Tag: Democratic Republic of Congo

Gorillas not guerrillas: Tourism hope in troubled Congo

Mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, August 1, 2015. (AFP)
Mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, August 1, 2015. (AFP)

Tourists perch perilously on a volcano’s edge as swirling smoke belches from the fiery cauldron of lava below, the latest unlikely visitors holidaying in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

Below, sounding like a roaring sea, spurts of molten rock fly high into the air, as one of the world’s largest lava lakes and most active volcanos puts on its mesmerising show.

Eastern DRC has been mired for decades in rebel battles, but such sights are helping bring tourists back to Virunga National Park, which reopened last year after the battle lines shifted in its favour.

Surrounding misty forests in green hills of the vast park — stretching for 7 800 square kilometres — are home to a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas.

The tourists are vital: the income they bring funds the park’s survival.

“The frontlines, they were down there,” one porter says, peering down from the volcano through the jungles towards the lights of the lakeside city of Goma, some 20 kilometres southwards, referring to a rebel force who briefly took control in late 2012.

Nyiragongo, a 3 470 metre peak and a steep and stiff five-hour hike from lush rain forests, is part of a chain of volcanoes in one of the world’s most active regions.

Tourism ‘vital’ to Virunga’s future

“Holiday on Mount Doom,” said Fabian, a teenage Belgian tourist visiting with his mother, referring to the volcano in the fantasy world of British author JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings epic.

“Some things can only be believed by seeing,” he added quietly, peering down from the cliff’s edge in hushed awe at the raging fire below, the night sky turned red from the glowing lava.

The tourist industry in the region — needed to keep the Unesco world heritage site running and its animal inhabitants safe — collapsed in 2012.

Militia forces remain active, and Virunga’s chief warden Emmanuel de Merode was himself wounded by gunmen by 2014.

But the well-trained and armed guides say it is now safe, and visitors are coming back. For tourists, an hour with a gorilla family costs $400, while a night on the volcano costs $250.

Tourism revenue is “vital” to the future of Virunga, helping to benefit some four million people in and around the vast park, as well as “peace and prosperity” in general, said Merode.

It gives people an alternative income than cutting down the forests for charcoal, and a motivation to protect the park.

“Every tourist that visits Virunga is contributing,” Merode said.

In 2011, more than 3 000 visitors came to Virunga, but violence forced the park shut the next year, and only fully reopening in late 2014.

Tourist numbers have bounced back, with almost 3 000 visiting already so far this year, bringing in much needed revenues to pay rangers.

A total of 16 tourists can hike up the mountain a day — on a recent trip in torrential rain and hail storms up the peak, a dozen tourists took part, with nationalities including Americans, Belgians, British and Israelis.

The last major eruption in 2002 saw fast flowing lava devastate the Goma, covering the city of around a million in a river of molten rock flowing as fast as 100 kilometres an hour.

Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary Virunga — which showed the efforts to protect Africa’s oldest national park from war, poachers and oil companies — has also brought back tourists.

‘I saw how the Earth was born’

“We saw the film, and said, we have to see that,” said Jacques, a Belgian businessman working in Congo, after trekking into the steamy jungles to see the gorillas, the symbol of the park.

Rangers communicate with the gorillas, exchanging heavy grunts to reassure the groups, including the massive male “silverback” weighing an estimated 160 kilos.

“With each person coming to visit Virunga, there is a little bit more hope that things will get better,” said Mélanie Gouby, a French investigative journalist, whose work to expose oil company expansion into the park is a key part of the film.

“It’s wonderful that so many tourists have come back in such a short time after the end of the conflict — to hear that the documentary is part of the reason why they are coming to Virunga is both incredibly exciting and humbling,” Gouby added.

As night falls and temperatures drop below freezing, the warmth from the molten lava warms the hands of the tourists, dangling their legs over the sheer drop into the crater, watching plate tectonics in action.

“I saw how the Earth was born,” one entry from an American couple read in the park’s visitor’s book. “How often can you climb a mountain and come back with an understanding of how we are all here?” – By Peter Martell

DR Congo’s tshukudu, the all-purpose transport scooter

What do you do when you need to deliver several hundred pounds of potatoes, 150 stalks of sugar cane, 30 eucalyptus saplings and eight sacks of coal, without motorised transport?

