Dispatch: Bunia, Congo
July 2003

by Spencer Platt

Congo is frightening. 3.3 million people have died due to war in Congo in the past five years alone, a number that stands only beside World War II in terms of war dead. Nearly the size of western Europe, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formally Zaire) has been cast a cruel blow by history. In the past ten years alone it has been home to simultaneous civil wars, a bloody coup, a volcanic disaster and the Ebola virus, one of the most pernicious outbreaks of virile infection known to man.

I’d come to Congo immediately following the American war with Iraq. A war that I, and hundreds of other journalists, covered with unprecedented battlefield access. A war that was “hyper” covered in terms of the amount of perspectives the public was delivered on a daily, hourly basis. While the statistics are not yet out, it is possible that more journalists covered the war with Iraq than any other conflict in modern times. This is not a bad thing, but it begs the question why have some wars been given an almost celebrity status while others, equally or more destructive in nature, have hardly registered on the public’s radar? I like to think it was partly in response to this question that I was sent to Congo.

Bunia, the main city in the resource-rich Ituri province, lies in the northeastern corner of Congo, beside the magnificent Lake Albert. Financed in part by Uganda and Rwanda, two tribes, the Hema and the Lendu, have been waging a sustained war over the region in order to control the riches that lie in the ground. Natural resources, including diamonds, gold and colton, a material used in cellphones, have been fueling conflicts in Congo since the 1880’s when King Leopold II of Belgium commenced the exploitation in a brutal manner.

Working as a journalist in Bunia is a frustrating experience. Besides the inherent logistical difficulties, there is the fact that the story, the daily slaughter of hundreds of Congolese civilians, is mostly happening outside of our view. Some of the small villages where these massacres occur are simply inaccessible by road, but most stand surrounded by hostile militias who will not hesitate to kill any inquiring reporter. This frustration at not being able to witness and verify events is palpable at the morning press briefings at the United Nations compound in central Bunia known by the acronym MONUC. Every morning the small contingent of journalists gathers around the UN press liaison to hear the daily tally of dead and missing from Bunia and surrounding environs. If it is the journalists responsibility to witness, process, and file, than what is happening in Congo might as well not be happening. For in this war very little is seen by the outside world, and that which is seems to draw little attention. It becomes merely sanitized tallies of the dead and missing read by a UN press officer.

On Saturday the 7th of June I’m introduced to the state of anarchy and mayhem that perpetually threatens Congo and seems to erupt without the slightest warning. After a morning of what sounds like the lumbering approach of a thunderstorm, the streets of Bunia explode with the distinctive crackling of gunfire. In what seems like minutes, the Hema controlled Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) soldiers, some as young as 10 and touting AK-47’s as large as themselves, have swarmed onto the streets of Bunia, wearing looks of drunken fear. Outside of an abandoned convent where I and a dozen other journalists keep quarters, people are sprinting with an assortment of household belongings up the rutted road towards the relative security of the UN compound. A breathless colleague informs me that the rival Lendu tribe, notorious for their practice of cannibalism, have commenced a last bid attack on Bunia before the French peacekeepers are to be fully deployed inside the town. It appears they are on the edge of Bunia and are making a deft advance. I proceed up a road towards a group of French photographers who are searching for two colleagues who went missing earlier in the morning. At a junction that looks to be a UPC staging area, young soldiers are being whipped with tree branches for apparently deserting during battle. With the fighting intensifying, I make a decision that all journalists grapple with in these situations, when is it time to let go of a story and seek safety?

Inside the UN compound journalists join the hundreds of Congolese refugees who have been living for months inside a makeshift refugee camp. A bullet ricochets off the compound façade and we make a dash into the semi protection of the two-story MONUC building. It is inside this blue and white building where the absurdity of the situation dawns on me. Crouched amongst us, with expressions that betray any hint of valor, are the Uruguayan peacekeepers, the original Bunia force whose mission is to protect the UN compound. Admittedly, these guys have a tough job. In need of extra income, they’ve volunteered to come from the relative security of Ur Uruguay to Congo where they are sitting ducks in one of the most violent and intractable wars known to man. As the battle on the street begins to subside, a peacekeeper walks over to a window, gives an indifferent glance outside and then, sitting down beside me, asks to see if I have any pictures of him in action.

Waiting at the airport for my UN flight to take me out of Bunia, I’m approached by the first chubby Congolese man I’ve ever seen. He carries a camera and a small tripod under his arm. In broken English he introduces himself as a member of the Congolese press and asks if I’d like to see some of the pictures he’s recently taken. The pictures, 5x7 snapshots, are of what appears to be a massacre in a nearby village. People are strewn about in various stages of decay. Two women hug what looks to be a child snuggled between them. One man, in a blue t-shirt, has a crude hole in his stomach, as if someone has purposefully cut it open in order to take out an organ. I look through them and try to obtain some of the facts of the scene. My plane arrives and the man with the tripod and camera takes back his images and walks away.

© Spencer Platt
Getty Images

Spencer Platt is a staff shooter for Getty Images, based in New York.


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