The conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which I visited over the last week of April, has killed somewhere between 3.5 and 5.4 million people since 1996. It destroys human life in crushing and un-cinematic fashion. Its victims live deep in the mountains of central Africa, and despite the efforts of a few intrepid journalists, scholars, and human rights observers, their suffering goes largely undocumented. They include peasant women who are raped collecting firewood, children dying of cholera in bulging refugee camps, and starving young boys conscripted into militia groups so numerous that experts have trouble keeping track of them all. The DRC's conflict might be the deadliest since World War II, and one of world's worst active crises. But it also may be the most obscure -- the most anonymous.
In Kitchanga, the conflict erupted into view during a bloody week in February and March. The aftermath is still visible, although the journey there is a torrid demonstration of how the land, a blinding-green labyrinth of steep valleys bordered with jagged volcanic hills, can mask the tragedies contained within it. The road from Goma, the eastern DRC's largest city, rises into the mountains of the East African Rift, where villages stand silhouetted against the distant shores of Lake Kivu, a harmony of sloping green and mesmeric blue that stretches far into an unpolluted sky. As the road climbs, travelers can have the illusion of being eye-level with the white smoke billowing from the Nyiragongo volcano, alone in the center of the gaping mountain-ringed valley.
The dirt road is studded with tiny mountain ranges of bumps and craters that turn the back seat of a Landcruiser into a human eggbeater. The drive is an unending gamut of violent quakes -- every puddle and pothole inflicts a painful snap of the neck, along with the mental image of brain hitting braincase, or maybe a jarring collision between one's forehead and the passenger-side window. Breakdowns are common on every unpaved mountain road in North Kivu province; traffic can be snarled for hours if a large enough truck gives out in exactly the wrong spot. In the rain, the danger is magnified, and we arrived in Kitchanga under graying skies.
In the center of town, merchants peddled shoes and dress clothes in the skeletons of burned-out structures, and in the bare concrete lots where buildings had recently stood. The downtown was a checkerboard of charred rectangles marked with lonely support beams and piles of stone and ground-up cement. Life continued amid the ruins: rivulets of creek water gushed through the central drag, where motortaxi drivers washed their vehicles and young children bathed in crowded gutters. Columns of soldiers from the Congolese military, called the FARDC, hogged the center of a street bursting with commerce and activity -- the city continued living, paying little mind to its own physical destruction. Sellers had set up along the frontage of a building that had nearly collapsed, and the crowds were so thick that I barely realized that its sagging and ruined backside was still the best-preserved structure in sight.
This was naked evidence of war, burned-out testimony to a violent mania that had ground the physical environment to asphalt -- it's a place that reminded me of descriptions I had read of burned-out cities in Syria or Mali or the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Yet the network of problems gripping the easternmost quarter of the DRC -- "war" seems like lazy shorthand in a place with 30 armed groups -- isn't about competing visions of the country's future or about the fate of nations or ideas. Capitalism isn't fighting communism; there are no Sunnis fighting Shiites, or Kurds fighting Turks; no philosophical, religious, or national destinies in clash. Violence isn't a means to a higher end in DRC, but the expression of a deeper social, political and historical rot. Here, it's possible to witness how war can become systemic and normal, even in the absence of some broader, national-level struggle -- how a region can become trapped in violent tension and mistrust.
Eastern DRC calls into question nearly every notion of what wars are fought over, and what they even consist of. Global decision makers should keep this in mind as the international community launches a landmark regional peace effort. The UN is currently taking the unprecedented step of deploying a peacekeeping force with a specific counterinsurgency mandate, an "intervention brigade," consisting of special forces from three of the most professional militaries in Africa. It will be empowered to go on the offensive against the DRC's roster of armed groups, and a militia called M23 will be high on its list of targets. The Rwanda-backed rebel movement launched a destructive insurgency in March of 2012 and then swept through Goma eight months later.
The rebellion sparked an international crisis that convinced the world's leaders of the necessity of finally ending the conflict. In February, 11 African countries, including Rwanda, signed a framework agreement that some observers believe could mark be the beginning of a serious peace process. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed former Irish president Mary Robinson as his Great Lakes special envoy two weeks after the agreement was finalized. He even visited Goma on May 23, just a day after the city's outskirts were rocked by deadly skirmishes between M23 and the Congolese army. In a brief speech at a hospital for victims of sexual violence, Ban made the UN's intentions clear: "[The peace deal] aims to address the roots, the fundamental underlying causes of this crisis. The intervention brigade...will address all this violence and will try its best to protect human life, human rights, and human dignity."
But it might not be enough to "protect human life," or go after "fundamental causes." The DRC's problems go beyond civilian protection, or armed groups, or the revenues that those groups draw from the region's lucrative and unregulated mineral trade. The situation grinds away at ideals that are hardwired into democratic political culture. It is a place to observe things through their absence: There are many soldiers, but no state; over 19,000 UN peacekeepers, but no peace to keep; countless armies and militias groups, but no single, unified reason for their existence. From the other side of the Atlantic, these absences seem like a void-like reflection of the political order that reigns over the democratic world -- that idea of a consensual relationship between citizen and state, with a mutually agreed-upon slate of rights and responsibilities to keep it in place. Peel back this order, and its opposite is an environment where the conditions for conflict appear to be cemented into place. Democracy is a human and constructed thing, and in DRC, its absence has nurtured a conflict so fully encompassing that everything seems to sustain it, whether it intends to or not.
Rubaya, a town in the Masisi Territory of North Kivu three hours northwest of Goma, is a place to observe one of the sources of the conflict's endurance: the Congolese government, its capacity sapped by decades of kleptocracy and 20 years of conflict, is capable of doing little more than making things worse. When it doesn't prey on its citizens, it outsources its power to those who do, and even when it behaves like a government, it highlights its own failures and entrenches the region's problems.
Though superficially calm, the town has been profoundly impacted by violence in other parts of the region. Thanks to the M23 threat, there are now as many as five FARDC brigades in the lowland forests and hardened lava fields west of the Nyrigongo volcano. The government is convinced that M23's best chance of taking the city is through sneaking behind the volcano and marching east. Foreclosing on this scenario has meant pulling soldiers out of parts of Masisi, where the army's presence was once unusually strong. Now, after you pass an FARDC base perched on a cliff overlooking a bend in the road -- just before ascending into a God's-eye view of the volcano, the lava fields, the lake, and the rolling green carpet of the East African Rift -- the soldiers, and the government, disappear.
Except they don't really. The FARDC recently deputized a faction of the Nyatura, a Hutu militia, to keep order in Rubaya and the surrounding villages. "It is a temporary measure," FARDC spokesperson Olivier Hamuli claimed when I asked him about this decision. "The Nyatura are not against FARDC. That's why there's a bit of collaboration." So in the city itself, the difference between FARDC and gun-toting thugs is meaningless: they all wear the same standard-issue, dark-green military uniforms. Some have shoulder patches depicting the Congolese flag. Others don't. The difference between the patch-wearers and non patch-wearers is technical and meaningless, so when Nyatura harass motortaxi drivers or steal food from refugees, it is the government that is enabling and engaging in these behaviors as well.
