Living in Orange: My deployment to the Democratic Republic of the Congo

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jana Nyerges
  • 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern)
October 2012: Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

0545 hours: my alarm goes off. I reach for my cell phone. Several texts throughout the night report fighting inching ever closer to Goma. The M23 rebels are continuing their offensive; this time killing a man, woman and child in a village about 20 kilometers north. He is found dragged into the street and beaten to death; the woman- raped and hacked to death; the child, 18-months-old, hacked with a machete and thrown aside, ripped from his mother's arms after the attack. More deaths are reported along the main axis leading to Goma. Many left in the street by the rebels as examples of what is to come for those who stand in their way.

A quick check of my personal email reveals several requests from Washington D.C. wanting the latest update from the ground, details about MONUSCO's (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) evacuation plans, my personal security triggers and actions. MONUSCO is notably silent on what their security and evacuation plans are in the event M23 attacks Goma, as they are threatening to do.

The media is running wild with dramatic stories of the nightly fighting, which began in July 2012, when the rebels attacked and seized key territory just north of Goma along the DRC border with Uganda and Rwanda. They have been threatening Goma for weeks, creating anxiety and instability in the entire Eastern region of DRC.

0615 hours: After piecing together the night's events, I am late getting out for my morning run. I pull the magazine out of my 9-millimeter pistol sidearm, as it rests by my bed, put it back in the safe, and grab my telescoping baton and go. I am never without it, even though 0530 to 0700 hours is the safest time to be on the streets. At this hour, I am usually accompanied by other runners, the early pedestrian commuters, school children, women hauling water from the lake, and the occasional drunkard from the night before.

I let the guard know to expect me back within the hour or to come looking for me, after I chastise him yet again for leaving the security gate unlocked. He is Tutsi, and probably reporting my every move to the Rwandans who have been shadowing me for weeks. But I am very good to him, giving him extra money to buy cell phone air time and food. These small acts of kindness have unexpectedly bought his loyalty, which would come in handy later.

I begin my 8 km run through the streets of Goma. Eyes up, darting to every person, down every side street, at every driver in my path; my mind assessing every aspect, every possibility, planning every reaction I may need to take in each instant. The roads are unusually quiet, making me all the more alert. There are no street boys along the lake, no blue and white uniform-clad children working their way to bus stops. There aren't many moto-taxis. Come to think of it, where are the Uruguayan patrols I see daily along this route? Their patrols are the only sense of security these days. I would find out later they had been pulled off the morning patrols by the Brigade Commander. These factors, coupled with weeks of no water or power and interrupted cell phone coverage, tells me something is coming.

0830 hours: At my desk, my work email is filled with reports of the previous day's events. "Unidentified bandits" lobbing grenades into popular Goma watering holes, local authority figures disappearing, children forcibly recruited, gunfire throughout the night, United Nations local staffers victims of armed home invasions during the night, Non-Governmental Organizations working in the general area carjacked...and on and on. MONUSCO imposes a 2000 hours curfew, much to the chagrin of the international staffers who find this a serious impediment to their social lives, which otherwise aren't affected by the ongoing conflict. I spend the morning piecing together the bits of information received in the last 24-hours, triangulating and validating what I can to develop a comprehensive situational update for MONUSCO/HQ and local leaders.

1400 hours: My coworkers come to pick me up at my apartment to take me back to work after lunch. The two-man rule is in full effect, and even though I live 500 meters from the front gate of the MONUSCO compound. By this time of day it is not safe to walk. The streets are full of people, cars moto-taxis, and plenty of opportunities to harass the American military person working for MONUSCO. The locals have been angry for months over MONUSCO's lack of action in the East, which has led to numerous massacres and lots of anxiety over a looming attack on Goma.

As we leave we hear several AK-47 shots; they are close, really close. We slowly make our way down the road in our standard U.N. logo'd Prado, a small crowd of people scurry past our vehicle with a PNC (Congolese National Police) officer and an FARDC (DR Congo Armed Forces) soldier not far behind, but now 20-meters directly in front of us and heading our direction.

Both are wielding AK-47's and clearly in some sort of altercation with one another. They are aiming their weapons every which way but at each other, firing sporadic bursts trying and scare each other off. At one point, one of them runs by our vehicle, the other firing his weapon in our general direction. We are not in an armored vehicle, armed, or in our flack vests. MONUSCO has not increased the threat level affecting the staff, despite all of the reporting.

We are unable to hasten our exit due to all the people now lying down in the street to avoid getting hit by gunfire. I yell at the Pakistani driver to lay his hand on the horn and drive. He has no combat experience or idea what to do.

A small path opens up and we are able to pull back into my apartment driveway. After 10-minutes the gunfight is over. The FARDC is soldier shot in the leg and taken to the hospital. According to the guards, he was drunk and trying to rob a merchant. The PNC reassure us it is safe to return to work.

