Tim Butcher: Into the unknown

Tim Butcher: Into the unknown

As a war reporter for the Telegraph, Tim Butcher's work has taken him to many of the most dangerous locations in the world over the past 20 years: Basra, Monrovia, Sarajevo. Yet undoubtedly the greatest challenge of his career was a journey he took independently in 2004, one so dangerous that the Telegraph would not support him in his plans: travelling down the Congo river, following the route of Henry Morton Stanley (the man who located Livingstone and greeted him with the famous phrase: "Dr Livingstone, I presume?").

Venturing through the lawless Democratic Republic of Congo was, for Butcher, an irresistible challenge: "What it came down to was that my journalistic pride was piqued," he admits. "I wanted to tackle what I consider the Mount Everest of difficult journalism. It's worse than crossing Iraq. It's worse than yomping across Afghanistan. Journalists have died there. Aid workers have been eaten there. It's serious."

But he also considered getting to grips with the Congo in some ways the key to the continent as a whole: "For me, the Congo—as the first major colony in Africa, the colony that started the scramble for Africa —is the symbol for the rest of the continent. It's the place where pioneers went and tried to get it right and got it horribly wrong. You can't start to think about repairing Africa until you see how broken it is, and you can't see that until you understand it."

Butcher's book, Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart (Chatto, June), is a moving account of a suffering country largely hidden from our eyes, as well as a tense narrative of a trip that could easily have cost the author his life.

While most visitors to African countries will experience the typical sight of gaggles of excited children clamouring for sweets, in the Congo Butcher encountered something utterly different: children "with all the sparkle washed out of them", whose only attitude towards the arrival of an outsider was fear and suspicion. "I've been to 30 African countries and this reaction is just so atypical," he says. "Even in Sierra Leone, I've seen child soldiers, leg amputees, playing football with one leg, smiling—but in the Congo, they look at you with wariness because an outsider means trouble. These children have seen so much.

"One common denominator of just about every Congolese I met was that they all said that at one point in their lives they had fled into the bush, whether they were fleeing a rebel faction, or an invasion by the Rwandans, or Kabila's people were fighting Mobutu, or Mobutu's people were fighting among themselves."

Butcher describes a country where "to have protein is a big deal", where there are none of the normal sounds, because there are no cars, all the birds have been shot down, and all the animal life has been eaten. "Can you imagine a place where to own shoelaces is prestige?" he asks.

Ordeal travel

The Congolese themselves don't tend to travel—there are no roads or boats, and it's generally too dangerous to move around. Butcher managed to finish his journey, but he describes it as "ordeal travel"—knowing that at any moment an encounter with Mai-Mai rebels or some other mishap could have ended things badly. "The really striking thing about it was that it was a journey genuinely into the unknown. I did not know whether it was going to stop on day one, or go horribly wrong on day three." He describes the sheer terror of the most dangerous stretch—when he left the town of Kindu and headed downstream towards Kisangani, finessing a position on a UN patrol boat for part of the way, and then left to his own devices for the rest, in an area where the Mai-Mai were known to be out of control. "When I heard the sound of the UN boat disappearing off on the river—well, it still gives me goosebumps talking about it because it was bloody terrifying, it really was. But it was a make or break moment, and I had to do it."