October 13, 2005

In the shadow of doom

Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo

This place is crazy.

Can whole cities can be cursed? Because it seems that's what happened to Goma. As if just being situated in eastern Congo, the farthest-flung province of a nation ransacked by three decades of kleptocracy, wasn't bad enough, ten years ago things started getting real bad.

In 1994, more than one million refugees fleeing the rebel army invading Rwanda (and putting an end to the genocide) came to rest here. Tens of thousands died in cholera before the UN constructed the world's largest refugee camp. But many of these 'refugees', fed and sheltered and medicated by the UN for a million dollars a day, were in fact the same militia who planned and carried out Rwandan genocide. These interahamwe ruled the camps with iron fists, and, supplied by the UN, used them as bases for a continuing low-level war with Rwanda for some years, until finally, in 1998, Rwanda invaded and repatriated the refugees.

That was just the start of Goma's problems. This invasion was part of a Congolose civil war that quickly grew to involve seven nations and innumerable rebel armies, factions, and militias. The resulting war dragged on for years and is believed to have killed some three million people. Finally, a couple years ago, a deal was struck, UN peacekeepers moved in, things began to settle down -

- and that's when Mount Doom blew its top1. Mount Nyiragongo, some twenty K north of the town, erupted in January 2002, and half-mile-wide rivers of red-hot lava flowed straight through the city center into Lake Kivu. Hundreds died; half a million more fled their homes.

City on the edge of never

Today, as I type, an ever-present plume of smoke drifts from the mountain, a looming flat-topped darkness visible from most of the city, like the CN Tower in Toronto. On a clear night, the volcano's murky red glow can be seen for many miles. The word on the street is that a vulcanologist recently told the governor that the volcano will almost certainly erupt again in the next two years, and that all of Goma should be immediately relocated - but the governor quashed the report. Not that relocation might help. A gargantuan inversion layer of methane gas and carbon dioxide is believed to be festering beneath the surface of Lake Kivu, and further volcanic activity might cause it all to be released at once, possibly suffocating to death all two million people who live around the lake. Experts believe they may be able to give as much as eight minutes' warning.

A huge cataract of black lava runs straight through the city, dotted by the jumbled, rusted carcasses of cars, and a few burnt skeletons of buildings. Goma's cathedral took the full brunt of the flow, and only its walls remain, beneath an ashen crucifix, surrounded by a glistening field of solid lava, patterned in huge whorls, like the fingerprints of titans. The main market was immolated. The city was cut in two.

And the Congolese have responded with typical, well, either indomitable tenacity or bewildering optimism, depending on your point of view. Much of the lava that "cooled and lay in twisted dragon-shapes", as Tolkien put it, has been now put to use; heaps of lava gravel and orderly piles of watermelon-sized stones wait to be mortared into huge lava walls that will surround newly built properties on the newly vacant real estate, and hopefully divert any future "red rivers" that flow from the mountain. Children in blue-and-white uniforms play on the enormous jagged field of dark lava that starts just outside the doors to the biggest local school. Nearby, brand-new homes, unprotected by perimeter walls, sit brightly on the jet-black rubble. The streets seethe with noise, chaos, colour: Congolese are far more exuberant, in both attitude and dress, than the reserved Rwandese. The city is very much alive.

And it's a crazy kind of life. This is the Wild East. According to the map, I'm in the Congo, but in practice, the Congolese government does not function here at all. Eastern Congo is a crazy-quilt patchwork of shifting territories controlled by various armed groups; Congo troops, Rwandan troops, interahamwe remnants, various rebel forces with connections to one or more of Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia, independent warlords, the feared Mai Mai cannibal rebel army, the Lord's Resistance Army, more factions than you can shake a Kalashnikov at. The UN force here - MONUC, some 17,000 troops, which sounds like a lot, but remember that this country is the size of Western Europe - maintains, for now, an uneasy, and regularly broken, stability.

MONUC costs a billion dollars a year, and lives in a parallel world from most of the Congolese: gleaming white APCs, passenger trucks, oil tankers, etc, most of which are behind huge razor-wired lava-rubble walls down by Lake Kivu at any given time. The troops around here are India (from Bihar, incidentally, India's poorest and most corrupt state.) The hordes of NGOs - Medecins Sans Frontieres, Save The Children, UNICEF, UNHCR, etc etc - live the same "satellite dishes and 4WDs behind high walls and guards" existence. The local bar Doga is frequented by expats, NGO workers, the haggard-looking vulcanologist, and a supporting cast of shady characters from God knows where, most of whom are very good pool players. They serve good pizza and burgers, even though they don't really need to - Doga is the only bar, in the Western sense, in town.