The area's problems have an ethnic component, and this is where the state's decisions begin to feed into tendencies that are potentially volatile. Rubaya and its environs are traditionally the domain of the Hunde ethnic group. But much of the best land is owned and cultivated by Hutu, who are relatively recent arrivals. The Hutu now comprise a majority of the area's population, and they do not always get along with their Hunde neighbors, whose leaders harbor delusions of recovering the land they've sold to Hutu outsiders over the years. Small incidents have turned explosive. Last November, a Hunde and Hutu motortaxi driver collided in a village in central Masisi. Soon their families started disputing responsibility for the accident. So did the Nyatura and a local Hunde group. "From a little thing, it became a community war," a Congolese NGO employee in Rubaya recalled. An absent state is partly at fault, explained James, my Congolese fixer: "If there's an ethnic conflict in Masisi, it's because there are no police," he said. "There's no sense of the role of local authority."
Compounding these problems is Rubaya's population of internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees from elsewhere in DRC, about 15,000 of whom live in a crowded and anxious camp on the outskirts of town. Overwhelmingly Hutu, about half of them fled from M23 after the group's emergence in mid-2012. The others were victims of the Raia Mutomboki, a notoriously violent militia that began as a self-defense network after the FARDC temporarily pulled army divisions headed by former rebels from the CNDP, M23's predecessor organization, from parts of nearby South Kivu. The government wanted to separate the ex-rebels from their local networks on the ground. The Raia were an unintended consequence of this perfectly logical policy.
The Rubaya IDPs are no longer at the mercy of ravening armed groups. But in DRC, safety is a tight cluster of cramped wood-frame tents, a teeming colony rutted with steep, narrow gullies and creeks. Children have a tendency to plummet into them -- one had died this way the week before.
The absence of violence isn't the absence of conflict, and in the IDP camp, the war was still bleeding its survivors. I met a thinning man with patches of missing hair and teeth, who told a convoluted story of his displacement: the Nyatura had begun fighting a Tutsi group, lost, fled to Raia Mutomboki territory, and then lost to them as well -- but not before the Raia had started burning villages, believing that all local Hutu were bandits and thieves. The man's companion, a younger fellow with two fingers missing from his right hand, believed that "ethnic leadership" was to blame for these troubles. "They don't understand how to make peace between groups," he said. Like most IDPs I met, the men had been farmers, making their cramped, coffin-sized living arrangements seem all the more cruel.
"Our village is now a forest," one IDP told me. "Even if we had any crops left, the Raia Mutomboki or Nyatura probably ate all of them. We are not eager to go back home." The man was Hutu, as was nearly ever inhabitant of the camp. I asked him why the Nyatura, a Hutu group, had preyed on its own base of support. "That doesn't mean they'll protect other Hutus," he replied. "They're thieves -- all they want is power. The ethnic connotation came later." As if to prove this, the group charges a 1,000 franc ($1) fee to IDPs who want to cross the bridge out of town, which is more than most can afford.
I walked past a child climbing a rotting, branchless dead tree and entered a hut blackened with smoke, where a woman who said she had lost four children in the recent violence despaired of her prospects. "The war still continues," she said. "I don't think it will end. There is no sign of improvement or peace in our own villages." I asked her if she could explain what the fighting was about. Her friend, a younger woman, said something about minerals and tensions between Tutsi and Hutu which had then created tensions between Hutu and Hunde. But the woman who had lost four children said that she didn't even know.
Rubaya is comprised of close-built wooden shacks, dust-caked clapboard and tin hugging steep hills that are rich in minerals. The smell of cook-fires and burning garbage is never quite enough to overwhelm the green of its surroundings. The land is generous, and under the circumstances its inhabitants work it heroically. In every town, women peddle wax-wrapped wheels of a soft white cheese, delicious and filling and hardly the only good village street food. I ate crushed cassava root boiled in banana leaves, a heavy and sweet paste that's always served with a bag of salty peanuts on the side. I wolfed down dried plantains and skewers of barbecued goat meat.
In Rubaya -- as in the entire eastern DRC -- there is a jarring discrepancy between the abundance of one's surroundings and the insecurity of daily life. This, like so many of the country's problems, can be partially traced back to the Belgians, who imposed a uniquely brutalizing model of colonialism (described in Adam Hochschild's best-selling King Leopold's Ghost) that left the country hobbled when it finally won independence in 1960. The DRC had only 30 native-born university graduates when the Belgians left; since then, it has never been stable or competently-governed enough to make its wealth work to its advantage. "Since the colonialists left, there wasn't any thought to creating a good state," explained Innocent Nyirindekwe, the rector of a Catholic college in Goma. "All roads in DRC were colonial. There were few new high schools, or public universities." With all of the country's subsequent travails, "it is really difficult to move forward."
The east has gold, tungsten, uranium, oil, natural gas and coltan -- just feet beneath the surface of the earth are enough minerals to keep the global technology and defense industries humming. Dearth and plenty can be embodied in single individuals: outside the IDP camp, I met a miner returning home, a solid young man with dust-stained hands, a pair of cheap rubber boots, and a small pickaxe looped through his belt. He had finished a day of sweltering labor in one of Rubaya's coltan mines, whose runoff gives the town's waterways the uncanny appearance of rushing, liquid clay. He worked six days a week, and made decent money -- $20-30 over a good three days. "It is not an easy job, but it's not too hard for us," he said. "It's the only job we have here."
I asked several people about the process for obtaining a mining concession, but their answers were vague: you'd have to purchase them through a government office, which is time consuming since all the minable land belongs to politicians in Kinshasa or to FARDC generals. So a prospective developer can give into the predations of the state, or they can just start mining illegally, hence eroding the authority of the state. There's no legal or governmental framework for a mining sector that can provide more than day wages, or that isn't dominated by thieves and warlords -- the result of ongoing conflict fed by a total absence of government authority, which is itself a result of conflict. The causality is dizzying; the government's lack of capacity is an outgrowth of war, and visa versa. But its consequences are clear: in Rubaya, the Congolese government is worse than useless. It acts without considering the implications of its decisions, often in a way that seems designed to sabotage its own authority.
It's given up on law on order by handing the city over to the Nyatura, although it didn't seem to have the capacity to govern it in the first place. In a town with an official population of 32,000 (not counting the refugees) there is no centralized electricity or water, no internet, no paved roads, and only intermittent cell phone service. NGOs provide healthcare and even some basic infrastructure, like water pumps. There are only five secondary schools in town, and they are all run by religious organizations. Their place in Rubaya's social fabric is precarious. "If you work in a mine, you might make $50 in a day -- more than if you're a teacher," the head of a local Catholic high school told me. "So sometimes the teachers leave. And when the children are unable to pay their school fees, they go work in the mines as well." His school had 1100 students, eager children in spotless white uniforms. Just fifteen had graduated the year before.
