On the day of departure, we received an e-mail from our friend in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which simply read: ”plane crash in Congo”. A humanitarian flight, with Air Serv, had crashed in the mountains near Bukavu the day before and it meant a good deal of changes in our travelling plans.
We were artists and we were on our way to the Democratic Republic of Congo, our heads filled with ideas, triggered by the whole hideous story of the region. From the early colonial heydays to the present geopolitical mess, which leaves no one free of responsibility.
We were supposed to go with an Echo flight to Goma three days after our arrival in Kinshasa, but due to the Air Serv crash, things were rearranged and all seats were taken on the Echo flight by humanitarian workers, whom for a while at least, didn’t want to use Air Serv. Our only possibility to get to Goma was to fly with the local company, Hewa Bora, which of course as with every other congolese airline, figures on the aviation blacklist. It’s a bit like playing Russian roulette, but we took our chances and arrived safely; the plane coming to a sudden stop on the runway, 2/3 of which is buried in lava.
In 2002 the volcano Nyiragongo exploded and a river of molten rock poured into Goma and created a humanitarian catastrophe, as an estimated 300,000 people fled into the neighboring country of Rwanda. I have always found the whole idea about applauding the pilot when he lands a plane slightly annoying, but on this occasion it seemed appropriate.
In the center of the city, workers were occupied with removing the remnants of a Hewa Bora plane, which had recently crashed shortly after take off. The government forces and the UN peacekeepers, MONUC, were everywhere, patrolling the streets as Nkunda’s rebels had launched a major offensive not far from the city some days before. The rebels were gaining control on the road between Goma and Bukavu, and we were strongly advised not to go by car to Bukavu. Goma, it seemed, was a fortress.
The atmosphere was extremely tense and we could hardly get away with filming, even though we had paid a fair amount of money to get a permission from the Secretariat General Au Tourisme in Kinshasa. Soldiers were keeping an eye on us from everywhere, letting us know that flashing a camera would land us in trouble. Paranoia is like a disease that has spread throughout the whole society. The Congolese don’t want to be photographed. They fear that the pictures will be used for sinister purposes. In addition many believe in witchcraft, and you can be sure that somebody, somewhere, is watching you at all times when you are out in the streets.
Police officers will fine you for the most ridiculous things and you have to bribe and talk your way out of situations time after time. They call it the Article 15: ”You’re on your own”. It essentially means that each has to care for himself, even if it means to violate the law, to cheat and to lie. The corruption runs through the whole system from top to bottom; it’s the legacy of Mobuto.
And as the rain came down hard each night it seemed to me that Goma could have been the perfect backdrop for a post-apocalyptic movie fiction. The city had witnessed heavy fighting since the Kabila war broke out in 1996. Now Kabila Jr. is continuing what Kabila Senior had struggled for in many years, an attempt to wipe out the rebels, a seemingly impossible task. And all along the civilians are suffering from unspeakable atrocities. Many, having fled their villages, now live in the refugee camps surrounding Goma. We arranged a visit to one of these camps, Buhimba, with Christian, a security officer and a journalist.
An NGO had supplied us with shirts and papers saying that we were on an official mission. But it is not so easy to gain access to the camps. At first we were introduced to some suspicious looking aidworkers. A swedish woman, who refused to speak swedish, even though we as Danes could easily have understood her mother tongue, shook her head in disbelief and contempt as we presented her with the concept of our project. Then we were told to turn off our cameras before we could get permission to meet the manager of the camp.
We were taken to a hut and told to wait. After a while the manager came and introduced himself and we told him about our project and showed him our papers. Obviously the papers didn’t qualify for this particularly mean environment, but after some discussion we were permitted half an hour of access on the condition that we would not ask any questions regarding politics. We were told that a gendarme would have to follow us for our own protection. ”The refugees are desperate, we haven’t received any food supplies for three months and we are struggling to limit an outbreak of cholera”, he told us, with undisguised reproach.
The smell hit us hard and sickening as we entered the camp. From far away we could hear the banging rhythm of a drum and we moved in the direction of the sound, followed by forty or fifty wildly enthusiastic and malnourished children.You light a small spark of hope here simply because you are white. Their parents seemed more hopeless, sitting, crouching or simply lying on the ground in despair, following us only with their reddish eyes, barely capable of mobilizing more than a faint greeting.
Is it morally justifiable to exploit such suffering and human indignity? We were not journalists nor aidworkers and you can’t escape the feeling of being a useless and insensitive intruder, hiding behind a camera, keeping a distance, knowing that you will soon leave it all behind again. You are a voyeur, handing out a few dirty, next-to-worthless bills for a short interview, telling the rest that you don’t have any money. You get what you want, justifying to yourself that what you do is important; it is for the benefit of the unfortunate. You deal with political issues and you do it in a sober way. You even tell yourself that you are courageous because you dare to go beyond the headlines. This is what you tell yourself while you adjust your lenses and try to get it all from the right angle, and the truth is that this ”Theater of War” gets you excited. The anxiety and fear fuels you and gets the adrenaline going. It is the return of the ”Real”.
The sound of the drums came from a big rectangular closed tent. Someone told us that a Mass was being held, but it sounded more like an unrestrained village party; we were not allowed to enter. The children were getting more and more excited and tried to grab the microphone from my backpocket, coming at me from all sides. We hastily moved further, Christian telling us that we had to hurry up, obviously a bit uneasy about the whole situation. But we insisted on making a short interview with a female refugee. We wanted a least one individual voice, telling us what we already knew.