For residents of Goma, in the war-scarred east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the answer to this, and many other problems, is the tshukudu.

A local but highly efficient tradition, the man-powered wooden scooters are everywhere on the paved highways and dusty sidestreets of Goma, holding their own with the motorcycle taxis.

A man with his tshukudu in Goma on June 19 2014. (Pic: AFP)
A man with his tshukudu in Goma on June 19 2014. (Pic: AFP)

They’re operated by a group of 1 500 proud, often burly men who not only have their own union but saw a giant, gold-coloured statue erected in their honour a few years ago in this capital of North Kivu province, on the border with Rwanda.

“The tshukudu is our whole life,” said driver Damas Sibomana.

Their vehicles, pronounced “chookoodoo”, measure about two metres long, have wide handlebars and a raised front wheel. They balance improbably large loads, as the tshukudeurs – as the drivers are known – push their vehicles along almost as much as they “drive” them.

Many drivers live outside the city and their day begins by transporting agricultural products grown in the verdant hills to the north, which feed the city’s markets. The good news? It’s downhill.

Once in the city centre the drivers await further orders for deliveries or return, again fully loaded, back to their starting point.

Men transport goods on tshukudus, wooden push-bikes, in Goma on June 18 2014. (Pic: AFP)
Men transport goods on tshukudus, wooden push-bikes, in Goma on June 18 2014. (Pic: AFP)

Jean-Marie Firiki gets up at 4am but his descent stops in Kibumba, 30 kilometres to the north of Goma, which boasts of being the tshukudu’s birthplace. The 35-year-old works as a tshukudeur at dawn and builds the machines during the day.

“A decent tshukudu costs $50 (36 euros),” Firiki said, “but the cost of a beautiful one can be $80-100” – quite a sum in DR Congo, where the majority of people live in extreme poverty.

But the boon is no fuel costs, and driver Sibomana says they can earn $10 on a good day.

There are no machines in the workshop that Fikiri shares with other craftsmen. Like most of the country Kibumba has no electricity supply. The men work the wood – here it’s eucalyptus – with a handsaw, a chisel, a plane and some sandpaper. It takes two days for a craftsman to make one scooter.

Invented in 1973
Paulin Barasiza works next to Fikiri. The 52-year-old traces the invention of the tshukudu back to about 1973.

Our fathers would sell potatoes and tobacco at a Rwandan market several kilometres away, he said. “They used wheelbarrows but these where inefficient. This is where the design came from” – inspired by bicycles.

The first tshukudus were made entirely of wood and the wheels were greased with palm oil several times a day to keep their gears from seizing up.

Sales began to pick up in the late 1980s but the decades that followed have been marred by inter-ethnic violence and regional conflicts that would ravage Kivu and still mark the province today.

It was paradoxically during this dark period that the tshukudu experienced significant upgrades: old tires glued on to protect the wheels, metal hubs and bearings and the addition of springs to aid steering.

Today, tshukudus cover vast distances and can carry up to half a tonne. Some models have a brake that works by applying friction to the rear wheel.

When a big load needs transporting to Goma, Sibomana employs two our three extra drivers for the day. Solidarity is strong, and thanks to help from other tshukudeurs, he was able to buy a field and a plot of land where he is building a house.

In early evening after a hard day’s work the scooter takes on another role: courting. The roads are full of young drivers taking their girlfriends out for a ride, both standing on the tshukudu as the man, in back, scoots it along.

The profession is held in high esteem. To have a daughter marry a tshukudeur means she “will not die of hunger”, said local historian Dany Kayeye.

The legacy of the Rwandan genocide

I went back to Rwanda last month for the first time in almost 20 years. I was head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) during and after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The experience changed me completely; my innocence died there.

In April and May 1994, I was working just across the border in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), receiving refugees fleeing the violence. But very few managed to escape the horrors. Eight hundred thousand people died in 100 days. The rivers were full of mutilated bodies. Most of the corpses were headless, except for those victims who had paid a dollar to be murdered with a bullet.

Photographs of people who were killed during the 1994 genocide are seen inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum. (Pic: Reuters)
Photographs of people who were killed during the 1994 genocide are seen inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum. (Pic: Reuters)

I remember some Rwandan boys who came across the border and told me what had happened in their village. While they hid in the bushes, they saw their mother raped and murdered, their sisters killed and their father taken away. Then they ran and ran for days until they reached the border. One of the boys had badly injured his arm – it was barely attached. His little brother had died in his arms.

