Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda & Burundi

Gorillas virungas

gorillas virungas

gorillas virungas
Without a doubt, the central African region of Eastern Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi represents one of the great basket cases of the world.  The "Heart of Darkness" has long served as a cauldron of ethnic hatred, bubbling over at times into unfathomable bloodletting.  The 1994 Rwandan genocide was preceded by ethnic clashes long before colonization and Belgian mismanagement, and the consequences of the genocide are still very much felt today in all of these countries plus Uganda, which has been dragged into the conflict too.  And it would seem that barring a miraculous turn of events, they will be condemned to repeat their grisly history, sooner or later.  The four primary factors causing poverty cited by Paul Collier in his book The Bottom Billion are epitomized in this part of the world:  armed conflict, resource wealth, landlocked economies and bad governance. While the battleground of what has been dubbed the African World War has shifted to Congo and Uganda these days, the ethnic animosities in Rwanda and Burundi still simmer beneath the veil of signed peace accords. The Interahamwe genocidaires of Rwanda are still on the prowl in Congolese jungles fighting for control of mineral wealth.  The rebel Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda ostensibly fights to uphold the Ten Commandments, though they systematically violate all of the commandments themselves. A renegade Congolese Tutsi general backed by the Rwandan government physically controls the Kivu provinces of the Congo, bullying the Congolese national army and flouting the impotent UN peacekeepers who have instructions to avoid fighting.   This is normal life in this part of the world.

And it's a shame because there's a lot to see in this part of the world, with some of the most beautiful volcanic landscapes in the world and arguably the most dynamic and thoughtful people in Africa.  I was impressed at how easy it was to hold interesting conversations about almost any subject with locals. They are educated, informed, and love to discuss and disseminate current events.  The Congolese in particular are fun loving and sharply witty with a twinkle in their eye.  Hard to believe they represent the embodiment of  the archetypal failed state. For tourists, the big draws in Eastern Congo, and most specifically the North Kivu province, are gorillas and volcanoes.  Each border province in eastern Congo controls their own immigration and visas, which indicates how loose the ties are with western Congo and the capital Kinshasa.  Indeed, it's all but impossible to cross the country overland from east to west, and there are no electronic financial links between the eastern hub of Goma with Kinshasa.  The Democratic Republic of Congo runs on US dollars and the best mobile phone network in Goma not only is a Rwandan run company, it actually IS in the Rwandan network, country code and all.  During the occupation of Goma in the late 1990s by the Rwandan army, Rwandan MTN (a South African telecom company) built cell towers on Congolese soil that are still in operation.  So Goma is effectively covered by both Congolese and Rwandan national network and most Goma locals carry both a Congolese phone and a Rwandan phone.  East Congolese businessmen usually use Kigali (Rwanda) or Bujumbura (Burundi) airport to travel outside the region.
The mountain gorillas, of course, are magnificent as anyone who has visited them will tell you.  Though the regulations which they announce clearly before the visit state that you can only approach to within 7 metres of the apes, in reality you're face to face with them at times at 2 metres distance, and they brush past you even closer.  The dominant silverback males are surprisingly agile and fierce looking in its false charges.  Gorilla tours are big money in this part of the world (US$500 for a viewing license in Rwanda and Uganda and a "discount" $300 in Congo because they have trouble attracting tourists scared to cross into the Congo) and so they have become objects of  conflict.  Before and after I visited the gorillas in the DRC, there were killings of gorillas by Congolese villagers disgruntled with the central government's refusal to share the tourism proceeds with neighbouring villagers.  Indeed, I heard that some tourist cars heading to the gorilla zones were pelted with fruit or stones on their way through these villages.  Rwanda has implemented a model system now that is worthwhile for everybody and they are reaping the benefits now with rapid growth in gorilla-fuelled tourism.  Combined with political,  military and economic stability in recent years, the resurrection of Rwanda as a hot destination has been stunning.

The volcanoes are the other big draw to eastern Congo.  Nyarigongo, pictured above, erupted in 2002 devastating the city of Goma and half covering it with molten lava rock, which is still theretoday.  Nyarigongo is continually active, the top of the cone glowing red at night from the magma pools inside the crater.  A popular overnight trek takes you to the lip of the volcano at night from where you can peer down into the glowing red pools, the only place in the world where this is possible.  The gorilla visits in Congo and Rwanda are more scenic than the ones in Uganda because you have to climb up the majestic chain of Virungas volcanoes to reach the mountain families, and that's a lovely little hike in and of itself.

goma congo
A defunct filling station in Goma.  On the road, a kid on a wooden bike shuffles past.  I never really understood these contraptions, which are neither practical nor functional, but they look pretty cool and I've never seen them anywhere else in the world.

goma congo
The Congolese are party animals, as these dancing women demonstrate at a pre-wedding event in Goma.

