Looking at certain maps of Africa, especially those produced in the last century, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Congo actually had something resembling a decent road network. Indeed, when the Belgians finally left in 1960 there were 111,971 km [69,576 miles] of well maintained roads covering this vast country. The reality today is much different, as I was to find out on my journey to the small town of Hombo, approximately 110 km [68 miles] northeast of Bukavu in the province of North Kivu.
© Andrew McConnell / WpN
CONGO: Displaced children sit outside their makeshift homes in the Mugunga 1 IDP site, home to some 10,000 people, in Goma, North Kivu, DRC, Feb. 5, 2008. The Democratic Republic of Congo remains in turmoil six years after the formal end of the 1998-2002 civil war. As the various rebel groups continue to clash in the eastern provinces, the local population continues to experience unimaginable suffering with some 400,000 displaced in North Kivu alone during 2007.
I was on my way to visit members of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) at a jungle camp deep in the rain forests of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The FDLR is comprised of Hutu extremists who fled Rwanda after their involvement in the 1994 genocide, as well as Hutu members of the former Rwandan army and a mix of displaced Rwandan Hutus. The people number approximately 10,000; they have lived in the jungles of Congo for the past 14 years and have been one of the fundamental causes of the Congo conflict.
I had spent much of the previous two months visiting the Internally Displaced Persons camps and hospitals of North Kivu, witnessing the terrible suffering that has affected the Congolese people and the eastern provinces, in particular, for the past 10 years. According to the International Rescue Committee during that time 5.4 million people died in Congo, mainly due to preventable diseases brought about by the conflict, and 45,000 continue to die every month largely due to malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition and other preventable diseases. The numbers are staggering and make the Congo conflict the deadliest humanitarian crisis since World War II. A peace agreement signed in January 2008 has offered some hope but as the IDP camps continue to swell, and minor clashes are reported, fears remain that another round of fighting could be imminent. IDP camps dot the countryside here. On the black lava fields around the town of Goma there are four sprawling sites set incongruously amongst a stunningly beautiful landscape; each hold around 10,000 people, largely forgotten or ignored by the outside world.
© Andrew McConnell / WpN
CONGO: The Chefferie IDP site, home to some 4,000 people, in the town of Kichanga, North Kivu, on Feb. 15, 2008. As the various rebel groups continue to clash in the eastern provinces, the local population continues to experience unimaginable suffering with some 400,000 displaced in North Kivu alone during 2007. The International Rescue Committee recently estimated that 5.4 million people lost their lives in Congo during the last 10 years, and some 45,000 people continue to die every month.
Even with the signing of a peace agreement in January 2008 I was to see newly displaced families arriving at these camps throughout February and March. They would immediately set to work building shelters and makeshift homes with an acquiescence that made me think they had seen and done it all before. Many of them have. Of the 1.5 million IDPs in eastern Congo, some 400,000 were displaced in North Kivu alone during 2007.
Much of the recent fighting in eastern Congo had been between government forces and troops loyal to General Laurent Nkunda's CNDP (Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple). The renegade general claims to be defending the rights of Tutsis in North Kivu but many see him as a proxy for Rwandan interests in the area. I had visited Nkunda a week earlier at his hilltop base in Kilolirwe where I was able to observe the general indoctrinating new recruits. He spoke much of leadership and the government's lack of it. The FDLR hadn't been as heavily involved in the recent fighting and had been the only group absent from the January peace talks, but most agree, it is the FDLR and their continued presence in Congo, that must be addressed before there can be any hope of finding a lasting peace.
© Andrew McConnell / WpN
CONGO: An FDLR (Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda) soldier treks through the jungle with supplies in North Kivu, DRC, on March 15, 2008. The FDLR comprises Hutu extremists who fled Rwanda after their involvement in the 1994 genocide, as well as Hutu members of the former Rwandan army and a mix of displaced Rwandan Hutus. Numbering approximately 10,000, they have lived in the jungles of DRC for the past 14 years and in that time have resisted repeated calls for disarmament and repatriation.
The road deteriorated quickly and by the time we had traveled 20 km (12 miles) it seemed the battle between potholes and tarmac had a clear winner and huge fissures began to open in the red earth. My guide for the trip was Colonel Edmond, the FDLR's spokesperson in South Kivu, and along with the driver of our 4WD we were making slow progress on the journey to Hombo. Apart from the odd motorcycle, the only traffic on the road was trucks heavily laden with goods and people, all trying somehow to navigate increasingly giant gullies and ravines in the earth. We descended into muddy gorges so deep that we must have disappeared from sight but somehow, much to my surprise, we always came out again on the other side. Some of the trucks weren't so lucky. We arrived in Hombo eight hours later just as the first storm clouds were gathering on the horizon.
It was a Saturday, market day in Hombo, and the tiny town was bustling with activity. Hombo is the last navigable point on the road so from here we were to continue on foot into the jungle and a small village two hours away where FDLR troops could be found. Hombo itself is occupied by Congolese government soldiers and FDLR soldiers and the two seem to coexist quite comfortably. However, my arrival in the town was greeted with some alarm and I was promptly marched to the local Congolese major's office for questioning. Formalities seemed straightforward and I was warmly welcomed; however, the hours passed and for reasons I couldn't understand we weren't being allowed to set off.
