Goma: wrong place, right time

A United Nations convoy, heading to Rutshuru to relaunch UN operations in the area, crosses the Internally Displaced People (IDP's) provisional camp in Kibati, 10 kms north of the provincial capital of Goma on November 3.
By Femke van Zeijl in Kinshasa

Femke van Zeijl was heading to the Congolese town of Goma for her new book on urbanisation in Africa. The fighting has forced a rethink.

I had not planned for war at my next port of call. In January, when I chose the city in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as a subject for my book, a truce had just been signed between the rebels and the Congolese government. Not that the people of the North and South Kivu provinces would know the difference. The region has seen nothing but violence for the last 15 years. But officially, things were supposed to have quietened down.

Last week, at precisely the time I wanted to fly there, all flights to Goma from the capital Kinshasa were cancelled. Laurent Nkunda, a renegade Tutsi-general and his army were said to be seven kilometres from the city and, with every hour that passed, the news became more worrying. The Congolese army was on the run and had started looting.

I make telephone contact with Goma and for the first time even my friend Nino is starting to panic. His family is afraid to leave the house for fear of government soldiers who rob people at gun point. When on Wednesday the rumour goes around that Goma has been taken, the chaos is complete. As has happened so many times before, the civilians have no idea what is happening and they’re asking me in Kinshasa if I can tell them more. I am moved by the fear in their voices.

I also feel a sense of professional powerlessness: I am a journalist at the wrong place at the right time. And I won’t be able to travel to the east for five days. I’ll just have to wait. I spend my time writing an article, playing with the baby of the Dutch couple I’m staying with and interviewing a politician from North Kivu province, but most of all I worry about what I should do. Is it wise to get caught up in a war just because I’m writing a book on urbanisation in Africa?

There is so much I could report on. My journalistic heart skips a beat but this is no time to investigate the long term consequences of war. My relatives have by now discovered where exactly Goma is and I have never had so many worried text messages from home.

“You’re not going to that place, are you Fem?”, one reads. A Belgian priest in Goma clinches it for me: “Even if you could get here, you wouldn’t be able to have a serious conversation with anyone for weeks,” he says in a phone call.

I decide instead to go to Bukavu, an idyllic town built in the hills of a bay at Lake Kivu, a hundred kilometres from Goma. This town has also had more than its share of violence. Its people are still traumatised by what happened on a May afternoon in 2004 when Nkunda’s soldiers took the town. They went from door to door, especially at night, looting, killing and raping. The siege went on for two horror-filled weeks. It is not surprising that Bukavu’s one million people are terrified now that the same general is terrorising the province just to the north.

Violence from a distance is scarier than up close, I tell the people at home. And it’s true. What we read in the papers is a magnification of one aspect of what is happening. Life goes on, even when there’s fighting. The women go shopping at the market, the men go to the bar and the children play outside.

But of course, violence has an effect on the environment. Bukavu is not the only town that has been partly shaped by it. Towns are usually the only place of refuge for people in times of conflict. What does war do to a town and its inhabitants? Who is making money from the violence and the shortages and who are the victims? What is the social, mental and economical fall-out? These are the questions I will try to get answers to next month in Bukavu.

Femke van Zeijl is researching a book on urbanisation in Africa. She has already spent time in Luanda (Angola) and Maputo (Mozambique). Ugandan, Nigerian and Burkina-Faso cities are next on her list.

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