The history of The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formally Zaire) is as complex and violent as the deep forest that envelops most of the country. Originally colonized by the Belgians, the mineral rich nation has been in a perpetual state of upheaval since its independence in 1960, culminating in two civil wars and the ouster or assassination of every African prime minister that has tried to lead the second largest country on the dark continent. Eastern Congo is commonly referred to as “the rape capital of the world” and the nation is home to countless, armed militias (the CNDP, the FNI, the FAPC, the PRD, and the Mai-Mai, etc.) that prey on the sparse roads in the country. The final words of Joseph Conrad’s Congolese epic, The Heart Of Darkness, might have said it best, “The horror! The horror!”
When I reach the border of Rwanda and Congo it is already nightfall, something I have tried to plan against but the logistics of which could not be avoided. It is less than 48 hours until the Congolese elections take place and the nation is fearful of what might transpire. Because, let’s be clear here, it is not a debate but a certainty — there will be death. It is just a matter of where and how much.
I watch as armorless Rwandan APCs funnel troops across to the neighboring Congolese city of Goma. A mist off of Lake Kivu, the deepest lake in Africa, lightly spills into the checkpoint, making an opaque and dark cloud around the soldiers’ torsos and Kalashnikovs. At that moment I cannot help but think “fog of war,” a shot fired in the night, a dead American dragged off into the bush, one more missing person in the trackless jungle. But nothing left to do now but cross. Nothing left to do but see it, full force.
The Rwandan border personnel waves me through without headache but, in the interstitial area between the two countries, I’m stopped almost immediately by the Congolese military. It seems pretty obvious that I am a sore thumb in these parts: solo, white American in a barrel of ethnic Hutus and Tutsis.
In a guidebook I skimmed earlier in the week, it said that Goma could be accessed by purchasing a $35 visa at the border. So I state my claim, but the military is not having any of it. They ask me, in very basic English, if I have a guide (the clear answer to which is “no”), they ask me if I’m a journalist, to which, even though I have East African press credentials I have learned, from experience, it is always better to say “no, I’m a student.” Regardless, this is central Africa and the credentials wouldn’t mean anything here anyway. They ask me how much money I have. I say “thirty-five dollars.” He looks at me quizzically and calls over two other men, one armed, the other not, and they speak in a thick Afro-French that is hard to decrypt with my elementary knowledge of the language. But I think they say “he is a journalist,” an immediate roadblock in the eyes of a government that is trying to suppress the international focus on violence that will be incurred in the coming days. I stand in the strange and cloudy interzone between Congo and Rwanda for roughly fifteen minutes while the men mull over the situation.
I’m waiting patiently, wondering if I should just turn back now and try again in the daylight, then perhaps the guards will have changed, when I am pleasantly surprised by the unarmed man’s nuanced English. He shows me his UN ID card and says that I cannot cross tonight but tomorrow may be a different story, if I’m willing to pay a “tax.” He says his name is Gerard and he lives just down the road in Gisenyi, the adjacent Rwandan town. He says I can spend the night there but ends with “do you have five dollars for this guy’s airtime?” He points to the Congolese holding the Kalashnikov whom I first talked with. The soldier is grinning because he knows he will get the money. So I give it to him.
We walk back along the paved Rwandan roads until we get Gerard’s well-furnished abode, where I meet his roommate Hubert — another UN logistics officer. We have a brief conversation about Congo and the US but this is interrupted by both men’s vigor to fire-up their Playstation 2. I have no reservations, what-so-ever, about this and we play NBA Live 2007 and Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. Between games, we eat fried crickets and the men tell me about their time spent fighting in the Congolese Wars. At age 15, Gerard was kidnapped by Laurent-Desire Kabila’s rebel movement (whose son, Joseph, is now the incumbent running for reelection in Congo) and forced into the front lines. “I was always good at math and physics” he says still clutching the PS2 controller tightly, “So they taught me how to use artillery: mortars, cannons, whatever.” It is now becoming clear why we are playing games of a relative light nature and not Call of Duty or Red Faction. Both men tell me they have killed many people. Later, they go into their respective rooms and I fall asleep on the couch, my dreams filled with nightmares of guerrilla atrocities — dreams I’m sure the others in the house have had bouts with, at one time or another.
Eight AM the next morning and I am jostled to consciousness. Gerard tells me he has to cross now and that I should come with him, “the border guard is waiting,” he says. The election is tomorrow and I’m assuming the border will be heavily traveled today so, I pack up my things and we walk down the road we traversed the night before. The guard is there and quickly comes over to us once we are admitted through the Rwandan gate. He is wearing sunglasses today and a Prussian-blue shirt with epaulettes, looking less ominous in the daylight and new uniform. They speak in French, again in the interzone, and finally Gerard tells me that it will be $200 US to cross for the next two days, but he stipulates that I must cross back by noon on the day of the elections. I’m shocked. This will deplete most of my “reserve funds” and even if I could afford it, there are very few ATMs in Africa, especially in remote places like Congo, that accept Mastercard. On top of that, in 2003, the Congolese started counterfeiting money by the boatload, making all US currency printed before 2006 now void in these parts.
But I have no other choice. The man will not budge on his offer.
