GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- This city of about one million inhabitants located in the conflict-prone eastern Congolese province of North Kivu has had few tributes written to it. From afar, its recent history is a saga of misfortune that makes it seem like Baghdad with a lakefront view, or Mogadishu without the white-sand beaches. Since 1996, it's been besieged, ransacked, inundated with refugees, and leveled by a volcanic eruption. Around a million Rwandans showed up on the city's doorstep after the country's 1994 genocide. And just in the past year, more than 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been chased there by the M23 rebel movement, which marched on the city late last year.
Goma is a rich and unique social ecosystem, and not some abstract realm where horrible things happen to strangers.
It's a city built by conflict, a place that 20 years of warfare has churned into a mostly-impoverished chaos of ethnicities and nationalities, helpers and profiteers. There isn't much of a government, municipal or otherwise, and both man and nature threaten the city's very existence. But even a city this molded by its catastrophes isn't wholly defined by them -- those invading armies and cascades of lava gather in the back of a visitor's mind without ever becoming real enough to blot out its normal rhythms. Goma has its monuments and its hangouts; its pleasures and its injustices, its places of quiet reflection, as well as places to get swept up in the pace of life. It is a rich and unique social ecosystem, not some abstract realm where horrible things happen to strangers, even if 7,000 miles of distance might give one the luxury of believing that this is all it amounts to.
One Sunday (April 21st, to be exact), I set out with James, a local guide of sorts, to see things that had no overt connection to the eastern Congo's many tragedies; to gather evidence that life here is more than just displacement and conflict, even in a city this battered. A base for Uruguayan UN peacekeepers was, paradoxically, a perfect starting point.
At around 9 a.m., we made our way up the gravel airport road in a suffering compact car James had procured for the day. Like most streets in Goma, the road is made of pulverized volcanic rock, the handiwork of Mount Nyiragongo, a towering green cone that's crowned with the world's largest lava lake and spouts a constant horizontal cloud of white smoke, so that the skies around Goma can never be totally clear. Nyiragongo is only 12 kilometers from the city, and it is one of the most dangerous volcanos on earth -- it's possible to see gas rising out of the ground even on its gentle lower slopes, miles away from where the mountain abruptly shoots skyward. The proximity of seismic activity to local natural gas deposits has led to fears that the earth, the lake, and, subsequently, the city, could just up and explode.
The airport evokes a less apocalyptic mood. With its runways streaking through a fenced-off area near the downtown, it is the region's most important piece of infrastructure, and, subsequently, a place of legendary corruption and graft . Only one paved road leads to Goma, from neighboring Rwanda -- but if you want to get to Kinshasa, the DRC's distant capital, the airport is your sole option. "Only one commercial airline flies there," James said of the city, which lies about as far away from Goma as London does from Warsaw, "and you pray when you take it."
In November, the Rwandan-supported M23 rebel movement marched on and then briefly occupied Goma, leading to fears that the city's gateway, which sees heavy UN and NGO traffic, could fall into hostile hands. As a result, it is guarded with an eye towards maximum intimidation, and despite its reputation for bribery and lawlessness, the airport is ringed with symbols of authority -- UN and army bases, tanks and heavy vehicles with swiveling gun turrets. Egyptian Humvees in UN livery and Uruguayan machine-gunners in pickup trucks drive laps around its busy perimeter roads, waiting for trouble to start. But there are no rebels in sight on this Sunday morning -- they're staying put along their front lines, up in the hills a few short kilometers north of town. The Uruguayan base sits toward the end of the runway, near the carcass of a rotting DC-3. The Uruguayans themselves looked bored.
There were a couple dozen of them browsing a market across from their base, a rocky and grassy expanse next to a field where shirtless children pursued a raggedy soccer ball. The sellers hocked underwear and dress clothing and African figurines, as well as souvenirs aimed at the coveted UN peacekeeper demographic.. They sold t-shirts with the words "DR Congo: Tour of Duty" tastelessly superimposed over a skull and crossbones; another said "Six Months Away From Home: Tough But Possible," below a silhouette of a commando aiming his gun -- a wishful image, given the peacekeeping mission's widely-criticized passivity and the near-nonchalance with which it let the city fall during the November crisis. The shirts were in English, but the sellers beckoned with calls of "Esso! Esso!" and snippets of basic Spanish as beefy South Americans wandered from merchant to merchant, one of which was blasting a mariachi tune -- a decidedly non-Uruguayan song -- over a portable tape player. "They are good customers," one seller told me, and it certainly seemed that way -- several of them hugged stacks of knock-off Calvin Kleins to their chests. The seller had learned how to bargain with his customers in Spanish, although he'd recently switched from hocking clothing in front of a South African peacekeeping base, a commercial beat that he seemed to prefer. "We would look for things to sell to the South Africans from suppliers from Burundi and Uganda," he told me. The seller understood South African tastes. But a market had sprouted up across the street from the Uruguayans, and he found himself picking up Spanish and selling to people like Lieutenant Costa, a doughy, crew-cut fellow ogling a pink warm-up jacket and sipping mate tea through a metal straw.
He shrugged off an interview request, but what I'd seen was instructive enough. If it weren't for a war that has killed up to 5.4 million people since 1996, there wouldn't be Congolese playing Mexican music to lure Uruguayan soldiers into spending American dollars -- Congolese Francs aren't really all that useful in Goma -- on South African blue jeans smuggled through Burundi. There might otherwise not be places like Salt and Pepper, a dust pit that is nevertheless the only Indian restaurant I've been to outside of India where the proprietors have dared to get the spices right. There wouldn't be places like the Coco Jambo, an outdoor lounge where heavyset and permanently glowering Lebanese men share space with drunken aid workers at the Friday DJ night (Who are those guys, I asked one French NGO employee. "Men who sell things for what they're worth," was her damning reply -- Goma being the sort of place where acquiring useful items in bulk and then selling at value is often an exploitative and occasionally violent livelihood.)
And if it weren't for the war, it's doubtful that, a few hours after my visit to the market by the airport road, I would be gawking at the almost Edenic view of Lake Kivu afforded by the outdoor bar at the Ihusi Hotel, which has a fountain graced by a giant plastic mountain gorilla, in addition to a resident flock of bushy-headed crested cranes, slender blue and white birds strutting among the palm trees. They are apparently endangered.