Hotel Rwanda
The tone is much more sober on the Rwandan side of the border.  Much less festive than the Congolese and less light hearted than the Ugandans, recent history weights heavily on the Rwandan psyche.  You may not recognize the lobby seating of the Hotel des Milles Collines pictured above, because the film Hotel Rwanda was shot in South Africa.  There is no memorial plaque in the hotel, not even a trace of anything even hinting at the events of 1994.  Rwandans do not talk about the genocide with outsiders and they sidestep oblique references to it when you bring it up.  It is still too fresh and too many have died.  The government has opened up and admirably confront their history, as postwar Germans did, but then again, the winners always write the history and the winners of this war (Tutsis and their general Paul Kagame, now president) were also the victims.  Kagame has done a good job, spurring the economy with considerable US and British aid, rebuilding infrastructure and tourism, invoking locally run war crime tribunals, and abolishing ethnic labels on official documents.  But in my opinion the proof will be in the pudding of the next change of power back to the hutu majority. Hutu-tutsi conflict is still taking place in parts of Congo, Uganda and Burundi and ethnic warring has always had a tinderbox effect in central Africa.



Genocide victims at the Gikongoro memorial in southern Rwanda.  Ten thousand tutsis were gathered into the rooms of a technical college and then systematically massacred by machetes.  These are the real bodies left in the position they were found and preserved with lime powder.  You can still smell the corpses as you walk into these rooms.  You can see the machete wounds on the skull of the child in the middle picture.  The clothing on the baby in the bottom picture has not been touched.  This memorial is as graphic and powerfully emotional as any that I've ever seen.  When you arrive at the school, a guard motions for you to follow him to the school rooms, and without saying a word, he unlocks the doors one by one and you walk inside to spend as much time as you want. 

The clothing from many of the victims had been stripped off before the murders and stored in this room.  It is really a shame to show these pictures of Rwanda because the mountain scenery is, along with Ethiopia, as breathtakingly beautiful as anywhere in Africa, but the genocide remains the focal point of Rwandan identity and existence to this day.  Such displays are reminders that it can happen again and one of the benefits of globalization is that someone should be out there watching all of our backs.  There might have been a US intervention in Rwanda, had the "Black Hawk Down" military fiasco not taken place in Somalia just months prior and soured the White House administration to unpopular foreign policy initiatives with no domestic interests involved.  The French government, colonial overseers of Rwanda who had taken over from Belgium during decolonization, even abetted, armed and trained the genocidaire army and defended that government even after revelations about the genocide surfaced, apparently in an attempt to resist losing a "francophone" country to anglicization.  These kind of  pivotal events in history allow us to hold a mirror to our souls and force us to decide what exactly we aspire to be as human beings.

gacaca prisoner
If you see men in pink shirts being led around the streets of Rwandan villages, then it's probably the weekly gacaca day.  I happened to be in Kibuye, western Rwanda, on a Thursday and I was incensed that all public transportation out of town had been halted that morning for these weekly war crimes tribunals.  But in retrospect I was very fortunate to be able to attend and witness the gacaca (pronounced "gatchatcha") proceedings in person.

Gacaca stadium
In Kibuye, the gacaca is held in the town stadium.  All transport and commerce is closed by law on gacaca mornings (and yes I was hungry and thirsty too!) in order to encourage as many adults as possible to attend the gacaca, which have been held every week in every town since shortly after the war.  Every week, a different prisoner is interrogated by a small local tribunal in his own home town.  He is forced to talk about the events of the genocide directly to the families of the victims and to those who knew him personally and witnessed his actions.  More than just a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the gacacas have the eventually responsibility of  convicting the war criminals, though the therapeutic effects of the gacacas surely outweigh the legal ones in the long run.  Few of these prisoners are the professionally trained Interahamwe genocidaires who led the slaughter and then fled to Congo, but they are rather the local citizens who abetted and participated in the genocide during those days of living dangerously.  There were so many of these defendants around Rwanda, that the formal legal systems could not rigorously try all of them, so the gacaca system was instituted, similar to town meetings or the Afghan loya jirgas.

Gacaca tribunal
Here, a prisoner responds to interrogation at the gacaca.  At one point a member of the audience stood up emotionally and made some of kind of quivering accusation to the defendant, who in turn replied dispassionately.  I couldn't understand a word of anything said but it was fascinating to be there taking part in living history.

Bujumbura downtown
Only very recently has it been safe to visit Burundi, and even then only along the main roads, so there's little information that circulates about the tiny mountainous country.  A politicoethnic mirror image of Rwanda, it was the tutsis who undertook ethnic cleansing of dissident hutus here as a consequence of the Rwandan genocide.  Thus, the civil war played out in Burundi later than in Rwanda, and visitors today see what it may have been like in Rwanda shortly after the genocide.  In the capital Bujumbura, pictured above, the older generation of Europeanized Burundais are polite, elegant, graceful and speak an impeccable French.  The younger generation who grew up during the war are rough, rude, confrontational and uneducated.  At night, Bujumbura is one of the more unsavoury capital cities in Africa, along with Nairobi.  One pack of young kids swarmed around me in broad daylight, not even backing away when I hit their arms away.  I suspected they were out to rob me until I went to a police station to call an officer and then they all scattered.  The cafes in Bujumbura are a real trip, a timewarp from 1950s France, where you order a cafe au lait and croissant in the morning from a dashingly uniformed waiter (at practically 1950s prices too).

Bujumbura church
There used to be a prominent Greek community in Bujumbura but this Greek orthodox church was locked up when I passed up and seemingly not in service.  The mountains surrounding Bujumbura are scenic like in Rwanda and has a potential to open up to tourism one day.  But reports I've read since I was there suggest that fighting has restarted in Burundi so don't hold your breath.