Goma, D.R. Congo – January 2014

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Ah, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of the most conflict-afflicted, lawless and poorest nations in the world. It’s been in a state of virtual civil war since 1996, and has the sombre honor of having been the sole battleground of Africa’s own “Great War”, the Second Congo War of 1998-2003. Its multiple conflicts since 1996 have collectively killed at least 5.5 million Congolese and displaced millions more. The DRC consistently ranks in the top 3 of almost every “failed state” ranking; it is grossly underdeveloped, and the vast majority of its inhabitants are acutely impoverished. Battle-hardened militias of varying ideological stripes roam the eastern hinterland, forcibly recruiting children and committing rape and killings – with little abandon and, until very recently, with little resistance from the national security forces.

Who in their right mind would want to go to this dystopian, desperate and incredibly dangerous place?

Me. And I did, in the winter of 2014.

The story begins like this. I was due to spend a few weeks in neighboring Rwanda between December 2013 and January 2014 to participate in a short development program (amazing Rwanda deserves its own huge post – I’m slowly working on it). With a few days to spare at the end before flying back to the U.S., I worked my travel options: I could visit an old friend in Kenya, or less ambitiously, travel south to Burundi and spend a few days in Bujumbura. Despite being wildly interested in the place, the DRC initially never in my plans: the visa process was oblique and difficult, and traveler forums warned of actual visa holders being arbitrarily denied entry at DRC land borders. And there was obviously the safety aspect: the DRC military, with UN support, had just defeated the M23 rebel group in North Kivu province, and there was just too much post-conflict uncertainty. Consular travel advisories were adamant; the British, U.S., Canadian and Australian governments warned their nationals against ALL travel to ALL parts of the DRC except the capital, Kinshasa.

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Until, during the pre-registration process for the Spring Term at SIPA, I found and signed up for a class specifically on conflict in the Congo. At the time, I was interning at the UN, and was in the midst of scoping out a career path in development for societies emerging from or still embroiled in identity-based conflict. Contemporary Congo is, sadly, the perfect case study for violent conflict shaped by intersecting misfortunes: inter-ethnic/clan/tribal animosity, competing ideas of nationhood and the virtual absence of unitary state power. I have studied nationalism, ethnic conflict and political sociology, and I’ve read enough Samuel Huntington to know a strong state from a weak state from no state at all. So it struck me: if I was going to be in the Great Lakes region, then why not grab the opportunity to visit Goma, DRC? The timing seemed right: the government had just restored full authority in North Kivu province, and the peace, despite being incredibly shaky, had returned. Who knew how long it’d stay for this time?

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But getting the elusive DRC visa required some proper planning. At the bare basics, I needed a yellow fever vaccination certificate ($100), a Rwandan multiple entry visa ($60), an official ordre du mission (explaining my reason for going to the DRC) and an invitation letter from a host in the DRC, certified by a Congolese notary ($?). Much online researching and some (mostly unanswered) frantic emails later, I got in touch with a person in Goma who regularly took international NGOs around the area. He agreed to get me a notarized invitation letter for $40. Perfect. A few days after remitting the money through Western Union transfer, I received a handsome letter in French inviting me to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and bearing all the right stamps and signatures. At the same time, my passport arrived back from Washington DC with an equally smart-looking Rwandan multiple entry visa. There was no turning back: I was set to try my luck at applying for a DRC visa.

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Several days later I rocked up to the Permanent Mission of the DRC to the UN, visa application, $160 and supporting documents – neatly categorized, labeled and cover letter-ed, in tow. Entering the spartan office to be greeted only by an oversized portrait of President Joseph Kabila, I poked around several rooms until I found a suited Congolese man slouched at his desk and fiddling with his cellphone. When I asked him to direct me to “la personne responsable pour les affaires de visa”, he simply beckoned me to take a seat opposite him and asked to see my documents. After verbally checking-off all the necessary items, he cheerfully thanked me for “being so organized”, and launched into a monologue on the importance of self-organization (by a DRC government official? How ironic!). Initially thinking that I was going to the DRC on a UN mission or other official business, he seemed surprised when I told him my plan was to take a bus from the Rwandan capital Kigali to the DRC border with Goma, cross into Goma, and, well, play tourist. Alone. Myself. However crazy he must’ve thought me to be, he nonetheless shuttled my documents to another room in the Mission, and came back to tell me to come back in a few days – much sooner than normally the case: “as a reward for being so organized”.

That I did, and after poking through several doors again, I found a lady who extracted my passport – bearing a DRC multiple entry visa.

