Africa

Goma falls – memories of a botched DRC road trip

By Kevin Bloom & Richard Poplak 23 November 2012

This week, the northeastern DRC has been plunged into fresh crisis. As the M23 rebel group advances through Goma and beyond, two journalists recall a road trip in the region earlier this year that went farcically, yet presciently, wrong. By KEVIN BLOOM & RICHARD POPLAK.

On 19 March this year, we woke up on the fourth floor of a crumbling hotel in downtown Bukavu, capital of South Kivu Province, eastern DRC. The view from the balcony over the rooftops to the azure lake and the giant peaks in the distance was sublime, but was doing nothing to allay our concerns. For days there’d been a question mark hanging over our mission, and now, on the scheduled morning of departure, it was growing by the minute. Even if we found a driver and a car to take us to Goma, how were we going to draw the funds to pay for it?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Our chaperone in Bukavu was Emmanuel-Pascal Bahabire Bya-Mungu, security advisor to the governor, co-ordinator of the national commission on arms control, and head since 1993 of an NGO outfit known as APD East Africa. Bya-Mungu had been ordered to take care of us by Kimbembe Mazunga, who we’d interviewed at length in Kinshasa the week before. As consigliere to the DRC’s president Joseph Kabila, Mazunga was keen for us to travel the Bukavu-Goma road, to see how stability had been restored to the region, and to report back to the wider world on the growth prospects of this abundant corner of Africa.

“We understand that Mr Mazunga is worried about our safety and wants nothing to happen to us, but we can’t afford to pay that kind of money for security,” we told Bya-Mungu, as the price was raised by another wad of greenbacks.

A jeep and a driver had finally been located, it seemed, and at Bya-Mungu’s side had just appeared a man who went only by the name “Freddie”. Freddie wanted to know whether we could foot the board-and-lodging bill for himself, the driver, and Bya-Mungu in Goma. He was obviously some sort of bodyguard, and his answer to our question about the urgency of his presence was twofold: “Yes, no problem, the rebels aren’t even close to that road,” and, “Well, you know, this is the Congo.”

The day before, Bya-Mungu had been less evasive. He’d explained to us how Kabila had negotiated with the rebels in the bush, persuading them to integrate into the Congolese national army. Various successes had been achieved with the rebel militias CNDP, M40, Mai-Mai Fujo, Zabuloni and YaKatumba, the last of which was only lately coming into the fold. “The last action by a rebel group near Bukavu was in April 2011,” Bya-Mungu had said. “It happened in rural territory, about 400 kilometres from here.”

As for his role as South Kivu head of the government’s arms control commission, our chaperone had noted: “We don’t offer cash for illegal arms anymore. The problem is, those weapons get circulated and turn into a profitable business. Instead, we try to engage the community by sponsoring projects, for example, a hospital, a school, or a farm. We think the population is ready to hand back arms to the government. If they are motivated, we will get a lot of it.”

And it was these words we were remembering 24 hours later, as we stood haggling with Bya-Mungu and his entourage. What we wanted more than anything was to ride in a vehicle into Goma, having borne personal testimony to Mazunga’s promise that one of the most volatile regions on the continent had entered a new era of peace. If the shores of Lake Kivu were serene, we reckoned, then this idea of a rising Congo truly was a reality. 

But it wasn’t to be. Bukavu’s prolonged power outages had made it impossible to access the cash we’d need from the town’s few ATMs, and the $700 we’d managed to wrest from the Western Union wasn’t going to leave us any change should things turn nasty. At $25 a ticket, around a tenth of the price per person by jeep, we decided to travel to Goma by boat.

“I take it your ‘silence’ means everything is okay?” the SMS read, while we waited to board. It was from Mazunga, and we had no option but to call him and confess. “You should have made arrangements in South Africa! You should have done your research!” the consigliere shouted down the line. He was right, of course. We should have done our research. We shouldn’t have let him down.

As the ferry launched from the docks, then, we found ourselves adrift in more ways than one. Had we just terminally pissed off the president’s right-hand man? If so, what would be waiting for us on the other side? Contrary to our position that morning, there was now nothing to do but enjoy the view.

Lake Kivu, which empties into the Ruzizi River in the Albertine Rift, is characterised in its contours by shaded inlets and verdant peninsulas and forest-fringed waterfalls. Parts of its 2,700 square kilometre surface area lie within the boundaries of the Virunga National Park, where gorillas browse on the sun-dappled slopes. Cranes ride the lake’s air currents, mango fish swim in its depths, and villagers paddle its waters in ingenious dugouts. From the boat, the eastern DRC is the Garden of Eden.

Yet there’s a secret in the lake that stands as symbol for what happens on shore. Kivu is one of the world’s three known “exploding lakes,” meaning that ever-expanding volumes of carbon dioxide and methane threaten “overturn,” a process whereby vast quantities of lethal gas leak into the atmosphere to kill en masse. It works, hypothetically, like this: a significant volcanic eruption from Nyiragongo—which, when it last blew in 2002, destroyed forty percent of Goma—would heat the water, force the methane out, spark a methane explosion, and trigger a discharge of carbon dioxide on a catastrophic scale. The world’s two other exploding lakes, Monoun and Nyos in Cameroon, overturned in the 1980s and left 1,800 dead; the difference with Kivu is that it’s two thousand times bigger than its sisters, supporting around two million people in its environs. 

So it was a propitious thing that our own explosion had not been foreordained by the lake gods. Three-and-a-half hours after leaving Bukavu, coming into sight of Goma, the phone caught a network signal and beeped an incoming SMS. “The trip on the Kivu Lake is wonderful but using the road would be an exceptional opportunity to get the proof that security has become a reality in that part of the DRC. Enjoy.” Why did this matter to Mazunga, and why did he so desperately want the fact publicised? Because Goma and Bukavu were often the frontlines of a conflict that raged along the border—the deadly Second Congo War.

