A night on the road

The truck’s ‘extrication kit’ included shovels and a jack to deal with the mud; tools and spares for the Japanese diesel engine; and documents, cigarettes and whisky to ease our way through military checkpoints. We flew an identifying flag and had called the relevant field commanders before leaving.

We were carrying supplies for a hospital on the other side of the rebel-held mountains. I knew that heavy rains had rendered some sections of the road almost impassable, that our cargo might tempt looters, and that war was looming. I did not expect the 50-mile journey to take 24 hours.

We negotiated the various checkpoints without difficulty, but well into the mountains, the deep mud defeated our driver. Time and again, we dug ourselves out, but the light was fading and we decided it would be safer to stop than to continue in the dark.

The man who claimed to know the area best said we were in no man’s land. Rebels controlled the area immediately to our north; the army had been advancing from the south. Neither side, he thought, was likely to risk descending to the road from their hilltop vantage points. Nobody seemed greatly cheered by this assessment.

Our colleagues hadn’t heard from us, so they called senior contacts on both sides to seek assurances that we would come to no harm. One commander soon confirmed our position, adding that we had grilled corn-on-the-cob around a little roadside fire before sleeping in the cab. We never noticed his scouts.

Leaving at dawn, we fell silent as we passed through a series of abandoned villages. Looters had left doors swinging open; furniture littered the street. The sense of desolation lifted as we neared our destination and saw signs of life again: children, cattle, wood smoke.

That night, a sound like distant thunder signalled the outbreak of heavy fighting along the road we had taken. Nobody would be going that way for a while.

(The setting is North Kivu, eastern Congo, at the end of last year. I submitted this to The Observer Magazine’s ‘Incredible Journeys’ section, which features a variety of very short travel anecdotes. They were too busy to write back, though, so what the hell, here it is.)