Return to Rwanda
These were the images that I brought back with me. But on arriving in Kigali, the capital, I found a prosperous African city full of cars, commerce and people living their lives. My memories of a post-apocalyptic ghost town, of bullets, blood and hastily dug mass graves, the air heavy with death and fear, seemed a lifetime ago.

The former MSF hospital in Ruhengeri, northwest of Kigali, is now a beautiful, bustling referral facility, treating a normal range of human ailments. No more patients with war wounds and landmine injuries, like those who came to us in the days and weeks following the genocide. Only people’s mental trauma persists as evidence of the horror they suffered.

Simple memorials and mass grave sites testify to the great evil that sucked up this tiny country. I stopped in Butare to pay my respects to the hundreds of Rwandan MSF aid workers who were slaughtered in April and May 1994. A mass grave has been constructed on the grounds of the University of Butare opposite the hospital – a simple memorial, with photos of the dead. It was here, in this quiet and lovely spot that I was finally able to cry.

Crossing the border
There could not have been a greater contrast between the peace and calm of Rwanda and what I found when I crossed the border into DRC. Goma, previously a small town, has become a bustling city of one million inhabitants sprawled along the shore of Lake Kivu.

More than 100 international humanitarian organisations help fuel a booming economy. It is hot and dusty, dirty and chaotic. The black volcanic rock everywhere reminds you that the city lives in the shadow of active volcanoes that erupted in 2002.

Just outside Goma, terrible roads took us past camps for displaced people that litter the hills and roadsides. The improvised shacks in these camps are home to hundreds of thousands of people, about 80 per cent of them displaced by the armed conflict and violence in Masisi Territory, a beautiful mountainous region north of Goma.

I had last been in Masisi in 1996, but this was not the same place I remembered. Back then the war was just beginning; the Masisi of today is soaked in violence, the people experienced at fleeing conflict.

Driving past a police station, we heard the sounds of a man being beaten inside. Outside, children laughed at his screams of pain and anger. They are part of a new generation of Congolese children who have only known violence, displacement and deprivation.

Struggle to reach care
We reached the MSF hospital in Masisi town. In the emergency room, a baby lay motionless, breathing hard. Medical staff had started treating his severe pneumonia. He got sick while hiding in the forest with his mother and six brothers and sisters, as they fled the battles raging in their small village.

His mother explained that after a year of living in a camp for displaced people, she had recently returned home with her young family. Then the fighting resumed and they had to flee yet again. They had no food, no shelter, no medical care and no protection from the voracious mosquitoes and heavy rains. After four days they turned back, preferring to die at home rather than in the forest.

Her baby became increasingly sick, and there was no medical care in the village; the MSF health centre had been looted, the medicines stolen. She decided to make the long walk to Masisi hospital with her small children in tow. Fortunately an MSF ambulance spotted her on the road. After another day of walking in the heavy rain, it might have been too late for her baby.

The everyday emergency in the DRC
This family is among the 1.7 million people displaced by violent conflict in eastern DRC. You don’t hear much about the Congolese people who have fled their homes and lost what little they have not once, but multiple times over the past 20 years. We have been working in eastern DRC since 1992 providing emergency medical care to this forgotten population.

The people of eastern DRC live in a state of everyday emergency. Our teams routinely respond to outbreaks of measles and cholera; just last week a typhoid epidemic claimed many lives. Local health facilities do not function and the medical situation is desperate.

As we remember the Rwandan genocide of 20 years ago, my hope is that we will look to DRC and the everyday emergency that is bringing a people to its knees. Every day in Congo armed men are pillaging towns and villages and forcing people to flee. Every day children are dying from preventable diseases like pneumonia. Every day mothers are dying in childbirth and every day women are victims of sexual abuse. These people deserve our help.

Rachel Kiddell-Monroe is a Canadian doctor who served as emergency co-ordinator and later head of mission in the DRC (then Zaire) for MSF/Doctors Without Borders from 1993 to the end of 1996.

Growing up in war – the DRC’s child soldiers

When he was seven Dikembe Muamba* became a soldier on the orders of his uncle, a chief in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North Kivu Province.

