Coming Home

Separated by war, one Congo family reunites after six years

April 22, 2004


KISANGANI, Congo (AP) _ When Constant Akode left this riverside city six years ago, he kissed his wife goodbye, thinking he'd see her in a few weeks.

But then came a five-year war that divided Congo.

With the war over, Akode is finally back home in Kisangani, laying eyes on his wife for the first time since 1998 _ and seven children he barely recognized.

"It was pure joy," the 49-year-old former civil servant said Sunday during an interview at his modest home.

More than a year after a peace deal ended a 1998-2002 war that split this vast country into regional fiefdoms, a reunified Congo is still trying to piece itself back together.

Countless families and friends were separated by the conflict, in which rebel troops backed by Rwanda and Uganda swept westward, cutting off roads and communications as they went.

When the war started on Aug. 2, 1998, Akode was in the northeastern town of Gbadolite, where he had traveled from Kisangani to take custody of six orphaned nephews whose father had died of natural causes.

It wasn't long before rebels and Rwandan soldiers seized his native Kisangani, a sprawling city on the banks of the muddy brown Congo river, surrounded by an ocean of lush trees and tropical vegetation.

"When I heard the news, I was lost," Akode told The Associated Press. "I feared for my family, but I had no way to contact them. All communications were cut."

His livelihood as a social security official was gone, and he was stranded in Gbadolite with little money and no news from home. He stayed there until July 1999, when a separate Ugandan-backed rebel group began advancing on the town.

On the eve of Gbadolite's fall, Congolese authorities evacuated Akode and his nephews on a military cargo plane to the government-held capital, Kinshasa.

There, he moved into his deceased brother's abandoned home, surviving on handouts from Congolese missionaries and the U.N. World Food Program.

He was still 750 miles from home.

Through a private local radio operator, Akode managed to speak to his wife for the first time since the war began.

"She was surprised to hear from me, to find out I was in Kinshasa," Akode said. "We only spoke for a few minutes. She said only that the children were OK."

The radio frequencies were monitored by state intelligence agents, so conversation was limited to family matters.

Travel to Kisangani was out of the question. No commercial planes could fly from government to rebel zones, and ferries couldn't travel up the Congo River because it flowed straight over the front line.

As the government, rebels and the half-dozen African armies which had been drawn into Congo's war bickered at successive rounds of peace talks, Akode made radio calls home every couple months, hoping something would eventually give.

In December 2002, something finally did: Congo's warring factions signed an internationally brokered peace agreement, paving the way for a power-sharing transitional government that took office in July 2003.

Shortly afterward, the Congo river officially reopened.

By then, however, Akode _ unemployed and virtually broke _ couldn't afford the $100 fare home.

After trying for months to save money for the journey, he could wait no longer. Leaving the nephews in the care of the oldest, aged 25, he talked a sympathetic ferry crew into allowing him aboard for half price.

The ferry carried hundreds of people, including dozens like himself: Congolese separated from their families for years by the war.

Excited at the prospect of seeing his loved ones again, Akode called his wife, Constantine, on her neighbor's cell phone at river towns along the way.

The voyage took three weeks.

By the time the crowded ferry pulled into Kisangani on April 14, his wife had already been there waiting on the riverbank for hours.

"It hurt me to live for so long away from my family, to miss my own children growing up," Akode said, clad in blue shirt and shorts and holding his youngest child, 9-year-old Gloriette, in his lap.

"Why was our country divided for so long? I don't know," he said. "Ask the politicians."

Copyright 2004 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.