiber and neuron. He was dedicated in the usual ways that people are in this line of work, his intensity offset by an easy humor and realism about these wars and the impact of our muddling humanitarian institutions.
We first met in 2006 in Kinshasa, then later here in Goma, and again in Bukavu throughout that year. I saw him a couple of weeks ago in Goma, the same ready smile and sparkle in his eye. That was Damien yesterday. Today his body is being recovered from the 10,000 foot escarpment near the Bukavu airport where his plane was headed when it crashed.
Today I’m on a flight with the same aviation company, a non-profit humanitarian air service that flies aid workers and Congolese VIPs around the country’s trouble spots. After yesterday’s tragedy, I didn’t expect to fly today. Late last night I learned my flight to Beni was still on for this morning.
I stood on the tarmac this morning waiting to board our Twin Otter, ignoring the aviation authorities hitting me for a bribe. The pilot strode up and we started chatting about the crash yesterday. "I wouldn't want to speculate about any errors committed by a fellow pilot," he explained. "Surely there are lessons to be learned?" I ventured. It seemed a strange answer to a natural question about possible cause.
We stopped in Bunia on our way to Beni, to refuel and drop off passengers. The pilot and I hung around on the tarmac; me remembering my experiences in Ituri over the years during the war, and how calm things seemed now.
We started chatting again. He asked me what I was doing in eastern Congo. I described my work for the peace negotiator, Abbe Malu Malu, and why I would be in Butembo meeting Mai Mai groups and planning community reconstruction projects using ex-combatants. He took his sunglasses off and looked at me. "That must be the greatest job in the world!" For once, I thought, I can accept this compliment--he was right.
We resumed our flight to Beni, a short hop from Bunia. We entered a storm, my mind was on the conditions that led to the crash of yesterday. We bounced around in the plane, we were flying blind, and I was afraid. I never regretted, though, why I was here and what I am doing. I'm sure that Damien never did either.