No one is really in charge of Rubaya, but the theater of state authority endures. One of the city's largest buildings is a freshly whitewashed structure behind high, barbed-wire capped walls. At least theoretically, the region's mines are regulated from the building, whose lobby was featureless, aside from a small bulletin board with architectural charts of the building itself. It had lighting fixtures and light switches, but no electricity. Rooms were empty; I saw no filing cabinets or papers, and only a single desk. "This is a fake office," said James.
We met an earnest man named Francoise, the secretary for the department responsible for overseeing the area's "small mines." The process works like this: some time recently, NGOs, and, he claimed, the U.S. Agency for International Development, had conducted a survey of mines in the Rubaya area, to determine which were exploiting their employees and kicking their profits to militant groups. "After an investigation, they determined Rubaya minerals are clean," he said. Well, not really: several mines were labeled "blood sites," including one connected to Bosco Ntaganda, a career militant and the former leader of M23. Prior to March 23, 2009, he had been a leader of a Tutsi insurgency called the CNDP. Thanks to the treaty signed on that date -- the day that M23 is named after -- he became a high-ranking general in the Congolese army, despite being under an International Criminal Court indictment for his use of child soldiers during an earlier chapter of the DRC conflict. He had recently appeared at the U.S. embassy in Kigali after the group began to violently fracture, and the Americans promptly transferred him to The Hague.
Ntaganda's enterprise was unbothered, and five local mines were deemed "clean." They had each been assigned a regulator from the secretary's office, even though it wasn't clear what this regulation consisted of. Yet by "regulating" only the "clean" mines, the government had essentially given up on the vast majority of mining activity, in which minerals flowed into the global economic system to the benefit of the DRC's militant groups. The really bad stuff wasn't any of this office's concern. And then there was the issue of "blood mines" run by the FARDC itself, a problem that Francois readily copped to. "It needs a big investigation," he said. "Kinshasa and the international community know about that traffic." A colonel might simply put a relative in charge of a mine -- "regulated" or no -- and reap the income himself. By awarding certificates of legality to mineral shipments from the clean mines, Francois's office made it seem as if any regulation was occurring at all, reducing law and order to a sham.
A man named Emile Ntabwiko is professionally obligated to at least pretend Rubaya is under the government's control. He is what Congolese call the chief d'post -- the government's top representative in town. His duties, which were still vague even after he carefully explained them to me, are discharged from a mud hut whose only adornment is a portrait of Joseph Kabila, DRC's doughy and unpopular young president, and the son of the late president Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001. Clad head to toe in khadi, Ntabwiko was youthful-looking and serious. "Rubaya is not really an old town," he explained. "People came to settle here within the last 15 years because of the minerals, and it's a strategic place because it's quiet." The biggest issue he had to deal with was the arrival of the IDPs. "There's insecurity, and food is getting expensive," he said. He was grateful that the Nyatura were keeping order, but mindful of the fact that they hadn't been paid or fed yet.
Later that day, I sat under a different and even more ironic portrait of Kabila in a village seven kilometers up the road, straddling a high and narrow ridge. The town was a sort of unofficial headquarters for the faction of the Nyatura that had joined the FARDC. I met with the traditional Hunde chief, an older fellow whose responsibilities included tax collection for the same government that theoretically paid the salary of the Nyatura colonel whose base was barely 300 yards from his office.
"There's no official FARDC. Just militants who were given combat fatigues and guns," he told me. "They rape, kill and steal." He reserved his worst scorn for a Nyatura-turned-FARDC colonel named Kigingi. "He's very bad. He recruits even children. Today, I've received the message that when the Colonel catches me, he will imprison me for three months." This intimidation had not fazed him. "The dog barks, but cars pass without stopping," he said.
Kabila's portrait seemed like an absurdity, and not just because it depicted a man whose office was over 1,000 impassable miles to the west, in a part of the DRC that was at peace. Kabila's father had been a washed-up Marxist exile when the Rwandan government recruited him as the local figurehead for a 1996 invasion force that toppled Mobutu Sese Seko, a U.S.-supported dictator who had ruled DRC for the previous 30 years. In the aftermath of Rwanda's 1994 ethnic genocide, nearly 1 million Hutu refugees settled in neighboring DRC. Some of them were armed genocidaires plotting against Rwanda's post-genocide government. Rwandan president Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, accused Mobutu of sheltering members of the former Hutu government responsible for the country's slaughter -- although it's possible that the invasion was ethnic revenge under the guise of national security, considering the appalling number of Hutu refugees the invaders killed en route to Kinshasa. Laurent ended up as an accidental president after the success of the initial military campaign, although disagreements with his Rwandan backers, suddenly unwilling to pull their army and military advisers out of Congolese territory, touched off a second round of fighting (Jason Stearns's Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is an excellent popular history of this period).
The younger Kabila has shown little enthusiasm for even pretending to be in charge of a difficult country of nearly 70 million people. He has done practically nothing during his 12 years in power, other than steal the 2011 presidential election, convince international backers of his indispensability, and secure the loyalty of the presidential guard -- which is likely the only thing standing between a supine and unspectacular dictatorship, and a military coup.
Kabila is almost never seen in public. He is the least interesting kind of enigma, a secretive mediocrity who has managed to stick around for reasons that make sense individually, but are bewildering if viewed on the whole. Over French food in Goma, an expat hypothesized that Kabila could easily turn things around. If he gave a few rousing, populist speeches, if he rolled out new infrastructure programs, if he brokered a solution to a few of the country's more solvable ethnic and land-related disputes, or fired a couple of his more corrupt deputies, or appeared to be in charge of something, Congolese might start believing in him. They wanted to feel that someone was running things, even if it was the nepotistic empty suit that so many of them despised. Sure enough, when I asked Congolese to pinpoint the cause of their country's problems, I would often hear about the failure of the political leadership, or a certain ethnic group's leadership, or just of leadership in general.
In the chief's office, Kabila's portrait was just a reminder of a government that could do almost nothing right, when it decided to do anything at all. The chief said that his community had requested that the army -- Kabila's army, at least in theory -- pull out of his village. Instead, the integrated Nyatura imposed a head tax, forcing each household to provide a quantity of corn to feed their alleged protectors.
The militia had only raised resentments within the chief's community. He believed that the Hutu don't exactly want to live with the Hunde, but weren't natural enemies. "The tension is caused by leaders who are extremists, who don't want people to get along. But the people want to live in peace together."
This guarantees nothing. Events in DRC can take on a logic that's apparent only when it's too late: it wasn't obvious that a local military reorganization would lead to the rise of the bloodthirsty Raia Mutomboki, or that the government's reinforcement of the area west of Goma would empower an ethnic militia hours up the road. But that's the logic of a vacuum: absent an authority capable of isolating thorny and usually hyper-local issues, those issues are pulled into the larger ecosystem of conflict, where they fester and grow, until they drift into each other and explode. DRC's conflict continues because no one is capable of stepping in and halting the process, and the people who could be capable are uninterested in doing so.