Now for the formulaic, if necessary, flash forward: Twitter was abuzz earlier this week with terse messages from foreign correspondents and aid workers, who couldn’t help but notice that a contingent of about 1,000 M23 rebels had entered Goma, were securing the airport, and were meeting scant (if any) resistance from the Congolese army (FARDC). The M23, or March 23 Movement, are named for the date that the breakaway National Congress for Defense of the People (CNDP) signed a peace agreement with Kinshasa, in 2009—an agreement they believe has not been honoured. Last April, they hit the bush with about 300 soldiers, and they’ve been circling the big prize since.

“Goma looks likely to fall,” we read, and couldn’t help but recall the standard Congolese government rebuttal of the truism that State House in Kinshasa rules over, well, Kinshasa, and not much else besides. Mazunga and his peers assured us that, as with North and South Kivu, the rest of the vast country was firmly under the control of President Kabila.

This is certainly not true, nor is it entirely false. Let’s just say that in his fecklessness and inexperience, Kabila has never been able to manage the country’s northeastern region, which is one of the globe’s more fissile geopolitical hot zones. In the case of M23, he played his hand particularly poorly. While Rwanda’s government vigorously denies backing the rebel group, those protestations appear absurd in face of the fact that of the 400 or so M23 to surrender to FARDC since June of this year, at least 25 were Rwandan citizens. (M23 is primarily, if not entirely, a Tutsi group, and thus at odds with the Hutu Power groups active nearby.) Kabila essentially inaugurated the group by calling for the arrest of General Bosco Ntaganda, AKA The Terminator, a former member of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, which makes up the bulk of the Rwandan Defense Force, and a longtime rebel scourge.

Ntaganda went to ground, and found a ready following in Tutsi FARDC soldiers who Kabila had threatened to redeploy elsewhere in the Congo, where they would be less likely to maintain their mayhem-fueled “side businesses.” And so, M23 waltzes into Goma, and threatens to keep marching. 

In March 2012, back when M23 did not yet exist, the road from the port, through the town centre to our hotel, remained a vista on a devastated and besieged city. Improbably high walls, topped by razor wire and ending in guard turrets, characterised most of the buildings; vehicles negotiated deeply rutted tracks gummed up by volcanic mud; and Medecins Sans Frontieres and the United Nations were ubiquitous.

But on our first night in town we got an insight, from a South African member of the UN who asked to remain nameless, that suggested the relative peace of the last two years was translating into something different. “Ja,” he said, after informing us that he’d been stationed in Goma for six months, “you know these high walls, I don’t understand them. I was flying over the shantytown the other day, and I saw they’re also building big walls. There’s this culture here of keeping people out. All there is here is petty theft and stuff.”

His allusion to the situation in Johannesburg, where the height of the walls dwarfs the true scale of the violence, was encouraging. “It’s relatively peaceful in Goma now. There’s development. Go and have a look at the beachfront, see the new houses going up there, see those two new hotels within fifty metres of each other.” It’s his final remark, though, that seemed the real cause for optimism. “The world thinks this is a terrible place, and that suits the NGOs. The perception of ‘unrest’ keeps the funding coming in. But the people don’t want us here anymore. They want us to go.”

Without polling a representative number of locals, it’s hard to corroborate that last statement. But it certainly seemed as if Goma was trying to shed its gore-soaked chrysalis and take flight. Ring-fenced by the UN and its MONUSCO mission, crippled by a history of violence and factionalism, governed by men unable to negotiate the political complexities, hobbled by rampant corruption, Goma, which should by rights be a bustling market town and a regional powerhouse, is once again on a war footing.

That the M23 was able to take the town with relatively little effort speaks to the fragile nature of the DRC under Kabila. His patronage networks don’t reach this far northeast; they may not be strong enough to maintain nominal control of Katanga, the copper province, where militia groups he could once count on drift slowly from his ambit—especially since the death earlier this year of Augustin Katumba Mwanke, Kabila’s closest aide, and the man widely considered to be the power behind the throne.

So Goma morphs, in the space of six months, from a development story to a tragedy. It is certain that scores will die in M23’s forward march, and that another refugee crisis is at hand. Also, as has always been the case in the region, locals can count on the fact that the 17,000 people affiliated with the UN mission will do little but spectate. 

Here’s what UN Peacekeeping Tweeted on Thursday: The M23 must withdraw, complying with demands of the Security Council, the AU & the Int’l Conference on the Great Lakes Region.” That, for the moment, seems highly unlikely. M23 are demanding direct talks with President Kabila, without believing that the talks will result in anything tangible. With the stability of one of the most resource-rich countries in Africa on the line, Kabila has hardly been fleet. State House remains eternally nonplussed. 

Indeed, the M23 advance could presage seismic events in the DRC’s near future. For us, our farcical attempt to drive the Bukavu-Goma road appears to have taken place during a rare détente, rather than an extended peace. For a country as conceptually wealthy as the DRC, the situation seems particularly bankrupt. DM

  • Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak are working on a book and documentary series about Africa 3.0. Visit them at the Africa 3.0 online headquarters.

Photo: Displaced families flee renewed fighting between the Congolese Revolutionary Army (CRA) and Congolese army in Mugunga, near Goma November 22, 2012. Congolese troops were fighting back on Thursday against rebels who rejected calls from African leaders to quit the eastern city of Goma, captured earlier this week. Thousands of people fled the area of clashes around the town of Sake, as M23 rebel fighters rushed from Goma to reinforce their positions there against a counter-offensive by the army. Locals said the prisoners escaped as the Congolese Revolutionary Army overran the town on Monday. REUTERS/Jonny Hogg

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