Goma, Congo

July 10, 2002

Dave Svilar, Fred Sheffield


The choice was between lazing on the Kenyan coast or misery in Central Africa.  Naturally we chose the latter.  Already tired of the ridiculous scams and schemes involved with East African tourist activities we headed towards Rwanda.  We hoped to see this part of the world in a relatively peaceful time.  Rwanda was in the process of recovering from a genocide, Uganda was emerging as the next "model African country", the eastern part of Congo was controlled by Rwanda, and Burundi was on the verge of going up in smoke.  Our timing was perfect.

When a person thinks of the Congo they think of the "Heart of Darkness" and the rivers, rainforests and cannibals portrayed in the book.  However the town of Goma is a different kind of inhospitable -  an expansive plain of black lava decorated by scraggly bushes sitting at the base of a towering range of volcanoes.  Goma lacks cannibals, but has made up for it in the past decade.

Kids pose in the middle of a sea of lava that buried their town a few months before.  Background: showing their resilience roadside vendors return to the old site of their businesses.

The nightmare that is Goma began in earnest with the genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994.  Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hutu refugees crossed the border attempting to escape the Tutsi-led army.  Ironically, the Hutu refugees were the genocidaires in Rwanda guilty of killing a million people.  The international community which had ignored the genocide was suddenly tuned into the bewildering spectacle that had become Goma.  Before those watching at home on television the refugees began dropping like flies.  A man, woman or child would drop dead before rolling cameras, because they had drank from water that had been crapped in (cholera outbreak).  Tens of thousands died within a few weeks at such a rapid clip that bodies were piled on the roads requiring bulldozers to dig mass graves.  Some thought it was like a biblical plague to punish the Hutus for their collective mass murder. 

Most of the refugees are gone today, but Goma has continued to make dubious headlines including the murder of eight Italian tourists in 1998.  As if the town hadn't been punished enough, another blow was delivered in January 2002 when Nyaragongo, a volcano sitting on the edge of town erupted and buried most of the town in lava.  After going to see the volcanoes in Hawaii the year before I wanted to see "real" devastation and misery first hand.

It took a little over two hours traveling by public transport through the winding hills of Rwanda to reach Goma from Kigali.  At the border which was controlled by "friendly rebels" we paid a stupid $25 fee in American dollars, and caught a ride into town.  Fred and I had all of our stuff, so the first order of business was to find a safe place in which to dump our belongings.  Having that taken care of we set out and soon found ourselves in the midst of the devastation we had come to see.  Buildings that weren't completely mauled were buried up to their second story.  Cars were burnt and twisted beyond recognition.  As we walked down the road it appeared that God had not taken mercy on the faithful as we counted no less than four destroyed churches. 



A Volkswagon?  You make the call.

I wasn't sure how two white guys wandering around gawking at the misery of others as if it were the zoo would be accepted by the locals.  People's reaction ranged from indifferent to friendly.  They were used to seeing white aid workers drive by in Landcruisers.  The appearance of two downtrodden travelers walking on the road just like them did not seem to stir excitement like it did in other places we visited.  The people of eastern Congo were emotionally numbed by years of enduring one tragedy after another.

We walked several miles through the barren, lava covered expanse on a road as the occasional U.N. aid car would cruise by.  Unlike tragedies that occur in America, such as the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, there is no immediate action to clean up the mess.  Less than a year after the terrorist attacks the rubble of the WTC was completely removed.  A whole six months after their town was destroyed there wasn't a single crane or dump-truck removing debris.  There was also no signs of rebuilding homes.  Aid workers were more concerned about feeding and watering those displaced by the eruption.  Steady streams of vehicles and planes came in and out of Goma baring aid insignias.

These are the "lucky" ones.  Their homes were untouched by the eruption.

The lava eruption in January was slow, so there was plenty of time for people to escape town, yet there were still casualties.  One group thought the eruption and evacuation of town was a perfect opportunity to steal petroleum for their vehicles.  Most people would realize that siphoning gasoline in the presence of molten hot lava is a bad idea.  Not these guys.  An explosion killed over 50 people. 

It was apparent that wherever the road headed it must lead to a source of water.  Numerous kids and women were hauling empty yellow jugs provided by relief organizations for collecting water.  Just before we were about to turn around we stumbled into a refugee camp where the water source was located.  The line must have been hours long to get a chance to fill a five gallon jug of water.  People were living in the most inhumane ramshackle structures I'd ever seen.  This was my first encounter with a refugee camp and again I was curious as to how I'd be received.  In an unforgettable scene that could've been a movie, the kids swarmed us.  Within 30 seconds there must have been 30-40 kids uproariously surrounding us grabbing our pants and wanting to hold our hands as if we were the second coming of Moses. 

Me posing with kids in a refugee camp.  The purpose of the picture was to show the line of people in the background filling up their yellow water containers.  Fred thought it was too insensitive to blatantly take their picture so I provided a distraction.

We meandered back to town and to the shores of Lake Kivu where the lava had drained.  We tired of staring at devastation and went in to the part of town still intact to have a meal.  We struggled exchanging their inflated currency, but managed to grab a bite and cross back over the border to the relative safety of Rwanda.

Luckily we were behind on the news, because a copy of "The Economist," one of the world's most respected business-news magazines dated for the exact time we were in Goma may have made us think twice about crossing the border.  An article covers the plight of Eastern Congo, particularly villianizing the rebel group we had thought (and proved to be) friendly.  The journalist writes about mutilated corpses and having to hide in the bushes from the hostile rebels.  The article goes on to say, "Under what amounts to Rwandan occupation, eastern Congo is arguably the most miserable place on earth."  While neither Fred or I were considering a honeymoon in Goma, we found the spirit of the town, particularly the kids, to be solid.  Maybe it's just what they call the enduring human spirit.

-written September 2002

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