© Andrew McConnell / WpN
CONGO: FDLR soldiers cross a river on a bamboo bridge as they trek to their jungle camp in North Kivu, Congo, on March. 16, 2008. The FDLR comprises Hutu extremists who fled Rwanda after their involvement in the 1994 genocide, as well as Hutu members of the former Rwandan army and a mix of displaced Rwandan Hutus. Numbering approximately 10,000, they have lived in the jungles of DRC for the past 14 years and in that time have resisted repeated calls for disarmament and repatriation.
Darkness had fallen quickly, as it does in this part of the world, and with it had come a thunderstorm and heavy rain. Colonel Edmond and I had moved to a nearby bar to find other members of our party who would be journeying with us. In the dim, stark little room that passed for a bar we found FDLR soldiers and some government soldiers in various levels of intoxication. The atmosphere was charged and a little tense and for the first time in Congo I felt something approaching fear. Drunken soldiers are unpredictable and I felt this situation was one that could potentially turn menacing.
Fortunately word came that we had permission to go and so with the rain lashing down and lightening blazing across the night sky we set off into the complete blackness of the jungle. There were six of us now and between us we had three flashlights. It was difficult terrain to negotiate and I soon stopped attempting to avoid puddles as the task became futile; after 10 minutes I was soaked through and could only hope my camera gear would stay dry inside my backpack. At one point we clambered onto a bamboo bridge and I was trying desperately to find safe footing, avoiding the holes and darkness below when suddenly a bolt of lightening struck the opposite bank. Momentarily the whole scene was illuminated; it was startling to see the raging river that flowed beneath us and the soldiers with their machine guns clinging to the bamboo as the rain came down in torrents. The rain eventually subsided but lightening continued to light up the jungle in spectacular ways and so on we trekked until two hours later, we arrived at a small collection of mud huts.
© Andrew McConnell / WpN
CONGO: An FDLR soldier treks through rainforest in North Kivu, DRC, on March 16, 2008. The FDLR comprises Hutu extremists who fled Rwanda after their involvement in the 1994 genocide, as well as Hutu members of the former Rwandan army and a mix of displaced Rwandan Hutus. Numbering approximately 10,000, they have lived in the jungles of DRC for the past 14 years and in that time have resisted repeated calls for disarmament and repatriation. The Democratic Republic of Congo remains in turmoil six years after the formal end of the 1998-2002 civil war.
I spent the night in one of the huts sleeping on an elevated piece of wood covered with a mosquito net. At 6 a.m. the next morning troops were assembling in preparation for a 2-day trek deeper into the jungle. I was to accompany them to the next village on their route, some two hours away, before returning to Hombo. We set off into dense rain forest, following a narrow trail that led past swamps, over rivers and streams and up steep muddy banks. The soldiers moved quickly and it was difficult to keep up and try to take pictures at the same time. We passed women with goods on their heads returning from market; they were Hutu refugees, the colonel told me, some walk for days just to visit the market at Hombo. "Look how we have to live,” said the colonel. After a while the sun was up and the heat was stifling and just as the night before, I was soaking wet, this time with sweat.
The village we had arrived at was a little bigger than the first and was made up of Hutu refugees and the local Congolese. After 14 years here the Hutu/Congolese divide has become blurred with many of the refugees integrating with local population. The village chief, who was also an FDLR major, led us to one of the huts where he seemed to have a steady supply of Coca-Cola. I asked the men when they thought they would return home to Rwanda. "We have been ready to return home for a long time, but the Kagame regime (Rwandan president Paul Kagame) has done everything to prevent us from going home; he does not want us in Rwanda," replied Colonel Edmond. "The outside world does not help us, they think we are all killers! But some are killers and some are not." According to certain NGOs and the United Nations, the FDLR have no intention of going home anytime soon. In fact, Hutus who have attempted to leave the jungles here have been intimidated and prevented from crossing into Rwanda. One reason is minerals. Cassiterite and other valuable minerals are in ready supply here and the FDLR are said to be heavily involved in mining.
The morning was wearing on and I refused the offer of a fourth bottle of Coke. Most of the troops had ventured off into the jungle but Colonel Edmond, and I, together with a few remaining soldiers, started back on the trail to Hombo. As we retraced our steps I wondered how I should feel about my companions, and what the future would hold for them. The Congo conflict is a murky affair and as far as I could tell its end seems no closer. We arrived in Hombo at around 3 p.m. and I bade farewell to Colonel Edmond and his troops and immediately set off for the long journey back to Bukavu. The driver wasn't pleased because my late return meant we would be driving after dark, not a safe exercise in these parts.
About halfway between Hombo and Bukavu a strange thing happens – the road here has somehow defied the years and the elements and remains perfectly preserved. For about 5 km it is possible to travel in perfect serenity through some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. The road meanders around the edges of deep valleys lush and green, through crowded villages where women in brightly colored garments carry bundles on their heads while children play by the roadside and men chat in the doorways. For a moment it is possible to view Congo as it could be, as a land blessed in every possible way, where its inhabitants live out full and peaceful lives. But the vision ends when we hit the next pothole and I am bumped violently back to reality.