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My trip to the DRC all but executed, I started to think about fleshing out my stay in Goma. I wanted to meet with a local or international agency and get a personal feel for the political situation post-M23 defeat. The first week of the new year meant that the majority of UN-MONUSCO staffers were out of Goma on vacation. I emailed some Columbia-affiliated people who had done extensive work in eastern DRC to seek their suggestions on suitable interlocutors in Goma. All three, including my future professor for the Congo class, came back with interesting suggestions, including an enthusiastic Congolese NGO worker in Bukavu and a Dutch vocational trainer who’d been in Goma for, well, ever. But I picked up on the feedback of Barnard College’s Professor Autesserre, who has done extensive fieldwork in the eastern DRC and who wrote a leading book on the role of international actors in the DRC. On her suggestion, I contacted the DRC head of an NGO that does conflict prevention work around the world.  We agreed to meet for coffee in Goma the weekend I was there.

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Several days after Christmas, I flew off to Amsterdam as New York began to swing into into new year revelry. After meeting some friends in the Netherlands, I got onto another flight bound for Kigali, Rwanda.

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Again, Rwanda deserves its own massive post. Being in central Africa was surreal enough, but being in Rwanda specifically, the site of a horrific genocide twenty years earlier (that in many ways led to neighboring Zaire’s collapse, the formation of the DRC and the successive wars that continue to blight the region), was sobering. In sharp contrast to the DRC, Rwanda has flourished economically, and only the many genocide memorials dotted throughout the country remind you that that a very dark past preceded the country’s present prosperity.

Even as I got busy with the development program, the big unknown that was my upcoming DRC trip kept flashing through my mind. On new year’s night, after reveling at a bar in Kigali’s swanky Kimihurura neighborhood, we got a lift back to our lodgings by a German NGO worker based out in Goma. Like many of the “internationals” who had chosen to stay in Goma over the festive season, he decided to drive into Kigali for new year’s eve, apparently because partying in Goma was “too boring, too dangerous, or both”.

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My program started and ended, and it was time to execute the Goma trip. The plan was to take a bus from Kigali to the Rwandan town of Gisenyi which sat on Lake Kivu and shared a land border with Goma, DRC. In Gisenyi, I would make my way to one of two border checkpoints, cross into Goma, and perch up at the Ihusi Hotel – just several hundred yards from the border. This being my first trip (and a solo one at that) to the DRC, security was important: apart from being close to the Rwandan border, the Ihusi was also a favorite among NGOs and the UN community in Goma. Apart from the MONUSCO complex in downtown Goma, the Ihusi was perhaps the next best place to be if you were jittery.

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My Rwandan friend dropped me off at Kigali’s crazy Nyabugogo Bus Terminal, I bought my ticket and boarded the “bus” (essentially a large van) for the 3.5-hour ride to Gisenyi. The journey isn’t for the acrophobic: on leaving Kigali, we scaled hilltops and navigated narrow roads that wrapped around, at times, insanely steep cliffs. As is common in Africa, the bus driver decided that he was going to share his entire MP3 playlist with the rest of us and crank up the volume. Fortunately, some of the local music was pretty good:

As we approached Gisenyi, I got my first glimpse of the Congo: the grey silhouette of Mount Sabyinyo in the distance.

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Several miles outside of Gisenyi, we also passed a refugee transit camp run by UNHCR for, as I was told by my Francophone co-passenger who seemed to ply this route pretty often, ethnic Tutsi Congolese who had fled targeted attacks in the Hutu-majority Kivu provinces of the DRC. The general landscape also began to change as cluttered villages, smaller IDP camps and UN trucks replaced the neatly manicured farms and tidy villages of inland Rwanda. It was hard not to get a sense that we were nearing the Congo.

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After pulling into Gisenyi’s equally frantic bus station, I took a moto (a motorcycle taxi on which the passenger sits behind the rider) to the border.

Two border checkpoints serve Gisenyi/Rwanda and Goma/DRC, and their names aren’t very intuitive. One is called the Grande Barriere (“Large Border”), and it’s much smaller than the second, called the Petite Barriere (“Small Border”). The reason for this apparent inaneness is that the Grande, which sits on the Kivu lakeside, is an official diplomatic border, despite being physically smaller than the less formal Petite. The Grande also links two main roads on either side of the border, whereas the Petite links a Rwandan road with an unpaved, cluttered and congested Congolese dirt track that’s heavily used by goods trucks. Most foreigners and all UN/NGO workers use the more organized Grande than the crowded, and possibly more dangerous, Petite. 

