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Trust born of tragedy builds closer ties

Updated: 2014-07-04 09:51
By Joseph Catanzaro and Li Fangchao ( China Daily Africa)

 Trust born of tragedy builds closer ties

Nie Tieli, general manager of BCEG, says a residential compound (behind him) being built by his company stood intact during the explosions and thus protected the lives of local people behind it. Standing beside him is Congo Army Colonel Serge Oyobe, who patrols the blast area. Photos by Zhang Wei / China Daily

 Trust born of tragedy builds closer ties

Left: Jiang Mingjun, a worker with BCEG, talks about the explosions that took place two years ago. His was seriously injured in the accident. Standing beside him is Kambi Bithovenne, who plans to use the skills he has learned from the Chinese to start his own construction and scaffolding business. Right: Zhang Linghu, director-general, Beijing Uni-Construction Group in Congo.

Chinese-built structure that saved lives opens doors in Congo

Nie Tieli waves to the young soldier on duty as he drives through the makeshift army checkpoint, leaving the hustle and bustle of downtown Brazzaville behind for a blasted landscape of rubble and ruin.

Vines and creepers cling to skeletons of buildings that used to be homes and businesses. A flock of water birds roost on a mountain of chewed up concrete and blackened beams.

This was once a thriving neighborhood in the Republic of Congo's capital city. Two years ago, three explosions in quick succession turned it into a ghost town.

Nie says it was here that a shared tragedy for Congo and China became a shared triumph over adversity, bringing the two countries closer together and creating an enduring upsurge in business.

In March 2012, a military ammunition depot detonated in this downtown area of Brazzaville, killing more than 260 local people and leveling buildings in blasts radiating out almost three kilometers.

"It was like a small nuclear bomb going off," Nie says.

Yet when the dust settled, one building complex just 50 meters from the blasts remained structurally intact.

It was an almost completed, 200-apartment residential compound being built by Nie's company, Beijing Construction Engineering Group.

Photos of the aftermath show shipping containers crushed like drink cans and tons of concrete torn apart and strewn everywhere.

"Six of our Chinese workers were killed in the blasts and another 31 were seriously injured," Nie says.

Nie, the general manager for BCEG's Congo operations, says no one could have predicted what came next.

In withstanding the brunt of the blasts, the Chinese buildings had sheltered a large local community living behind it from the worst of the disaster. A French company, on examining BCEG's complex, found it structurally sound, despite its proximity to the detonation site.

"This building acted as a shield to protect the people living on the other side," Nie says. "The country's president thanked us; the people of Congo thanked us. It changed the way the government and people of Congo think about Chinese construction."

Today, in the thriving shantytown sprawling in the shadow of the BCEG apartment complex, Rene Holenia, a street vendor, sells limes and charcoal-cooked shoots from her perch behind a trestle table.

The Chinese-built apartment complex saved her life, she says.

"I was here when the explosions happened. There were so many people hurt. I didn't know what it was and I remember I couldn't hear anything; it took my hearing away."

Holenia says she believes that that day, lingering unease in Congo about Chinese investment, still present in parts of Africa, was erased.

The 28-year-old gestures up and down the street. A butcher is hacking apart a haunch on a table by the roadside. Women and children sell fruit and vegetables at makeshift stands. Throngs of locals browse and haggle over the best produce.

"The building protected us, all these people here," she says.

"I say thank you to the Chinese. Merci, merci."

Congo Army Colonel Serge Oyobe is responsible for patrolling the blast zone, most of which remains in ruins. He is unequivocal in his praise of Chinese construction.

"It protected the local inhabitants behind the building. It was a miracle."

BCEG, which set up its Brazzaville headquarters in 2003, has built or is now working on contracts in Congo worth a total of more than $600 million, most of which are residential housing blocks or government buildings.

Several were awarded after the blasts, including a contract for a pair of high-rise buildings in Brazzaville that will become the tallest in the Republic of Congo, and another for a residential complex containing 300 apartments.

"Since the explosion we have had a very good reputation here," Nie says.

It was not mere chance that ensured the building withstood the blasts.

"It stood up for a reason," Nie says. "There are no earthquakes here in Congo, but we made the design as if there could be, to a Chinese standard that can withstand a 8.0 magnitude quake."

BCEG is not the only Chinese company reaping the rewards of closer ties with Congo in the country's relatively small and highly competitive infrastructure market.

Northwest of Brazzaville, where urban sprawl quickly gives way to shantytowns and jungle, the road snakes past a graveyard of tanks, which were destroyed in the explosions, and up into the foothills.

Silhouetted against the big blue cathedral that is the Congo sky is the half-built shell of a stadium surrounded by several blocky structures clad in scaffolding.

Up here, with the city and the mighty Congo River spread out below, local and Chinese laborers work at a frenetic pace. They need to get as much done as possible before the rainy season forces them to stop.

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