Back in Goma, an NGO employee described a situation that perfectly illustrated the relationship between government and citizen in such an incompetent and predatory state.
Years earlier, a foreign donor realized that one way to improve law and order in the DRC was by building prisons. Prisons mean that there are laws to be broken as well as consequences for breaking them; without them, criminal cases end in impunity or violence -- in more criminality. The new prisons were cleaner and more humane than what few facilities they replaced. But they sometimes deepened the problem they had set out to solve: local despots could use them to ransom or kidnap their opponents; guards would demand bribes from families delivering food to prisoners, since the state was incapable of feeding them. Worst of all, innocent people would rot in brand-new jails while war criminals like Bosco Ntaganda served as generals in the national army. Building more prisons had arguably eroded rule of law.
There was a similar principle at play in Goma, where the municipal government had recently banned motorbike taxis at night, out of fears that M23 would use them as a covert means of attack. After dark, the streets are a ghostly husk of the vibrant, overstuffed city that inhabited them just hours earlier -- in the downtown of a city of one million people, foot traffic is almost non existent after dark, and the most common vehicles are armored trucks belonging to UN military police. But this isn't because drivers respect the dictates of the local authorities. They know that if they're spotted after dark, the underpaid and maybe even unpaid traffic cops, who are corrupt almost by necessity, will use the new rule as an excuse to shake them down. Something that seems to indicate the existence of the rule of law -- the force of the state, the legitimacy of its rules and of the officers who enforce them -- indicates its opposite.
In North Kivu, the citizenry's alienation is so total that every transaction serves as a grim reminder of the state's failures. At my hotel, at restaurants, with shopkeepers and women selling phone cards on the street, I paid in U.S. dollars. I never exchanged money -- such a transaction would produce an unwieldy and worthless stack of bills, and you might be laughed or glared at by the wait staff if you tried to pay for a $20 (18,000 francs, roughly) cote d'beouf with them.
The primacy of the dollar puzzled me. It is impossible to obtain dollars, which are backed by the most powerful government on earth, in exchange for francs, which are hardly backed by anything. Every dollar had to travel thousands of miles before it arrived in the DRC -- they didn't print them in Kisangani, after all. Even so, the American currency brought in by expats and foreign businessmen had simply re-circulated over the years, until it blotted out the Congolese franc, along with much of its practical value. A basic form of sovereignty -- the ability to mint money and affect nationwide economic policy -- had faded, and even the small act of purchasing a bottle of water had the effect of condemning the state to irrelevance.
The disintegration of the state's moral and legal authority plays itself out in ways that are deeply insidious and directly connected to the region's violence. One Goma-based humanitarian professional explained how something like ICC-indicted warlord Bosco Ntaganda's integration into the military might pervert everything else in the eastern DRC. "Ntaganda got a good deal. What incentive are you giving people here to be good, or to follow the law, or to not take up arms? None," he said. "Are you going to be a teacher or a warlord? You're going to be a warlord. Because it would be crazy to be a teacher."
The night I returned from Rubaya, I met young men who had made exactly that decision. Their names were Henri, Wolf and Chris, and I spoke with them in a discrete corner of a hotel courtyard in Goma. They were budding warlords from M23-occupied territory, leaders of fledgling Hutu militias that were fighting the mostly-Tutsi rebels. Chris was a thin and intense man who drew invisible maps on the table with his forefinger as he spoke. He had been a math teacher before he became a militant. The quiet and muscle-bound Wolf brought along a fancy notebook with the MONUSCO logo embossed on the cover; he had been studying to become a teacher as well. Henri was president of a group called the Movement for Popular Self-Defense; the other two belonged to a militia called the FDIPC, whose meaning I never learned. Between them, they claimed to command about 400 fighters, and they volunteered responsibility for various battlefield successes over the course of our conversation, including the killing of eight M23 the week before.
"For a long time, nobody understood our suffering," said Chris. "As a Hutu living in Rutshuru [M23's capital], no one can help us." Certainly not the state. "The government is unable to end armed groups," Chris said with no apparent irony. "Inside the government, there are people creating armed groups."
He took a conspiratorial view of his country's problems: "The Tutsis now have 11 [FARDC] generals. Nine are in faction, working together. There are 45 Tutsi colonels, who continue to create problems. Why do they do that? The Tutsis already have many things here. Other ethnic groups don't have the same advantages as them."
This is a bigoted train of thought, but it hints at a painful history: during the 1996 invasion, Rwanda and its proxies massacred over 100,000 Hutu refugees who had fled into DRC, a round of reprisal killings too systematic and too ferocious to be justified by Rwandan national security alone. Later, the CNDP, the forerunner of M23, had largely been integrated into the Congolese armed forces after the 2009 peace agreement -- Rwandan-supported insurrectionists hadn't been punished but rewarded with high-ranking positions in the military as the rest of the region suffered. Even before that, Rwandan meddling had led many in the DRC to think of the country's Tutsis as a kind of fifth column, sleeper agents for the ruthless and brilliant Paul Kagame, whose tiny country had a preternatural ability to wreak havoc in its much larger neighbor.
Hundreds of thousands of people have died in DRC because of attitudes like these, suspicions that can quickly morph into violent paranoia and hate. The three junior warlords were convinced of an anti-Hutu conspiracy that went all the way to the White House, which was suspiciously willing to accommodate Kagame's every whim. Their sense of abandonment was absolute: "Hutu are not against Tutsi," said Chris. "We are ready to live with them. And Congolese society is not against Hutu. The problem is Kagame. Here in the DRC, we have approximately eight million dead, a genocide. Why does no one publish this? The Hutu arrived in the Congo during the [Rwandan] genocide. The international community gave them permission to enter. Why don't they do anything to help them now?" The world had instead sided with Kagame, Chris said, a man who, in his opinion, "hates, hates, hates Hutu. It's not even a question."
He believes the U.S., a friend to countries that had sown violence and chaos in DRC, had abandoned the Hutu as well. "When there was a report about the Congo, Susan Rice refused it," said Wolf, referring to the American UN ambassador's cautious public treatment of evidence that Rwanda, a U.S. ally, was aiding M23. "And when there's a woman raped in India, she says there's been a rape."
It was the absence of the state, and of an army capable of defeating M23, that had turned these young men into fighters. But they were animated by grievances that ran far deeper than state failure, and that hinted at cycles of victimization, dispossession, and bitterness that no government could be expected to break. But violence couldn't break these cycles either -- 400 bush soldiers were incapable of creating a region where all wounds were healed, and where rational politics, or a sense of democratic citizenship, could be possible.