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The road leading up to the Grande Barriere on the Rwandan side is highly nondescript. It’s essentially a normal lakeside road lined with ordinary houses. As you walk, the border checkpoint suddenly appears. There’s a smart green sign on the Rwandan side wishing travelers a safe journey (yeah, we’ll need it) in English, French and Kinyarwanda. I walked up to the small building housing Rwandan border control, and was asked to fill out a departure card by a Rwandan official in jacket and tie. After some questioning (What is the purpose of your travel to Congo? How long will you stay there? Have you been to Congo before? What were you doing in Rwanda?), he punches my details into a computer and stamps my exit from Rwanda. I was legally out of Rwanda, on the threshold of entering the DRC.

Some 20 meters of no-man’s-land later, I was in the Congo. English vanishes entirely, replaced by written and spoken French. Having no clue of what to do, I simply walked ahead, until a Congolese border guard yelled out  in my direction and pointed towards an administrative-looking building (the yellow and blue building in the picture below). Ah, DRC border control, it seemed. Whereas the Rwandan building had been well-signed, the Congolese building lacked any at all. I sauntered through the first open door I saw, only to be gazed at by two women sitting at desks in the room. “Passeport? Entree?”, I asked, making a passport-stamping gesture. One of them lazily pointed me out of the room toward the next door, which I went to.

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The immigration counter, it seemed, was simply a table placed at the entrance of a doorway. A liberally uniformed official sat behind it, and beneath a crookedly hanging portrait of President Kabila. I presented myself in my politest French, and the officer thumbed through my passport while continuing to engage in humorous chatter with his colleague. When he reached the page with my DRC visa, he paused to scrutinize it, reading it aloud as if it was his first time seeing a Congolese visa. I shifted slightly; I had read warnings about Congolese border guards finding “faults” with issued visas, in an attempt to wrangle a bribe, or simply, to deny entry. In the bus into Gisenyi, I had placed three US$10 bills in my breast pocket. I was ready to haggle.

Happily, that wasn’t necessarily. After asking me a few questions in machine-gun French, he hand-recorded my details into a log book with a biro pen. The contrast with Rwanda suddenly became so apparent. This was Congo: this was real. Finally, he did what I had been waiting for: he stamped me into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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After a second manual registration at the next-door Police des frontieres office, I made my way to the Ihusi. The road seemed clearly worn, and little shacks selling phone credit dotted the path. Several motos rode up to me and offered rides. Unlike their Rwandan counterparts, the Congolese motos were persistent bordering pushy and their machines were much worse for wear. Locals also stopped to look at me, clearly intrigued by this backpack-totting foreigner who didn’t look “NGO” or “UN”. A tourist? He must be crazy.

I was glad to reach the Ihusi. I waited behind a South African soldier in fatigues and a blue UN beret, as he shared what seemed to be an amusing conversation with the registration desk staff. A staffer introduced himself to me as Pepe, and took me to view my reserved room before we returned to the reception to do the paperwork. Pepe seemed amused that this was my first time in the DRC and that I was in Goma on purely private business. After checking-in and pre-paying the fare in US dollars in cash, I bought some Congolese francs. $10 bought me 10,000 francs, but I didn’t end up using them. Half of Goma’s economy is dollarized, and everything from meals to conveniences at the little hotel shop were priced in US$. The Congolese franc is perilously volatile, and isn’t tradable anywhere outside the DRC (no bureaux de change in Rwanda stocked Congolese francs). My advice to anyone going to the DRC, at least, to Goma? Bring dollars. Cash. Lots. And make sure all bills are dated post-2004. The Congolese will refuse pre-2004 U.S. bills, as they did my 2003 $10 bill.

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After a taking a breather in my spartan room and treating myself to some international, if choppy, television (BBC, Al-Jazeera, etc.), I mustered up some courage to take a walk while it was still bright out. I headed out along Boulevard Kanyamuhanga, which leads to Goma’s central roundabout and which is perhaps the best-kept stretch of road in the city. At a junction, I came across a small checkpoint manned by two young soldiers armed with automatic rifles. As the only realistic means of avoiding a potentially messy and bribe-extorting inspection des papiers was to pass off as an NGO worker, I did just that: faking an angry phone call in English with my imaginary colleague about an imaginary rescheduled meeting (“They now want us to go to Kinshasa?? We agreed to have the meeting in Goma, and we have the other stakeholders coming from Bukavu! We cannot go to Kinshasa at this short notice!!”). The soldiers eyeballed me as I walked past them, and I did a quick eye contact and little wave as though to say “Hey guys, don’t mind me. Got some shit going on at the office, the same old”. Unamused by this angry fake NGO worker, they turned their attention elsewhere.