You can’t imagine the horrors, the women of Congo have been victims of since the war broke out. You want to escape the Western concepts of ”The Dark Continent” and move on, but it is not all possible. They tell their stories of mass rape and mutilations and they do it without showing any emotions. You are ashamed because you are a man and you wonder if these women can ever gain some kind of confidence in you. You give a bit of money, because they ask for it and now you just want to get away from it all; the stench, the tragedy, the disgust. More people are asking for money on the way out and you gaze beyond the mountains. The sky is very white.
We leave Buhimba in the afternoon. There are four more camps in the surroundings of Goma and they all contain thousands and thousands of displaced men, women and children each with their own individual story to tell. We are told that the rebels are attacking the camps from time to time. How is this possible considering that the largest UN force in the world is present here? We are also told that both sides of the conflict want the UN to pull out their peacekeepers, the fighting parties want to settle it by themselves. On the other hand, a lot of civilians are blaiming the MONUC for not being capable of protecting them, but Nkunda and his rebels are powerful, he has been in the game for many years.
The government forces and the UN, mainly consisting of Indian and Pakistani troops, are weak. Some claim to be informed about a coming Foreign Legion intervention. The rumors are rife. You genuinely try to understand the complexity of the conflict, this mess they are in and you are thinking this mess we are in, because you know it is a geopolitical game, but you still find it very difficult to comprehend. It is called ”The Forgotten War”, even though an estimated 4-5 million people have lost their lives so far.
A couple of days before, we had returned from Bukavu, the capital of the South Kivu province. We had travelled overwater, across Lake Kivu, the only secure way to travel between the two cities these days. Lake Kivu is a so-called exploding lake, due to the gaseous chemical composition, methane and carbon dioxide, interacting with volcanic activity. The risk from a possible Lake Kivu overturn would be catastrophic, since approximately two million people live in the lake basin. Scientists hypothesize that sufficient volcanic interaction with the high gas concentrations of the lake’s bottom water, would heat the water, force the methane out of the lake, spark a methane explosion, and trigger a release of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then suffocate large numbers of people in the lake basin as the gases roll off the surface. It is also possible that the lake could spawn tsunamis as gas explodes out of it. In every way ”The Kivus” is a dangerous place. After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the waters of Lake Kivu gained notoriety as a place where many of the victims of the genocide were dumped.
In Bukavu we had spent a couple of days with two priests, who we had met on the boat. One day the four of us went to the Panzi hospital, a place we had heard about one night in Goma. The Panzi is known for its surgical department, treating women who suffer from genital mutilations. The whole staff of doctors and surgeons had willingly showed us every single part of the hospital, the screaming from the operating-rooms sending shivers down the spine, as we moved from room to room. But the Panzi didn’t have the facilities to house everyone who was in need of treatment.
In the surroundings of the hospital, the patients where living in temporary tent camps, preparing their meals on bonfires. Most of them were women, in all ages. Their attitude towards us was inscrutable and again we had the feeling of being overly-inquisitive. We made an interview with the director, who raged against all sides of the conflict, accusing everyone of warcrimes. And by the end of day, just before we were about to leave, the doctors had asked us for money. They too had families to feed, they told us their wages were low. Only later did we discover that each of the patients pays USD50 to be attended by a doctor, a considerable amount of money in this particular part of the world.
Every night we went to bars, to drink, to normalize. To meet people. Mostly NGO’s and their local fixers. Fixers make up a whole industry in the DRC, there are lots of them and they are eager to arrange whatever you might be interested in. This is how they earn their living. Hundreds of dollars are easily spent in a couple of days and the prize is not to be bargained. It is supply and demand. And you depend on good fixers, who know the way around. So we kept on emptying big bottles of Primus, Tembo and Turbo King, while socializing and exchanging small scraps of paper with phone numbers and email adresses, in nightclubs and bars occupied with wazungu and prostitutes. We listened to their stories of war and rape and of children being kidnapped by the rebels and forced to be soldiers. The locals have an almost eerie ability to talk about these things without showing the slightest expressions of grief. Fuck, sometimes they even laughed at the whole tragedy! I guess it is impossible to understand, if you haven’t spend your whole life in a warzone.
The day before we left for Kinshasa, a plane carrying president Kabila landed in the airport in Goma. The president came to attend a meeting, addressing the situation and discussing recent events and as his plane hit the runway, one of the tires blew up. It could have been the end of it, but Kabila got away with it this time.
But rumor has it, that a coup is under way. If so it wouldn’t be the first time in the DRC. No one should feel safe here, least of all the ones that are in power. But will it make any difference if it is one or the other that is in charge. Who has the means and the will to end the misery? One night, after we had returned to Kinshasa, we talked with a young student, who we had met at the Academie des Beaux Arts. He told us that he had been serving in Laurant Kabila’s army of child-soldiers when he was eleven years old. He made a drawing of an AK47 on a napkin while we spoke. We bought him beers; he was a sympathic and resonable young man. You wouldn’t have thought that he had participated in the most atrocious cruelties. Suddenly, he revealed that he had a dream and that dream was to become president one day.
We urged him to give a speech and though there were not more than four people present, he spoke for half an hour, with great feeling, sounding sincerely visionary, as if he had been standing before a crowd of thousands. For a moment there I didn’t have the slightest doubt that he would some day succeed. He was only 22 years old. But my french is not very good though and I probably didn’t get half of it. A photograph I had taken of him earlier that same day shows him posing in a green US Army shirt, clutching a book, the collected writings and speeches of Mobuto Sese Seko, with both hands holding it close to his chest.
Written by Christian Danielewitz