Wolf, Chris, and Henri were M23's enemies. But it is this psychic vacuum, the hidden corollary to the eastern DRC's political and security void, which the rebel movement seeks to occupy and exploit. I met scores of people in the DRC, and members of M23 provided some of the most cogent and comprehensive interpretations of the country's problems. The people with perhaps the clearest view of their nation's tragedy were also violent hypocrites: ethnic militants who talk about national unity; armed thugs miming platitudes about democracy and human rights, projections of another country's foreign policy -- Rwanda's -- that insist on their Congolese character. They don't embody the schisms that drive the conflict forward so much as wield them like a blunt instrument, as if insisting on the ugliness of Central Africa's ethnic and historical divisions, and the vanishingly tiny space for resolving them nonviolently.
M23 represents the lack of a viable alternative to the current disorder, and the seemingly chronic perversion of the entire region's civic life. This, like the predation and constant bungling of the Congolese state, is a critical ingredient in the DRC's logic of conflict.
M23 traces its origins to the CNDP, the earlier Rwandan-supported group that was integrated into the FARDC under a treaty signed on March 23, 2009. After the truce, the Congolese government was mindful of the potentially violent consequences of exerting any sort of real command over the ex-rebels, who were allowed to continue their mafia-like reign over areas they controlled before the peace treaty. In early 2012, there were rumblings that this arrangement was about to change, and even hints that the Congolese government intended to turn Bosco Ntaganda, the CNDP leader who became an army general under the 2009 treaty, over to the ICC. Some of the ex-CNDP, and probably some of their Rwandan backers, decided that the 2009 treaty had worn out its usefulness. The rebellion began with mass defections in March of 2012, and still hasn't ended.
In November of 2012, M23 marched on Goma, violating an unspoken international red line. Well-trained and heavily armed Rwandan commandos reportedly joined them. The FARDC was overmatched and fled, and in the absence of the national military, the UN made only tacit attempts at stopping the onslaught. This was widely criticized, but what looked like failure might actually have saved large sections of the city: M23 just waltzed into Goma without the costliness and destruction of an urban street battle, sued for peace, and retreated 11 days later after a round of frantic international diplomacy -- but with their negotiating position enhanced.
MONUSCO actually did engage M23 with attack helicopter gunships early in the crisis -- but that was before the FARDC emptied out of Goma as the rebels advanced, putting the peacekeeping mission in an impossible situation. "[The FARDC] withdrew from the front lines late last year, as M23 advanced on Goma," says Kieran Dwyer, a spokesperson for the U.N.'s Department of Peacekeeping Operations. "There was then a decision point of how far do we go unilaterally in using force against M23. As they advanced further, do we fight in the streets of a city with hundreds of thousands of civilians? There was an ultimate call that we would have put civilians at more risk if we had allowed the fight to be taken inside of Goma than if we had resisted the advance." MONUSCO evacuated civilians at risk of being targeted by M23 and continued to patrol the city even as it was under the militant group's control. This was arguably in keeping with the mission's purpose: after all, the main objective of the peacekeeping force is to protects civilians, and it isn't really oriented towards traditional -- not to mention politically-sensitive -- war-fighting activities.
Yet in taking Goma, M23 and its Rwandan backers had proven their point, without the messiness of a long occupation: They were capable of seizing Goma if they wanted to, and the Congolese state and the international community were unwilling to stop them. The red line was no red line at all.
M23's return to Goma is unlikely, but it's a possibility that both the UN and the FARDC are obviously taking seriously. The Goma airport is ringed with UN bases. Armored personnel carriers full of Uruguayans and UN-labeled Egyptian army jeeps patrol its streets, and the feeling of a warzone begins well south of M23 territory.
The last government checkpoint appeared just as the city gave way to fields of volcanic stone, a collection of plastic chairs where bored policeman hissed perfunctory questions at any driver with the gall to exit their domain. It was the first of three checkpoints before entering M23 country. The second was manned by the UN mission, called MONUSCO, which made an overwhelming display of force: six emplaced tanks, gun-toting soldiers, pickup trucks with machine guns in back. The Indian battalions sport tough-sounding names like the "Deccan Devils," but at least two people closely involved in the UN's Goma operations told me that the Indian army's main objective in the DRC was to avoid losing a single additional soldier. For one checkpoint, at least, MONUSCO seemed like a formidable army, the type of modern force that no one would want to gamble on having to shoot through (setting aside the questionable applicability of battle tanks to a guerrilla war in a volcanic forest).
About a half-kilometer up the road were soldiers in fresh jungle camo, with shiny new machine guns that made a mockery of the wooden rifles carried by the FARDC, and high-end walkie-talkies sticking out of their pockets. There is no reason for an outsider to fear them: M23 has a "humanitarian coordinator" named Dr. Alexi, an ex-UN physician who makes sure that the group respects NGO activities and adheres to international law. This neatly encapsulates M23, a group that terrorizes civilians and recruits children, but still understands the public relations benefit of appearing to care about humanitarianism. At the checkpoint, and at dozens of subsequent checkpoints, our car, which had large signs reading "PRESSE" taped to each side, was waved through.
By the best estimates, M23 is down to its last 1500 fighters, and we might have passed the bulk of them during the drive to Rutshuru. There were M23 on the back of pickup trucks, young teens toting jet-black rifles that looked like they had barely been fired. There were M23 in matching green rain slickers standing over bends in the road -- even soldiers who looked like they had barely entered their teens wore clean, well-fitting uniforms. I saw M23 harassing commercial trucks; credible word had it that the rebel movement's grunts hadn't been paid in weeks.
We also passed hundreds of MONUSCO troops even after we had crossed into M23 country. In one town, our jeep cowered by the side of the road while ten high-clearance trucks passed, with blue-helmets crowded into their hoppers and Indian tanks following close behind. M23 and MONUSCO know that they have nothing to gain from a shooting war; in lieu of open conflict, they stare at each other with looks of undisguised violence and contempt. I was sure that an especially angry-looking Indian tank commander would exchange words with one basilisk-eyed militant and was relieved when he drove off in silence.
Two armies occupy M23 territory, and they are content with leaving the other alone, for now. It turns out M23 and their Rwandan supporters actually had violated a red line in seizing Goma -- in early 2013, the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of the 3,000-troop "intervention brigade," consisting of special forces from South Africa, Tanzania, and Malawi. In a break with standard peacekeeping practice, the brigade's force composition and rules of engagement will allow them to go on the offensive in order to protect civilians. The UN is dabbling in modern counterinsurgency methods for the first time in its history.
The force will be deployed over the course of the summer, and by late June, 2,000 soldiers were already in DRC. In a best-case scenario, the force will both protect Congolese and recuperate some of the credibility that MONUSCO lost during a difficult year. Sometime in 2012, members of an armed group called Mai Mai Cheka summarily executed the local chiefs in a town called Pinga, and then paraded their heads in front of the nearest MONUSCO base. If the brigade succeeds, MONUSCO -- and, by extension, the UN -- can transcend these earlier issues, and the international community's commitment to protecting Congolese civilians will be harder to question. (The U.S. has a stake here: America provides 27 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget, including $519 million for MONUSCO over the last fiscal year).