You don't really get any tourists. I'm the first visitor my (extremely friendly and welcoming) quasi-hosts here have ever had. As I walked through the thriving, colourful market yesterday, people stared at me amazed, and there was a constant refrain of "mzungu mzungu mzungu"; there are plenty of white people in town, but they don't wander around on foot much, I'm guessing. (Several kids independently kept shouting "Zidane!" at me, too, in blatant and highly successful attempts to flatter me by implying I resemble the incomparable French midfield maestro.) The other guests at my (quite nice, US$50) hotel are all Congolese or NGO people here temporarily. Sample overheard snippet of French from a nearby breakfast table this morning: "I assure you, the money is ready!"

Both of my vague plans here have been torpedoed. Due to bad timing/logistics, I just missed out on an expedition by a few British medical students to climb Mount Nyiragongo, which is kind of a shame, 'cause I was thinking of dropping in my Iron Ring and seeing what happened, but maybe it's better for the world that I didn't. I'm a little bummed about this (and starting to wonder if I'll ever climb a volcano again) especially since I passed up the opportunity in part so I could take a boat across Lake Kivu to Bukavu, another Congo city, tomorrow morning - but have just now discovered that, in traditional Africa style, tomorrow's boat is definitely not running, and Saturday's boat may or may not function. Sigh. I might just go back to Rwanda a demain. Which is, amazingly, less than a mile away as I type, but in some ways feels like a whole other world.

What's left in this world, after MONUC and the NGOs, is somewhere between a libertarian paradise and terrifying anarchy. Start with the economy. The local currency here is a bizarre hybrid of cash US dollars with Congolese francs instead of small change. (And the dollars can be wrinkled, grubby, and brown, but God help you if there's even the smallest tear.) No credit cards, no travellers' cheques, but one of the local banks does do Western Union. No gas stations: instead, gangs by the side of the road sell gasoline from yellow 20L jerrycans, siphoning it into empty water bottles.

Actually, let's explore that a little further. Because there is no government here, there is no tax. And so, this oil, which is mostly trucked in from Kenya via Uganda, sells for half the price in Congo than it does in Uganda due to the latter nation's taxes, so there is a thriving business in smuggling jerrycans and 200L drums of gasoline back into Uganda and selling it for a huge profit. The rest of the Congo's extraordinary natural resources - oil, gold, diamonds, emeralds, manganese, cobalt, copper, coltan, mahogany, all here for the taking in vast amounts - follow similar shady routes to enormous profits for someone.

Meanwhile, airplanes and helicopters zoom in and out of Goma's lava-shortened airstrip at all hours, going to and from other Congo cities, courtesy of companies with names like Hewa Boru Airlines and Wimbu Diwa Airways. You have to fly, you see; no actual roads connect Congo's provinces. There are hilariously frightening tales of drunken Ukrainian pilots, or radio chatter that goes like: "Hello, Goma? I'm trying to land! Is there anyone there? Is there anyone at the tower? Goma, do you read? I'm trying to, oh, hell. I'm just going to go ahead and land. OK, I'm landing now. Hello? Is anyone there?" The aircraft are limping Antonov2 jets or prop planes, carrying rebel leaders, mining prospectors3, aid workers, NGO employees, smuggler barons, and God knows who else - for a twenty-dollar doucement, they'll put anyone's name on your ticket - from place to place.

At least communication is easy. And amazingly cheap. Mobile-phone companies have towers all over the hills that dot this rugged landscape. For $3 I bought a SIM card that came with a dollar of talk time, and 10 free text messages a month for a year. (Talk ain't cheap - 30 cents/minute - but Internet is - 75 cents/hour.) Every intersection has a little booth selling airtime cards. Eastern Congo is not a country in the traditional sense, but it's not quite anarchy either; it's like this weird distributed economic community, built around airstrips and mobile-phone antennas, connected by a bad intraprovince road network guarded by the roadblocks of maybe a dozen armed factions, some of whom play nice, some of whom will kill you and eat you on sight. It's utter madness. I kind of like it.

1Well, technically, its side.

2At this very Internet cafe, the printer just churned out a "Certificat de Navigabilite" for an Antonov. I'm sure that's just entirely on the up-and-up.

3Within five minutes of arriving in Congo, a guy named Chi-Chi came up to me and tried to talk me into investing in some local manganese mine.


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