“I stole my first gun, when I was 10. It was a flintlock. By the time I became a captain at 14, I had many guns. I led 50 people, both children and adults. There were about 30 children in the unit. The youngest was 10,” Muamba, now 17, told IRIN.

When IRIN met him at one of the “half-way houses” for former child soldiers in the town of Kiwanja in Rutshuru Territory, Muamba was enjoying his first month of “comfort” in a basic brick and mortar house after a decade of bush living.

“I am still angry with my uncle. Those 10 years feel like a waste of a life,” he said. “It was very difficult. There was no school. I had only completed two years of schooling [before being forced into child soldiering].”

The “half-way house” – which provides counselling, parental tracing services and tutoring in preparation for a return to school – is run by mother-of-nine Afiya Rehema*. Her own children are aged 7-19 and in the past nine years she has cared for more than 50 former child soldiers.

This boy was 11-years-old when he became a child soldier with an armed group. (Pic: IRIN / Guy Oliver)
This boy was 11-years-old when he became a child soldier with an armed group.   (Pic: IRIN / Guy Oliver)

“At the moment there are children from Mai-Mai Nyatura, FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda] and Pareco [Alliance of Resistant Congolese Patriots] staying here. When they arrive some can be disrespectful, but they soon become like other children. There has never been any violence towards me,” she said. “Only one ever stole, and then left.”

“I do get some financial support [from local NGO Union pour la paix et la promotion des droits de l’enfant au Congo (Updeco)]. But I do this as a parent. Maybe one of my kids will be taken by an army. And if that happens I hope another parent will be there to look after my child [if he/she escapes from an armed group].”

Muamba spent his first few years as his uncle’s bodyguard before being enlisted into Pareco, which emerged in 2007 from a variety of diverse North Kivu communities, including Hunde, Hutu, Nande, Nyanga, and Tembo.

With a barely discernable pencil moustache indicating the onset of adulthood, he knows exactly how many battles he has fought and replies without hesitation: “It was 45, but I don’t know how many people I killed… The youngest was a girl about six. She was shooting at me.”

Muamba was wounded twice during his decade as a child soldier.

“The first battle I fought in was against the FDLR [an anti-Rwandan armed group that had an informal alliance with Pareco]. I fought against ADF-Nalu [Allied Democratic Forces – an Islamist armed group opposed to the neighbouring Ugandan government] in Beni, and M23 [23 March Movement, an alleged Rwandan proxy armed group].”

In the end, it was his rank and a chance meeting with members of a local child activist NGO that allowed him to walk away from soldiering.

“As a captain, I was free to go where ever I wanted. By chance in Lubero, I met people from Updeco. They told me they could give me demobilisation papers and then I could leave Pareco forever,” he said.

A girl sergeant’s testimony
Eshe Makemba* (17) rose to the rank of sergeant in the FDLR, but enjoyed no such freedom of movement. Being “discriminated” against for being a Congolese national by the FDLR’s Rwandan officers prompted her desertion, she says. “I could not speak out as they told me Congolese were no good.”

After seven years as a soldier for the armed group she ran for two days through the forest evading a search party, which she says would have executed her had she been caught.

She was 10 when she and four other girls were kidnapped near Kisharo, in Rutshuru Territory, by the FDLR. She was the youngest of the captives and the only one to survive a river crossing shortly after her abduction. She then did three months of military training.

“I stole and killed people for nothing… killing people was my way of saving my life,” she told IRIN. She was involved in operations against Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka’s Ndumba Defence of Congo (NDC) and M23. At other times she was raiding farms and homesteads.

Four months after her escape and dressed in her only set of clothes, the former child soldier said she did not think about her time with the FDLR, but acknowledged that the gun she carried gave her access to “material [plundered goods]”.

“I felt OK after the battle. I enjoyed the battle because I knew that afterwards there would be clothes, money and food,” Makemba said.

“One day I was with a group [of FDLR soldiers] that raped a woman. But I did nothing. I did not fear being raped as I had a gun and I could defend myself. But I could not do anything to stop the rape [of the woman],”she said.

Call for effective prosecutions
An October 2013 report by the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (Monusco) entitled Child Recruitment by Armed Groups in DRC From January 2012 to August 2013, said in the past five years about 10 000 children had been separated from armed groups, but in the period under review nearly a 1 000 more were recruited and the use of children by more than 25 armed groups remained “systemic”.