But in the DRC, even the definition of "success" is an open question -- especially given the recent history of foreign interventions in the country's east. In 1996, Paul Kagame and Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni's campaign against Mobutu was thought of by some as the continuation of the remarkable events in South Africa just a couple years before -- part of a larger movement to transform a troubled continent, and reverse a legacy of conflict and misrule. Mobutu belonged to a class of post-colonial leader that needed to be expunged: a vapid kleptocrat who spewed old-line pan-African nonsense; an illegitimate president-for-life who would even tolerate Rwanda's genocidaires if it would increase his chances of retaining power. In its violent aftermath, which included brutal reprisal killings against Hutu refugees (recounted in in Howard French's A Continent for the Taking), and a war between Uganda and Rwanda, the campaign ended up mocking whatever higher ideals it might once have stood for. The DRC wound up with the Kabila clan, a dictatorship just as sclerotic as that of the leopardskin enthusiast who had ruled Congo -- or Zaire, as he had renamed it -- since 1965. And it wound up with 15 more years of war.
The intervention brigade will be much smaller than the '96 invasion force, and its goal will be to strengthen, rather than overthrow, the sitting government. And it isn't the result of adventurism, but of a 20-year policy failure that the international community is finally confronting. Yet within the vacuum of the eastern DRC, even the greatest of charities -- and the defeat of M23 qualifies -- could have worrying consequences. Will the brigade opt for a light footprint, and wage targeted, special operations-style strikes on militia leaders? Will it clear territory for the FARDC, which has a human rights record as troubling as some of the armed groups the brigade is empowered to fight? Olivier Hamuli, an FARDC Lieutenant Colonel and army spokesperson, told me that the brigade was being deployed for his military's benefit: "It is coming to support the FARDC. They will have good equipment, such as drones along the border, which will be necessary to control the armed groups." In Hamuli's mind, the brigade is there to help them fight the Rwandans.
"American soldiers are well-paid and well-equipped," Hamuli said, after pointedly asking me to name a military that would remain as disciplined as the
FARDC under the difficult circumstances that it faced. "They have everything. But they still tortured and raped in Iraq," he said. Given the FARDC's
dismissive attitude towards the army's crippling command and control issues, it isn't surprising that some analysts doubt whether a UN military victory
over M23 will change much of anything. "No one's saying the offensive part of it won't work," says one Goma-based expert. "It will work. These are
14-year-olds with AK 47s. Of course they're going to get flattened by South Africans with tanks and helicopters...the problem is that the brigade is not
going to stay. They're going to move on to the next armed group."
From Kinshasa's perspective, the brigade comes with few strings attached, and little added pressure on security sector or governance reform. Some experts I spoke with told me the UN hasn't really thought about what will fill the vacuum left behind by the armed groups it defeats. Dwyer says that the intervention brigade should be viewed in terms of parallel developments in the political sphere, like the 11-country peace initiative, Mary Robinson's appointment as special envoy, and increased international pressure on Kinshasa on security sector reform and other matters. "The idea is that if the political framework is effective," he said, "any armed groups that have any legitimate concerns will have an avenue to be addressed at the regional and local level."
But even then, the brigade signals the further erosion of the state: "The Congolese state has outsourced its monopoly on violence to the UN," said one Goma-based analyst.
Like Rubaya, Rutshuru would prove that this wasn't really the state's to outsource in the first place.
Rutshuru sits north of the lower slopes of Nyiragongo and is insulated by uninhabitable expanses of hardened lava. On the morning I visited, M23 leader Sultani Makenga was hosting a summit with his lieutenants and bush commanders. They were meeting inside a stately government building painted a light shade of orange, with a Congolese flag out front. It was part of a larger government campus where daily life seemed to ignore the scores of heavily armed and clearly bored M23 milling about -- men with gleaming black machine guns and sniper rifles who would enter into stare-downs with UN tanks passing just feet away from where the entire M23 leadership was meeting.
We were there to meet M23 colonel Vianny Kazarama, who would not leave his meeting with Makenga under any circumstances. For the next two hours, I got a taste of M23's respect for discipline: no one would talk to me unless Kazarama gave them permission. No one would even tell me their name.
As the hours dragged on, Kazarama's two deputies -- unarmed men in fatigues who seemed as if they were under strict orders not to evince any sort of emotion -- attempted to convince my driver to join their cause. He was a stylishly-dressed man with an almost brand-new Toyota Prado entrusted to his care. By appearances, he was a hopeless candidate. They tried anyway.
"It's the Congolese people who are responsible for these problems," one deputy told him. "There's no awareness that if they work, they are capable of actually changing the country." The Congolese people's own passivity had doomed them, in his view: "With this government, even to get something very simple done becomes a prayer," one of the men said. "To get water is a problem in a country with so many rivers and lakes." Compare the DRC to Rwanda, Uganda, or even Burundi, he said. This is why they fought.
And they were right, to an extent. "The people who support them are hypocrites," Pascal, my interpreter for the day, told me. "What they're asking, their agenda -- people support these ideas. They're saying that the government can't organize the country, and it can't. The trouble is that people are tired of the war." But the trouble was also that in a political culture so warped by conflict, there would be no reason to listen to anything M23 had to say if they weren't heavily armed. I met their leaders not because of the sensibleness of their ideas, but because of the guns they commanded.
Kazarama eventually emerged from the orange building. He was dressed in U.S. army desert camo, with exposed Velcro where the nametags and insignia should be and the top collar of the uniform Velcro'd shut, in what would actually be a violation of the U.S. Army's dress standard. The uniform, along with his tendency to shift weight between his feet and stare at his phone in the middle of questions, gave him an awkward and bored affectation, as if even he had tired of spouting conscious and transparent lies to any journalist who showed up in Rutshuru. Some of his talking points at least had the benefit of being true, even if they were intended to mislead: "There is total impunity in the DRC today," he said. "There is corruption. There is no democracy. The country is rich, but the population is very poor. You have seen how the roads are. Even in Goma, you have seen how awful the roads are. They can't pay teachers or soldiers. There is practically no government...there are no human rights."
M23 would scarcely exist in its current form if it weren't for the support of non-democratic Rwanda, but Kazarama was happy to turn the accusation around: "There are many armed groups of foreigners, which are not local groups...there is the FDLR," he said, referring to a Hutu militant group consisting of former members of the genocide-era government and army, "which are Rwandan, and arrived in 1994. They are terrorists. There's the FNC, from Burundi. There's the Bororu, from Chad." (One noted DRC expert I consulted in the U.S. said that she had never heard of the latter group).
This was an embarrassing subject for M23, which isn't really a Rwandan proxy in the strictest sense - the leaders of the group are actually Congolese, even if their weapons and occasional fighting companions are not. But the group still extends Rwandan influence into an area where Kagame's government has a complex network of interests. Chief among them is resource expropriation: minerals represent 28 percent of the country's official exports, even though Rwanda has few deposits of its own. It is believed that the unacknowledged mineral trade that's trafficked through Rwanda totals in the billions of dollars. Rwanda needs access to minerals, and support for Congolese Tutsi militants is one way to protect their supply lines.