All afternoon I am in meetings with various MONUSCO, U.N., NGO, International, and press agencies. Those of us who have been studying this conflict for years know a large-scale attack in the vicinity of Goma is imminent. But where exactly? Will M23 try to take Goma? Subject-matter experts in all fields, and conflict analysts such as me, respectfully disagree with educated arguments on both sides of the debate. But one thing is certain--war is coming and it will happen before Christmas.

1730 hours: I finish pulling together all the day's events and send my analysis to MONUSCO Headquarters and all the local units with my assessment of the grim prognosis. In my line of work, anticipating enemy actions means considering the worst case scenario, tempered by years of training and experience, to put forth a prediction based on 10 percent of reliable information; and that would be with U.S. intelligence systems to provide the information. Here, I am dealing with rumors and hearsay. Particularly in this environment, triangulating and validating information from numerous sources is critical to the credibility of reporting. My final answer to MONUSCO: M23 attack within six weeks highly likely.

Throughout the evening, reports continue of FARDC and armed bandits harassing the local populations; looting for money, food and booze. Goma administrators impose a dusk to dawn curfew, but it does little to help. More grenades are found outside key people's homes, including one very senior MONUSCO official who lives a block away from me. This incident goes unreported in formal channels as the official takes leave for medical reasons. Yet another indicator that things are not calm or getting better, as is being reported by senior MONUSCO officials in Kinshasa.

1900 hours: The power is out yet another night, which means no water. It's too close to curfew to make my way out to a restaurant for dinner, which isn't a smart idea anyway these days. Once again I am stuck eating cheese and crackers, with some chopped raw vegetables by candlelight. By 2130 hours, with my wireless modem, I am still able to check email; but with the power out my laptop battery will not last long. Emails are flying back and forth at numerous levels trying to develop an appropriate course of action for me, the sole U.S. uniformed person in Goma; seconded to what is appearing more and more like an incompetent U.N. mission.

I am armed, but living alone with little to no reliable security. The next closest U.S. official is 200-miles away in another country. I live on the local economy in an apartment, a majority of the time without power or running water, and a local unarmed security guard that I hired. My only connection to the U.S. is through the sporadic 2.5G Internet connection or with the U.S. cell phone. My daily, sometimes hourly, assessments are key to the decision makers7,200-miles and six time zones away. The bottom line: if M23 moves en masse to within 10-kilometers of Goma and MONUSCO has not implemented an evacuation plan, I will seek authority from MONUSCO to move just across the border to Gisenyi, Rwanda or be unilaterally told to do so by the U.S.

2200 hours: I could answer emails all night, but my laptop finally dies and I need to get some shut-eye; sleep comes lightly.

Days similar to this one would repeat themselves for the entire year I was deployed. Some not as bad as others, but every day I remained constantly vigilant and alert, always leery of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

M23 eventually attacked Goma on Nov.16, 2012; and much to my discontent, D.C. ordered my evacuation 2 kilometers away and just across the Rwandan border to Gisenyi on Nov. 18, 2012, which lasted for 51-days. During the actual invasion, my guard stayed on my property for nearly 72-hours straight, of his own free will, to ensure no one looted my apartment. He did so leaving his wife and child alone in one of the outer suburbs of Goma; his only communication with them possible because of the airtime I had purchased for him; his only food was that which I had given him out of my kitchen as I left. My housekeeper would call me numerous times a day, usually from under her bed, where she stayed with her ailing mother and two children for 36-hours during the initial M23 push into Goma. Often neither of us could speak as rebels moved in and out of her neighborhood and home. Somehow she felt safer just having me on the other end of the line.

The fighting in Eastern DRC still continues to this day, along with all the atrocities too horrific to imagine perpetrated against innocents. It has been happening for over 10 years under the nose of the international community that seems incapable of doing anything about it.

I am Jana Nyerges; mother, wife, and U.S. Air Force major, who lived in orange for 365-days "alone and unafraid" in the untamed heart of Africa.

*Note: The Cooper Color Code, as developed by Jeff Cooper and outlined in his book Principles of Personal Defense, is a version of the Marine Corps system to differentiate states of mental readiness in combat. Orange: Specific alert. Something is not quite right and has your attention. Your radar has picked up a specific alert. You shift your primary focus to determine if there is a threat (but you do not drop your six). Your mindset shifts to "I may have to shoot that person today", focusing on the specific target which has caused the escalation in alert status. In Condition Orange, you set a mental trigger: "If that person does "X", I will need to stop them". Your pistol usually remains holstered in this state. Staying in Orange can be a bit of a mental strain, but you can stay in it for as long as you need to. If the threat proves to be nothing, you shift back to Condition Yellow.