Three armed groups, the FDLR, Nyatura and M23 accounted for about half of the child recruitment in the review period.

The International Criminal Court’s 2012 conviction of Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC) militia leader Thomas Lubanga for conscripting child soldiers in northeastern DRC’s Ituri region between 2002 and 2003 “is important, because it sends a strong signal that those who recruit and use children will be held accountable,” Richard Clarke, director of London-based NGO Child Soldiers International, told IRIN.

“But it needs to be complemented with effective investigations and prosecutions at the national level in order to address impunity for these crimes,” he said.

Clarke said other strategies to prevent the practice included “clear military orders” prohibiting recruitment of children; “strengthening recruitment procedures through the development of age verification methods; training members of the armed forces on child rights and child protection principles; establishing child protection structures inside the military [and] allowing child protection agencies to visit military sites to verify that no children have been unlawfully enlisted.”

Patrice Munga*, a civil society activist based in Tongo, in Rutshuru Territory, told IRIN the FDLR recently began recruiting “really young [under 15] children”.

He said the FDLR were not forcing the children into its ranks, but conducting “sensitisation” at schools in the village “telling them the FDLR is good”, and about 20 volunteered for the armed group between November and December 2013.

He said the boys returned after a few weeks to Tongo with AK-47 assault rifles. He saw one of the child soldiers “showing other children [in the village] how to use his gun and an FARDC soldier walked by them and said ‘So you are a soldier too.'”

Zeka Kabongo* (13) has the body size of a seven-year-old. During the interview he constantly brushes the wooden arm of a chair, his legs curled beneath him.

Abducted with three other boys at noon in Lubero by four gunmen he spent two years as a bodyguard to Kise, the secretary to General Kakule Sikula Lafontaine’s Union des Patriotes Congolais pour la Paix (UPCP).

Kabongo said Lafontaine “told us we were fighting for our part of the country, which the government was refusing to give us”.

He says he “only killed one person” during his time with the armed group and that was during a raid on a homestead by five of the UPCP’s children in search of food.

“We entered the home and asked the wife where her husband was. But the wife would not say. So we got together and decided to kill her [with knives]. When we got back to the group we told Lafontaine what we had done. He told us we ‘had done a good thing’.”

*Not their real names

Fashion Week kicks off in DR Congo

While the army is battling rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s unstable east, models prepared to sashay down the catwalk at the first Fashion Week in the capital Kinshasa.

Gloria Mteyu (29) told AFP that she had organised the three-day catwalk and fashion exhibition “to show that in Congo, there is not just war”.

Back-to-back wars that ravaged DR Congo from 1996 to 2003 have given way to a complex web of rebel groups still terrorising the eastern provinces, which are rich in mineral assets.

Even the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force has not managed to stop atrocities including the killing of civilians, using child soldiers and rape on a scale that has given the country the label of “rape capital of the world”.

Mteyu, who lives in New York, said ahead of the catwalk that beyond showing another side of DR Congo, she also wanted to give homegrown talents a platform.

“Because I myself am a designer, and since I have had the chance to go to other countries on several continents … I wanted to come home, do the same thing and organise a catwalk to showcase our talent, our Congolese style,” she said.

“We have not seen many Congolese at other Fashion Weeks so here is the first chance to showcase Congolese designers who work well,” she said.

(Pic: Kinshasa Fashion Week's Facebook page)
(Pic: Kinshasa Fashion Week’s Facebook page)

Twelve Congolese designers including Okasol, who dresses Papa Wemba, one of Africa’s most popular singers, and eight foreign designers including South Africa’s David Tlale, have been invited.

According to the event’s Facebook page, the organisers also made a casting call for models in Kinshasa this month.

Local residents however complained that ticket prices to the show were out of reach to most in the country where two-thirds of inhabitants live on less than a dollar a day.

A regular seat costs $150, while a package including two nights of catwalk and access to exhibitions costs $300.

“It is shocking. No one has access, only the rich are targeted. There is no chance for everyone to experience this. Even the middle class can’t go,” said Clarisse, who earns $200 a month.

Decrying the “astronomical prices” on the show’s Facebook page, Muriel T. Munga asked: “Who are you targeting? The Kinshasa High Society? If that’s who you’re targeting, then you have succeeded.”

“The first three rows will be packed… but the other rows will be empty,” she said.

Habibou Bangre for AFP