Luckily, Gerard knows that the RAW BANK in Goma accepts Mastercard so I can cash-up there. The guard takes my passport and tells me I will get it back when I cross with the money. Handing over your passport to a shady border officer in a conflict zone, who is trying to extort a bribe from you, might champion the list of travel no-nos. But again, what choice do I have? Hesitantly, I give over my passport and watch, with terror, as it disappears into the guard’s pocket and we enter the town.
In 2002, Goma, Congo was rocked when Mount Nyiragongo erupted, completely leveling the town in hot lava. Since then the city has slowly been rebuilt by UN and aid forces, but the majority is still a dead-zone of black volcanic boulders.
Walking along the only paved road in the city, (completed just last week), Gerard shows me his tattoo, “a souvenir from the UK” he says cheerfully and explains that he wants a tattoo gun here because he could make “serious money.” This prospect of an untrained man wielding an unsterilized tattoo gun in Congo seems like a bad idea, not to mention the whole AIDS thing. But I agree that, when I get back to US, I will do what I can.
Down the road and outside of the RAW BANK, children hold fat bundles of Congolese Francs to change, the black market ForEx Bureau of sorts and strangely when I use the ATM, it only spits out crisp new dollars. I have never seen this before, a nation basically abandoning it’s currency for the dollar — so much so, that even their banks only distribute foreign bills.
Turning around, I find Gerard in a white Toyota Landcruiser with the “UN” crest painted in black, a colossal radio antenna on the bumper and extra wide, off road tires down below. Two more Landcruiser Prados are behind it (exhaust pipes going vertically up the titanium gunwales of these canoes) and Gerard ushers me in. We burn through the Congolese magma fields in the UN motorcade, spitting ash and volcanic rock from the wide tires and bumping out of our seats from the gnarled earth. There are very few cars on the road and Gerard and the man in the other car, Alpha, race — dodging peddlers and traders selling wares from outside their homes. There are no specific shops here, only “things people have to sell.” If you don’t find milk at the first house, you try the next and then the next until something happens. The Kenyan slum rapper Octopizzo is full on the sound system when we rip through this blasted land.
The next few hours are wasted at a local bar where the UN men talk about the Champions League, in French, while drinking Primus Biere and chain smoking Intore cigarettes. Hubert joins us and tells us he just swam 2 km out into Lake Kivu. The kicker to the story? Is that he can’t swim. He doggy paddled the entire way, there and back.
I spend the rest of the time trying to decipher if the woman with the café-au-lait skin sitting next to me is of Tutsi descent. In the Rwandan genocide close to 1 million of the thin-nosed, light-skinned Tutsis were killed by the darker Hutus for having been favored by Westerners for their Ethiopian features.
Later, we go to a nightclub called The Coco Jambo that acts as a respite for the peacekeepers and expats to get loose. The UN guys have this gait like they are invincible and I’m starting to understand that everyone crosses over to Goma to feel invincible, because, here, you are. Rwanda, with it’s clean tap water and it’s helmet-mandatory motorbike laws is the safe haven to return to when things get too heavy. But Congo, Congo is the playground, the place to lose inhibitions and push off to another planet.
One of the men from the UN motorcade leans his face into the bar and comes up with faint traces of white on his nose, unrolling a $100 bill — post 2006, no doubt — and shoves it in his pocket ardently. He’s then taking a serious call, in French, and, after a few minutes, announces that a number of voting stations in western Goma, Himbi area, have been attacked by a group of armed, stick-up men. We are silent for five Mississippis and then, because it does not challenge our immediate wellbeing, we return to our regular affairs. The man does another line.
That night I sleep in an extra room at a UN compound in Goma, next to the War Child NGO base and protected by Delta, private security, soldiers; the kind that shoot first. No nightmares this time.
In the coming election hours, there are, as predicted, ubiquitous complaints of voter fraud and subsequent clashes around Congo. More armed gunman attack voting stations in Lubumbashi and Kinshasa. In Goma, there is short supply of the indelible ink, used by the illiterate population, to make thumb prints for their cast ballots. Gerard even says that when he went to the polls, he was informed he had already voted for the candidate he reviles: Joseph Kabila. It is clear that the political temperature in Congo is rising as many once incumbent-backing soldiers shed their fatigues for militia-turned-political party uniforms in an act of dissent. Vital Kamerhe, a strong candidate for prime minister, calls for the annulment of the election because of widespread fraudulent behavior and many voters in Goma are vocal about Kabila teetering on his final leg. More than 12 people have been killed before the afternoon arrives.
Reluctantly, I head back to the Congolese border as not to miss my midday appointment, feeling generally unsatisfied that I can no longer observe the least developed country in the world (as classified by the UN) roll for change. As I crunch the midnight-colored, lunar rocks beneath me, I can only think about December 6th — the day when the results are announced and I may, once again, cross over into this eerily special and hyperbolic world. I give the Congolese border patrol two $100 bills (both from 2008) and I have my passport back. He has doctored the Congolese stamp from November 28, 2010 to look like 2011 and the Rwandan border police don’t take notice.
I’m safe on the other side, with the corrupt Congolese’s number stored. In a week, we‘ll be in touch.