Punia International Airport
Just like Kindu, Punia’s airstrip is a lifeline, albeit one accessible only to those who can pay the fares – for everyone else, goods are pushed one week through the jungle from Kisangani, on the back of heavily laden bicycles pushed by muscly young ‘tolekistes’.
Over a barely passable mud ridge, Punia International Airport is a red strip hewn out of the jungle. A few flights each week alight here, shared between our own supplies of medicines, fuel and vehicle parts; and between the merchants loading cassiterite (tin ore) for the return journey. Cassiterite is the main economy in Punia – mined on the surface in large temporary camps in the forests. The camps are entirely informal, villages of bamboo and rags, populated by unemployed travellers, whose payment is per kilogram from the merchants in town, amounting to an average of less than $4 per day. From the frequency of flights going out of the two airstrips in the district, I estimate that 3,000 tons of cassiterite leave Punia annually, containing approximately 70% tin at a market price of $15-20,000 per ton, or an estimated $140,000 per day.
I sense the locals are entirely unaware of the global tin market, but there is an unfocussed sense of disgruntlement – mining is very unpopular, and Punia’s residents are highly xenophobic – assuming that all foreigners, Congolese or expatriate, health workers or engineers alike, have arrived to mine and profiteer. Sometimes people throw stones at the bicycles arriving at the airstrip laden with cassiterite, and the two most recent incidents of public unrest in Punia were outside the small rooms of the mining companies, protesting abut territorial and operational rights for a site 25km out of town.
At the airport, the merchants want to use the return journeys of our medical flights to load cassiterite – on the first such occasion, they shouted, crowded and intimidated in trying to force the goods onto the plane. Practically, it made sense to use the empty planes – but I knew how hard it was to persuade locals into the health centres, and, in this context, any association with mining would spell failure for our projects.
Once the rules of the game were established, we spent many hours in the VIP lounge with the miners and local dignitaries, wiling away the unknown time waiting for a cargo – sometimes radio and telephone communications were so limited that we wouldn’t know when a plane was arriving, or even at which airstrip. Once, for two consecutive days, we moved several tons of medicines and construction material to the airstrip, destined for Kasese, an even more remote outpost than Punia, only to discover that the flight had been bumped, replaced by violent thunderstorms and torrential downpours. It was some recompense to our tired eyes that the airport was an architectural monument – the VIP lounge had been designed in the same shared space as the departure lounge, arrivals hall, and passport control. This main concourse, under half the shade offered by the jungle canopy, consisted of two broken bamboo benches and a small table.
Customs turned out to be the infant reception committee who chase the plane down the runway as it takes off again. Immigration is more real, a small hut in town, containing a broken pencil guarded proudly by a character who gives expert lectures on his own self-importance, although, since we were his only immigrants, we eventually persuaded himself, and his pencil, to join the VIP lounge festivities each week.
The airstrip began to grow on me – at night, as with Kindu, it was a quiet place to run into the sunset without half the village chasing, while by day it spoke Punia’s commercial and political story in its long waits, fraught encounters and lucky escapes – I had once watched as an overloaded Russian Antonov grazed the trees at the end of the runway. And even Punia’s gateway to the outside world, the vortex in the jungle, seemed to want to close – once, we left the airstrip for one month without any shipments, and the vegetation was already a metre high.
I enjoyed flying even more – especially in the early morning, when the long light breaks over the horizon, and the forest beneath is taking its daily breath, exhaling gentle wisps of steam that sit below the sky. And comedy Fred, our Congolese-American bush pilot, was a local hero – he knew how to land on the road at the next base, he had been involved in several rescue operations for planes (a lamentably common occurrence, more than once down to adventurous young pilots hitting cables along the river), and he was usually surrounded by a fan club of admiring local mamas at each stop. Unlike some pilots in Congo, unwanted overspill from the Russian forces or mercenaries from South Africa, he also had a religious devotion to engine maintenance and loading regulations – Fred only ever got angry if he felt a box was inaccurately weighed or misplaced in his cargo hold.
Once, having cleared the trees at the end of the runway, I found myself alone on the twin-engine plane with Fred and his co-pilot. Fred beckoned me forward, and offered me the controls. It was like steering a ship – a delayed reaction, and even finer movements. After I felt confident keeping the plane on the level and bearing, I started to look at the instrumentation, and asked about an ominous rage of green on the radar screen. Fred made me turn towards it, and left me to control the plane as it dropped and bucked through the cloud. Relieved to regain the skyline at the other side, I was suddenly very interested in emergency procedures. I asked Fred what happens if he lost an engine. Promptly, Fred turned off one of the engines, and, with his hands calmly folded in his lap beneath the dual controls, expected me level the plane. I resolved not to ask any further questions – but, drained in body and mind as I handed over to Fred above the peaceful waters of Lake Kivu, I pondered that we might all learn a lot quicker for the bravery of such teaching methods.