Detour to Rwanda

The U.N. Security Council shoots itself in the plane.

The U.N. Security Council delegation pauses at a Rwandan truck stop

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo—Late last week, a delegation of the U.N. Security Council assembled at Goma’s small airport, in the shadow of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano. The collection of ambassadors and senior diplomats had spent the day touring a refugee camp on the outskirts of town. For an hour, the group stumbled over the lava-strewn ground, peered into makeshift huts covered with plastic sheeting, and listened attentively to singing children. France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jean-Maurice Ripert, grabbed a bullhorn and made an impromptu speech promising to get the refugees home. Since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Goma has been the vortex of regional conflict that has taken at least 1 million lives. As part of a 10-day, five-country tour of African crisis zones, the council wanted to see firsthand the work of the 18,000-man peacekeeping force it authorized in 1999. Sweaty and disheveled after the sightseeing, the delegation was ready for the two-hour flight back to Kinshasa, the capital.

When about half the ambassadors had boarded the small jet, a shot rang out. The aides and security men on the tarmac scurried. After a few confused moments, the pilot announced that a shot had been fired at the plane, and he was canceling the flight. The wire service reporters reached for their satellite phones. Someone taking a potshot at the U.N. Security Council would be news. But before the calls were placed, word filtered through the cabin that the delegation had shot itself. A U.N. guard securing his gun for the flight had accidentally fired it. The bullet penetrated the plane’s floor, and the pilot worried that it might have hit a cable.

The delegation assembled in the airport’s VIP lounge while U.N. administrators and peacekeepers rushed to find alternative transportation for their high-level charges. The task took several hours, and night fell on Goma. The ambassadors from South Africa and Costa Rica checked their e-mail on the lounge’s computers. A few diplomats dozed.

The council was at the tail end of its journey, and the succession of early mornings had taken a toll. Russia’s representative managed to procure a bottle of vodka, and several ambassadors sipped from paper cups while waiting for their new ride.

It turned out to be a bus. U.N. officials determined that the safest way home was a four-hour ride to Kigala, Rwanda’s capital. There, the team would board a larger jet and fly through the night to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the site of its next meetings. The Indian peacekeepers stationed at the airport thoughtfully packed water, juice, and two Tupperware containers full of sandwiches for the drive.

The border with Rwanda is a 10-minute drive from the center of Goma. In July 1994, as Rwandan rebels wrested control of the country from its genocidal government, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, including some architects of the killings, crossed the border and descended on Goma. The influx of refugees created a humanitarian crisis, and the United Nations helped organize a massive relief effort. Caring for the refugees was something the organization could do; stopping the genocide was not. In April and May of that year, the Security Council had left Rwanda to its fate. Instead of bolstering the desperate peacekeeping force already on the ground, the council allowed it to disintegrate. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans died.

Now the council needed Rwanda’s help. At the border crossing, a Rwandan official slowly walked through the bus, eyeing each passenger before finally waving on the strange caravan. As the buses snaked their way along Rwanda’s surprisingly smooth roads, the travelers tucked into the sandwiches and drinks. Then a video began to play. It was a James Bond knockoff filmed in the Czech Republic that involved stolen nuclear warheads and a military coup. The sounds of machine-gun fire and grenade explosions filled the coach.

Four hours later, after a brief bathroom break at a truck stop, the bus finally arrived at Kigali International Airport for the rendezvous with the U.N. plane. After passing through a series of metal detectors, the delegation stumbled into yet another VIP lounge. A photograph of Rwandan President Paul Kagame stared down at the group. At a 2004 conference to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the genocide, Kagame had lashed the council for its abdication of responsibility. “How could a million lives of the Rwandan people be regarded as so insignificant by anyone in terms of strategic or national interest?” he asked. “Do the powerful nations have a hidden agenda?”

The more immediate question was whether they had cash. The airport’s refueling company wanted $20,000 to top off the jet, and it was not willing to take the United Nations’ credit card. While a few diplomats and U.N. staffers seethed at the indignity, the South African ambassador called a meeting and began pooling funds.

Wads of bills emerged from the wallets of the Belgian, French, and Costa Rican ambassadors, but it was apparent that the council was going to come up short. Just as a diplomatic incident appeared to be building, the stalemate was broken. A Rwandan official managed to reach the refueling company’s headquarters and instructed them to accept the United Nations’ credit. As the plane sped away from Rwanda, the ambassadors wrapped themselves in blankets and stretched out across their seats to sleep.