There's another, even more fundamental reason for Kagame's machinations. Less than 20 years after its genocide, Rwanda is an authoritarian marvel: Flat tarmac connects the capital to the Goma border three mountainous hours to the west. In Rwanda, all motor taxi drivers wear helmets, as do their passengers; there are public clocks in every town, and they are accurate. Outside of Gisenyi, near the Goma border post, there is a freshly built prison surrounded by high, tan walls, despairing to look upon and angled conspicuously towards the highway. Opposition leaders are in jail, the government brings cryptic charges of "genocide ideology"-- or just plain genocide -- against its opponents, and Kagame won the last presidential election with over 90 percent of the vote. Still, Kigali is a city of clean streets and shiny glass office buildings, with incorruptible police officers and traffic lights that people obey. This is a function of Kagame's famously discipline-oriented leadership style: when he was commander of the insurgent Rwandan Patriot Front during the genocide -- the group that would overthrow a Hutu supremacist government and end one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century -- he is said to have executed subordinates for offenses as trivial as arriving late to meetings.
Kagame has purchased stability in his own country by exporting its problems to Rwanda's much larger neighbor -- there's no violent Hutu-Tutsi conflict inside Rwanda, because it's been safely transferred to the other side of the Congolese border. Kagame thinks strategically: give the Tutsi a veto over regional stability, he figures, and the chances of a 1994-like hecatomb are dramatically reduced. Of course, this calculation only proves that the Hutu-Tutsi conflict still festers, even if Rwanda is superficially at peace. "This is a cyclical crisis, because the issue of Rwanda has not been tackled," one Goma-based expert told me. "The issue of the Tutsis and their contentions with the other groups hasn't been addressed."
Inside Rwanda, Hutu killers still live next door to the Tutsis they victimized in 1994, while Hutus and even some Tutsis have chafed under Kagame's tough rule. The Hutu who committed the genocide, as well as their descendants, live just next door, in DRC. Kagame might privately be wondering whether his country is another Syria -- whether even the most skilled mixture of canny leadership, shrewd regional policy, and internal oppression can make a nation forget the horrors of its recent history, and the contradictions of its current order. Read one way, Rwanda's policies in DRC reflect a strategic prowess that masks deep insecurity.
In Kazarama's telling, M23 wasn't there to help enforce Paul Kagame's particular vision of regional peace. They were solving Congolese problems, combating foreign armed groups and bringing democracy to their failed state. They would even do something about the DRC's rape crisis. "There were 126 women raped by the FARDC in Minova," he said. In another town, 90 had been raped. The commander alone had raped 16 women in another. The Minova incident actually happened, yet somehow this made Kazarama appear even more cynical than if he had been inventing his facts. Perhaps he understood his partial responsibility, and the responsibility of every militant, for weakening the state and the country to the point where its army could go on a rampage of sexual violence without anything changing as a result. Perhaps this status quo is exactly what M23 and the Rwandans were trying to preserve.
Kazarama had adopted more than just human rights language: he also showed hints of the conspiratorial thinking of other factions in the DRC. The intervention brigade was authorized because "some countries on the Security Council have been corrupted by the Kinshasa government. Now, they are bringing Africans here to kill each other, instead of finding a durable solution." He promised retaliation if the brigade moved against M23. "If the brigade attacks, we will chase them into Goma...We have to defend ourselves."
In May, M23 actually did threaten Goma in a series of skirmishes around the city, and even managed to fire a mortar on the downtown. But talk of retaking it is pure bravado. There had been a fracturing of M23 just a month or so earlier, when Makenga and his supporters violently purged Bosco Ntaganda's faction from the militant group. Aid cuts from the U.S. and various European donors had shamed Rwanda into scaling back its support for M23, and Kagame's government, which has a seat in the UN Security Council, even voted in favor of the deployment of the intervention brigade. The winds had shifted, and Kagame's calculations had shifted along with them. "The M23 has a young soldier set that's tired of not being paid, and tired of being unpopular," one Goma-based security consultant told me. There's a high rate of defection, and very low morale. He sketched out two possible futures for the group: "soft targeting," which would involve a campaign of assassinations and kidnappings, or strategic contraction and even voluntary disappearance. M23 could bury their weapons, take off their fatigues, and wait until the winds changed yet again.
Kazarama continued, unbowed by reality: "we represent all of the Congolese people who are suffering, the 96 percent who are against the Kinshasa government." "The DRC people support M23. They are saying that it is a sign of the disease in the Kinshasa government." He claimed that M23 hadn't created any new refugees: "There are even people in government territory who fled into M23 territory for security reasons."
I heard the same assertion from an M23 administrator named Benjamin Mbonimpa, a friendly man with a professorial air and a veteran of two of M23's predecessor movements. His office had an immense Congolese flag and a calendar from the International Rescue Committee, a relief NGO. "There are no refugees from the territory controlled by M23," he said. "We have records of the number of people who were here before M23 took over. They're still there. No one has gone away."
Did either of these men actually believe this? Did they expect me to believe it? The next day, at the Ngunga IDP camp on the outskirts of Goma, I met some of the people who Kazarama and Mbonimpa said did not exist. There are a lot of them: at the beginning of 2012, there were only 2,200 IDPs in the Goma area, mostly people who were too old or sick to return home after the last round of fighting. Now, there were more than 200,000, and 50,000 of them live at Ngunga. The camp is strewn with volcanic rock, which the IDPs use to anchor their tarp-and-wood frame homes. Ngunga is an island of poverty set in an ocean of verdant green, bounded by a tree stump-covered mountain where women are often raped while out collecting firewood. Overflowing latrines and infrequent food distributions characterize life there, and the IDPs get enough grain or corn for maybe two weeks of every month.
In one tent, I met four women who were weaving handbags out of colored plastic strips, a skill they had acquired through an NGO training program. They made 50 cents per bag, and their faces were dressed in a weariness too deep for an interloper to access. "We saw houses burn, and had a neighbor killed," one of the women replied when I asked why she thought M23 had attacked her village. "How do you have time to ask what happened? You just have to run away." These women had been homeless before, back when the CNDP was fighting the government in the mid-2000s. Their second displacement was a bitter homecoming -- they'd fled to an earlier iteration of the Ngunga camp during the CNDP conflict as well. "This is too hard to us," one of the women said. "We tried to rebuild our lives when we went back home -- to farm, and raise chickens and goats. We've lost all of those things again."
Monotony was one of the camp's chief cruelties. "Imagine having to eat this morning, midday and night," said one IDP, who was sorting maize on a tarp spread out over the floor of his tent. "And there isn't even enough...we are suffering here. There's nothing to eat, or to do."
"This camp is like a jail," a young woman added.
"We have a democratic ideology," Mbonimpa told me. "You can see that other political parties are not disturbed in this area. People can say what they want without any problem. Even international organizations go wherever they want to."
