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Congo but not the river
on 7 May 2013
This is an account of an unknown Congo. Ben Rawlence travelled Southwards through Eastern Congo from Goma and north Kivu in the North to the death triangle towns of Katanga in the South. He passed through towns and villages which have been destroyed by successive wars and he witnessed the tentative efforts towards recovery, though the strains among the peoples of this vast region are still simmering under the surface. Everywhere he went he was met with hopsitality, kindness and warmth, excepting the occasional bureaucrats on the make.
The journey is through the borderlands of Congo to the East of his route are Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, Zambia and most of these countries have experienced an influx of refugees fleeing from the successive conflicts which have afflicted eastern Congo. Lake Tanganyika forms part of Congo's eastern border and in the absence of roads he travels by boat down the lake. When the lake runs out he takes to land and whatever vehicles he can find including jeep or pillion on motorcyles over roads which are no more.
The northern part of this journey is through that beautiful fertile Kivu region where many Rwandan Hutus fled with the Interahamwe to escape Tutsi vengence for the Rwandan genocide of 1994. That began a cycle of violence inside the borders of Zaire/Congo. Rwanda and others invaded. The Congo army and the foreign armies fought each other. Then the indigenous Mai Mai militia fought the Congo army. All of them preyed on the people and refugees flooded out of obliterated towns and villages to neighbouring countries. Ben Rawlence recounts the stories of many families who stayed behind and suffered the consequences. He also witnesses the organised, eager and hopeful return of many refugees to their homeland. Despite all that has happened so many just want to come home to reunite families and friends.
However, the divisions within the peoples of this region are still sharp. I was particularly struck by his account of his visit to the Banyamulenge, the Tutsis of Congo, high on their mountain farms surrounded by their enemies. He also recounts the awful treatment of the Batwa, the pygmy tribes whose forests are being destroyed. They are treated as serfs and slaves, (literally non-humans) by the other dominant Muntu tribes who have learned nothing from the brutal legacy of colonialism.
This is a very different account of a journey in Congo. The great river receives a mention but it is not the focal point of the journey. There is so much to learn from this account of these places and people.
One final thought. I travelled as a tourist through Uganda, Rwanda and the Kivu region of Zaire over 20 years ago. Then we went to see mountain gorillas and to climb to the summit of Nyiragongo volcano above Goma. Soon after I was there the volcano erupted and killed many people and then the whole region erupted in violence and destruction of the most awful kind. There has been nothing but bad news since then but this book gives glimpses of hope for the future. I hope that it endures.