Lava and ashes
“Life in the DRC is okay”, our guide MM told me, “we don’t have to pay any taxes”. The SUV we were driving lurched along a particularly bad stretch of road and he added, “although we don’t get anything from the government either. And sometimes they take away”.
It is difficult to believe that Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is just a ten-minute drive from Gisenyi, Rwanda. In Gisenyi, the roads are paved, the yards are manicured, and the people are well dressed. In Goma, the roads are so bad that it took us nearly an hour to drive ten kilometres. Planes are abandoned on the side of the road. There are bullet holes in street signs.
The Congo has been in a state of war and unrest for the past fifteen years. In 1994, the turmoil of the genocide in Rwanda spilled over into the Congo and helped precipitate two wars, the first from 1996-1997 and the second from 1998-2003. Over five million people have been killed, more than in any armed conflict since World War II.
The Eastern Kivu provinces are still occupied by rebel groups and there is ongoing armed violence. The governments of Canada, the United States, and the UK warn against all travel to the country, and so the decision to visit was not one that I made lightly. Because of the state warnings, my travel insurance is void in the DRC and I had to shop around for insurance that covers travel to a war zone. It is a strange thing to contemplate the pros and cons of insurance packages that provide coverage for kidnapping, ransom, and acts of terrorism.
Despite the warnings, friends and contacts working in the Goma area had assured me that the city is reasonably safe. Although there was some violence after the elections in November 2011, the city has been relatively calm for the past few months. But check, check, and check again before crossing the border, they said, because the safety situation in Goma can deteriorate rapidly.
Goma lies several kilometers away from Virunga National Park, home to Mount Nyirangongo, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Late last year, the region experienced a tourist “boom” when a smaller volcano began erupting and officials from the park began leading overnight treks to the eruption site. Although the eruption has largely subsided, the park continues to lead expeditions to the summit of Mount Nyiragongo, where tourists can camp next to a crater of lava.
I was keen to visit the lava lake. It was not difficult to convince friends RT and GJ to come along with me.
There are two ways to obtain a visa to the DRC: by applying in advance through Virunga National Park for a seven-day visa that permits travel to Goma and its surrounding areas or by paying border officers a $300 “fee” on arrival. I opted for the former, and submitted an application for a visa in mid-March.
On April 3rd I was told that there was a complication with my visa and that the required forms had not been submitted to immigration officials. Officials from the park told me that they would try to rush the visa and that I should wait in Gisenyi. On April 4th, RT, GJ, and I sat in an internet cafe all day, pressing refresh, waiting for the visa to be processed. By 8 pm I had given up hope and was contemplating onward travel to Uganda. At 8:30 pm I received a call from park administration telling me that the visa had been granted for the following day.
And, so, the next morning we took a motorcycle to the border, walked from Rwanda to the DRC, and drove through Goma to Mount Nyiragongo.
I can’t say that I felt completely safe in the Congo. There is a sense of lawlessness in the DRC that is difficult to convey. We were, for example, driving east of Goma when we were stopped by a member of the Congolese Army. He was angry and he had a gun and he accused me of taking a picture of him. I hadn’t, but that was not the point. He asked to look at my pictures, but MM warned me that he would confiscate my camera if I removed it from my purse. MM continued to speak to him in Swahili, and after a few tense moments we paid him $20 and he left on his motorcycle.
The DRC isn’t all violence, lawlessness, and corruption. It is also green jungle and children smiling and unspeakable acts of heroism. We were accompanied on our trek to the summit of Mount Nyiragongo by three armed rangers. Rangers have been protecting the park and its endangered mountain gorilla population from rebels and poachers since the beginning of the conflict in the region. It is commonly understood that Virunga National Park is the most dangerous place in the world to be a park ranger–rangers undergo formal combat training and it is estimated that 117 rangers have been killed in the past ten years. Rangers view their job as a calling, emphasize that their fathers and fathers’ fathers were also rangers, and explain the importance of protecting the gorilla population from extinction. Due to the inherent danger, the park has set up a widows assistance fund for women who lose their husbands in this line of work. There are excellent articles about what it means to be a ranger at Virunga National Park here and here.
The trek up Mount Nyiragongo was beautiful but difficult. The hike took about six hours, and it rained steadily for the last three hours. The trail was muddy, steep, and cold and I thought grumpily about how my toenails still had not recovered from the climb up Kilimanjaro.
At the summit, as is often the case, I forgot about all of my complaints. I stood on the crater rim and gazed at a bowl of boiling and smoking lava. It was beautiful. As the light faded, the colours shifted from grey to red and orange. A kaleidoscope of colours.
We slept in small wooden huts at the summit of the volcano and ate laughing cow cheese for dinner and looked at pictures of a beach in Zanzibar to keep warm. The wind was bitter and our sleeping bags were wet from the rain. There was an orange glow in the sky.
The next day, after descending, we spent some time in Goma. In 2002, Mount Nyiragongo erupted into downtown Goma, destroying 14,000 homes and forcing 350,000 citizens to seek refuge in Rwanda. There are still scars from the eruption everywhere. Roads and houses are covered in lava. The airport has not been fully rebuilt. Fences and other structures have been constructed from lava rocks.
My visit to the DRC ended at the giant dome of lava that was the eruption site in 2002. Children were playing there and some of them picked up lava rocks from the ground, smiled, and handed them to me as gifts. I tried to imagine their lives, to reconcile their smiles and their games with the statistics and the headlines. “Eastern DRC is the rape capital of the world”, a UN official said last year. 33 People killed in Kinshasa after the elections last year, concluded a special UN investigation. A Congolese warlord responsible for the door-to-door massacre of 150 civilians lives openly in Goma, the New York Times reported recently.
Some things are not imaginable. Some things are not reconcilable.
I got into the car and crossed the border and hoped for peace.
Back in Rwanda, I opened my email to a message from a friend warning me that the security situation had unexpectedly deteriorated in Goma, that there were rumours of a rebellion and further violence, and that I should leave the country immediately.
Several borders away, now, I still hope for peace.