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A little while after I took this shot though, 3 men on motorcycles rode close to me and began asking questions in a slightly brusque manner. When I resumed walking, they began asking me questions in what I took to be a mixture of French and Swahili, before speeding ahead and stopping at the roadside ahead of me. Slightly spooked, I doubled back for the Ihusi, prematurely ending my casual stroll. Near the hotel though, several Congolese children came up to me, asking friendlier questions in French. Mentally kicking myself for not bringing some Mars bars with me from the hotel, I offered to amuse them using the method that worked so well with kids I met in Rwanda: getting them to pose for a picture and showing them various color edits on my iPhone. It did the trick, and I returned to the hotel with my faith in the goodness of Goma’s inhabitants largely restored.

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Back at the Ihusi, a cheerful Pepe asked what my plans were for dinner. I told him that I was thinking of crossing back into Gisenyi for dinner, and returning to Goma after. Looking somewhat puzzled, he explained that the border closed everyday at 6pm, to only reopen at 6am the following morning. This was news to me: more seriously, it meant that in the event of any “incidents” taking place during the night, I could not simply run back screaming into Rwanda in my pajamas as I initially thought I could. It turned out that beyond 6pm, I was firmly committed to being in the DRC, come what may, at least till dawn. If I had any reservations at all about spending the night in Goma, I had 35 minutes to get back across to Gisenyi. I decided to wing the night in the Congo.

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Walking around the immediate vicinity of the Ihusi, it wasn’t hard to figure out who really ran Goma. White 4×4 vehicles bearing UN markings were omnipresent.

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UN vehicles, everywhere.

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Until 6am, those lights in the distance were about all I could see of Rwanda.

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Over dinner, I met a Dutch contractor who was doing work with a few NGOs in eastern DRC. We had a few drinks at the Ihusi’s dimly lit poolside bar, and for the life of me I can’t recall the exact substance of our conversation.

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Throughout the night, we had 3 brief power outages. The first one, being the longer of the 3, got me nervous. I picked up the room phone to ring Pepe, only to find that there was no line (?!). As I thanked myself for packing 3 torchlights but simultaneously cursed myself for not choosing to spend the night in the safety of Gisenyi, power was restored. As the night progressed, I began to hear loud, recurring popping sounds from outside. Just as I tried to drown out the unsettling sounds by raising the volume on a grainy old episode of Two and a Half Men, the power went out a second time. As the popping sounds got louder in the silent pitch darkness, it became evident that I was in for a long night.

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Dawn on Lake Kivu is beautiful. Watching the rising sun cast its warm hues on the tranquil water, you momentarily forget being in Goma, one of the most dangerous and deprived cities in Africa, if not the world.

After a less eventful saunter around Boulevard Kanyamuhanga, I crossed into Gisenyi for my breakfast meeting with my NGO interlocutor. The cafe was less than half a kilometer from the Grande Barriere, and from the second floor veranda, I made out a large convoy of trucks carrying new UN vehicles headed towards Goma. Eventually, the large movement created a traffic jam, and the trucks began to honk one another in an amusing display of momentary confusion. As the convoy began to slowly snake its way through the Grande Barriere into Goma, I had an interesting conversation with my breakfast partner as she related her colorful experiences with the DRC bureaucracy, the problems of militancy in eastern DRC and Katanga province, the lack of credible state authority in Goma, the mindboggling ineptness of certain local policymakers, and the debilitating power struggle between Kinshasa and Goma leaders. We also spoke about the recent DRC-M23 war that was fought in and around Goma, and she somewhat surreally pointed to a spot near the cafe where an M23 mortar shell had landed during the fighting.

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What caught me completely off-guard however, was the fact, totally unaware to me, that there had been a big demonstration in Goma on the morning of my arrival. The demonstration, which was reported by the BBC and other news agencies, was sparked by a false rumor (apparently broadcast in a Twitter post) that President Paul Kagame of Rwanda had died. The Twitter post was quickly printed and mass-photocopied in Goma, and hundreds of people took the streets to celebrate Kagame’s “death”. Reflecting the general sentiment throughout the DRC, many people in Goma blame Rwanda for many of the Congo’s ills, particularly the M23 rebellion that Kagame himself is accused of aiding. I was shocked to not have known about this earlier, though perhaps my cluelessness was a good thing: had I known that there had been a mass anti-Rwanda rally in Goma the same day I was there, I’d have definitely ran back across the border screaming.

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