Days after touching down in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sum 41 were forced to evacuate the African country when gunfire and explosions outside their hotel jeopardized their safety.
The band was visiting the war-torn nation to film a documentary, in association with the charity War Child Canada, on the impact of the Congo’s longstanding civil war that has killed more than 3.5 million people since 1998. In Bukavu, near the Rwandan border, fighting erupted near Sum 41’s hotel between government soldiers and troops aligned with a renegade commander, according to a band spokesperson.
“Bullets were coming through windows and everyone was just lying on the ground with their hands on their heads,” singer Deryck Whibley said. “One bomb came too close, hit the hotel and the hotel just started shaking. Everyone dove and was lying on the ground. Thing were falling off the walls, mirrors were breaking. That’s when we all kind of realized that this was really going bad and we’re probably not going to make it out.
“People were crying and everyone’s hugging each other, basically saying goodbye.”
The fighting began around midnight on May 26, Whibley said, but unlike the sporadic shots they had been warned about, this seemed to persist longer than usual. The band and its crew, including the filmmakers and War Child personnel, joined the 40 or so other hotel guests in one room at the back of the hotel. A U.N. peacekeeper staying at the hotel ordered them to lay on the floor until the explosions subsided.
They never did. Five or six hours later, the peacekeeper called for armored personnel carriers to remove the crowd from the hot zone, and the only way out was back through the hotel lobby and into the street. In four groups of 10, they set out on the treacherous escape route.
“Suddenly the tanks showed up and we all ran out,” Whibley said. “It was about 100 feet from the door [of the hotel] to the tanks, [and we had to cross] the street where all the fighting had been happening, and that’s when it got really scary. That was the scariest moment for me, running from the door to the tank thinking, ‘We’re going to be fired upon.’ ”
The armored personnel carriers transported the group to the U.N. peacekeeping headquarters on the other side of town. The following day, the bandmembers were taken to the local airport, where they flew out to Uganda. On Friday, they returned safely to Toronto.
Prior to the violent outbreak, Bukavu had stayed relatively calm for the past year under a United Nations peace accord, allowing Sum 41 to meet with child soldiers, surviving victims of the conflict, and United Nations officials. In a post on the War Child Web site, drummer Steve Jocz described the city as beautiful despite the scars of war, and was eager to get on with the rest of the visit.
However, violence on par with what’s been happening in the rest of the country has continued since the band evacuated. At least 45 people, including a U.N. peacekeeper, have been killed in and around Bukavu in the last week, according to The New York Times.
“The irony of the whole story is that we went to the Congo to shoot a documentary on the subject of war,” Whibley said. “And in the end we became the subject of war.”