Why eastern DR Congo is my favourite place in Africa

  • 20 November 2011
  • From the section Africa
  • comments
A UN helicopter in eastern Democratic Republc of Congo (Februrary 2006) Image copyright AFP

Where is your favourite place in Africa? Mine - for a jumble of contradictory reasons that don't quite add up - is the Kivus, on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I used to spend a lot of time in the region when I was based in Nairobi and I'm finally heading back there after a gap of six years. It's election time in DR Congo, but I'll also be reporting on several other themes and would love to hear any suggestions you might have.

In 20 years on the road, I've never encountered a region that combines such an intense blend of beauty, energy, misery, ingenuity, bureaucracy, potential and horror as the steep green hills that cluster around Lake Kivu.

These lines from WH Auden always spring to mind when I think of the wars - and accompanying atrocities - that have ravaged the region - for so many years:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third/Were axioms to him, who'd never heard/Of any world where promises were kept,/Or one could weep because another wept.

And yet the inhabitants of the Kivus are also among the warmest, most dynamic people I've met.

In preparation for this trip, I was digging through some old notebooks and articles, and came across something I'd written about the city of Bukavu in, I believe, 2003. I don't think it ever appeared on the website so I thought I'd tack it on here since it sums up a lot of my thoughts about the region.

Thoughts from a previous visit

It's 10 in the morning - the rain clouds have just drifted off into the mountains, and a bright sun is bouncing off the still waters of Lake Kivu.

'Architecturally rich'

I'm standing outside the cathedral in Bukavu - enjoying the view, and thinking idly about water-skiing.

Bukavu doesn't normally prompt such cosy thoughts. If you were trying to sum the place up for a newspaper, you might say: "Rebel-held town, surrounded by jungles, besieged by genocidal militias, flooded with refugees, trapped in the middle of a war that's killed some three million people."

Image copyright AFP

All of which is perfectly true. But you could also describe Bukavu as one of the most breathtakingly beautiful towns on earth - perched on steep green hills, overlooking the lake, the volcanoes and the mountains which mark the western edge of Africa's Rift Valley. An architecturally rich town, steeped in history, and full of sophisticated, well-educated, determined people. Like Father Dieudonne Musanganya.

He's just been conducting Sunday mass inside the cathedral. Now he's on the steps outside with me, in his bright white gown, complaining bitterly about number plates.

Right now the whole town seems preoccupied - not by the war- but by what the French speakers here call "le scandale des plaques." In fact everyone has been on strike this week because of it.

'Champagne-swilling slobs'

All this started because the rebel army - which is occupying Bukavu - decided that all drivers should replace their old number plates with special new ones - which happen to cost $100 (£67) cash a piece. Those who refused would have their vehicles impounded.

"This is pure exploitation," says Father Dieudonne. "They have no right to do this. They're rebels, not a government. They're just trying to rob the civilians - as usual."

The rebels are called the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). For an army which claims to be defending the rights of the local civilian population - they are stunningly unpopular. Rightly or wrongly, their leaders are ridiculed as corrupt, champagne-swilling slobs, while their half-starved footsoldiers rape and pillage with impunity.

"They do nothing good," says Father Dieudonne, working himself into a rage. "They just pillage. Look at the state of the roads here. And now these number plates..!"

I didn't come to Bukavu because of this particular scandal. I came to find out about the huge numbers of rape cases being reported - women and young girls increasingly preyed on by local soldiers - from the RCD and other militia groups.

It is a grim story - many hundreds of girls- some as young as 11 - gang-raped and left for dead, or dragged off into the jungles to be used as sex slaves.

In fact, this entire region of eastern DR Congo is a human rights nightmare. Four years of war have pushed more than two million people out of their homes.

The phrase that so often crops up in descriptions of the Congo is "heart of darkness." The title of Joseph Conrad's short novel, written at the end of the 19th Century, is routinely wheeled out to illustrate the enduring mystery and misery that lies hidden in this vast, impenetrable region.

Personally, I hate the phrase. It sounds too much like an excuse for knowing and doing precisely nothing about the situation.

Yes, there is a big jungle. And yes, the roads aren't too good these days.

But the point I'm trying to make about Bukavu is that this isn't some wretched, obscure town which deserves our fleeting pity. This was, and could be, a perfectly normal place - full of ordinary people trying to stand up for their rights - people prepared to defy a rebel army on an issue as seemingly trivial as number plates.

Father Dieudonne smiles and shakes my hand, then heads back into the cathedral. It's time for the weekly children's mass. Hundreds of youngsters have been milling around outside - big sisters carrying baby brothers. Everyone dressed in their best outfits. They jostle their way inside, and start singing. Cheerful, hopeful music drifts out across the potholed street, past the soldiers lounging under a tree, and out over the clear blue waters of Lake Kivu.