The space for political and civic action in the DRC has been so distorted by 80 years of Belgian colonization, 50 years of dictatorship, and 20 years of conflict that this kind of nonsensical politics is virtually all that remains. M23's rhetoric of democracy and humanitarianism consists of fake offices with hanging portraits of a fake president, or militants complaining about the government's failure to restrain the growth of militant groups, or Indian peacekeepers driving tanks that they'll never use, and which are useless anyway -- the conflict survives because it generates such absurdities while muzzling any real alternative to them. And even extreme alternatives, like the UN intervention brigade, might not be enough to end it for good.
The recent peace effort, a new UN Great Lakes envoy, and the MONUSCO intervention force all mean that a resolution could be closer than it appears. But the logic of conflict must first be broken at ground level, and peace, when it comes, will be a local accomplishment. At the moment, the country lives only in the minds of its citizens: the best doctors, teachers and engineers all work for NGOs. Oxfam provides water for over 200,000 people in North Kivu alone, and the Catholic Church operates over 650 schools nationwide -- NGOs and religious organizations have supplanted the core services of the state. In the east, the state has been whittled down to a currency no one uses, and to uniforms that no one trusts. The idea of a Congolese polity has become fatally abstracted: The state had given up on local-level engagement and institution building and retreated to a distant capital. "This fragmentation," one Goma-based expert told me, "lack of communal dialogue, and lack of engagement in the political process means that everything is centralized in Kinshasa, that corrupt people are lining their pockets, and that people on the ground are resolving their problems with the only means they have, which is through arms."
A solution is beyond the purview of armies or politicians. A future peace likely rests in those quantum-level pockets of conflict that stain the region -- through the exhausting and unglamorous business of resolving local-level disputes, through reconciling feuding communities and rebuilding a broken polity. When peace arrives, there will likely be grand bargains between powerful enemies -- the Rwandans will have to be secure in the knowledge that they have nothing to gain from meddling, and the Congolese government will have to be strong enough to take control of the entire country. But the solution isn't photogenic or even particularly exciting: it lies in teachers deciding not to become warlords, in the honesty of traffic cops, in citizens beginning to live in an environment where the gun is no longer the surest or most logical means of getting what they want.
War, like any political order, is a constructed thing. It's human. No natural law commands it, and there's nothing about it that's immutable or permanent. Conflict isn't wired into the organs or the bones, and there is a covert bigotry to the idea that war is the only possible destiny for certain people in certain places, or to the notion that there are societies incapable of breaking out of their own deadly logic of conflict. However enormous it may seem, the conflict in DRC is as inevitable as any other. There is nothing inevitable about it.
On the road to Kitchanga, the rear wheels of trucks slid in the earth as if driving on ice. In a single five-kilometer span, we passed an over-laden pickup buried to the grille in a dirt crater, a second broken-down truck with its payload and passengers huddled by the side of the road with no obvious means of rescue, and another truck tugging a car from a dust trap with a fraying rope. Even the vehicles that were surviving the journey were bruised and belching hulks, their chassis rattling and their rusted tailpipes wheezing thick smog. The traffic on the road was heavy and slow -- James said that drivers now feared the taxation that M23 imposed on commercial trucks, and preferred to take their chances with the Kitchanga route if they had to drive to the Ugandan border. But the road can barely accommodate one truck at a time. Passage of two-way traffic was a skilled negotiation, a dialogue of monsters inching backwards and forwards, then honking in greeting or warning, then tacitly agreeing to a tiny leeway buffered with a mountain-sized drop, then huffing in opposite directions billowed in clouds of dust and exhaust.
More certain of their passage are the motorbikes and bicycles, the latter of which are usualy piled high with bushels of charcoal, and then slowly wheeled to Goma, 20 or 30 miles to the southwest. This was a lucrative enterprise, James said: FARDC soldiers, who were barely paid or fed and who live in roadside bases that looked like refugee camps, pillage local forests and sell charcoal and timber to the bicycle men, who then sell their wares in Goma at a markup. But I'd spent the morning watching men push bicycles in the hot sun, with the city still hours or even days in the distance. I'd seen their vehicles propped up with logs by the side of the highway, their minders crouched in the shade of their heavy payload, looking as if mere survival were exacting an impossible price.
In a nondescript single-story building in Kitchanga, we met a nervous local administrator who locked his office door while he was speaking with me and refused to tell me his name. The terror that had gripped Kitchanga in February still hadn't lifted, and his account was tinged with a certain anti-Tutsi bias. He spoke of the "Rutshuru" side of town, infiltrated by seditious Tutsis who he believed were in league with M23, and the "Masisi" side inhabited by Hutu and Hunde. He gave his accounting of events: "The APCLS [a Hunde militia] was called here by the government, so that all of them could be integrated into the army," he said. They weren't the only ones: "Even the Nyatura were everywhere around Kitchanga...They were supposed to support the FARDC in their fight against M23."
A powder keg had been lit. "When the government integrated the CNDP, the commanders refused to go elsewhere. They asked to stay here and control this area. When the FARDC asked the APCLS and the Nyatura to come to town for integration, the ex-CNDP commanders were in contact with M23," he said. Who knows if this is true -- the important thing is that the APCLS, and some percentage of the local Hunde and Hutu community, thought it was true.
The shooting began when an APCLS fighter was killed in the "Rutshuru" side of town. A posse of his comrades attempted to recover his body, which invited a predictable response. "That's when the fighting started," the man said. That tiny fire, kindled over months of escalating tension, was enough to ignite a violence that destroyed the entire city enter -- that resulted in the hospital getting shelled, apparently by the FARDC, and in IDP camps being attacked, apparently by the APCLS.
According to one Goma-based observer who visited Kitchanga a couple of weeks before it exploded, the disaster unfolded with little intervention from the UN and the government. "The Kitchanga area has 100,000 people. Everyone was aware of the problem. Not a single emissary was sent. The UN and the government did nothing. There was no effort made to get people to the table and have them talk." (Dwyer says that "MONUSCO was involved in efforts to try to diffuse this situation," but did not go into additional detail.) The tensions hadn't abated: the terrified district administrator said that some people suspected a nearby IDP settlement was actually a military encampment for M23 sympathizers.
Kitchanga's IDP camp is crisscrossed with streams. The city's most vulnerable residents live atop a rocky swamp, where water rushes and pools and crawls, invading the alleys between tents and accumulating in every unoccupied wedge of space. "Everyone is afraid to talk," James said. "There isn't really peace." The sky glowered, full with the rain we both dreaded.
We found a tent where two withering women, who might have been 20 or 40 or 60 years old, sat and killed time. They had first arrived in Kitchanga six years ago, when they were fleeing the CNDP. "In March, when the fighting broke out here, we had to run away again," one of them told me. Much of the town had joined them in taking refuge in the forest. "When we came back, nothing was left. Everything was stolen. Even the brush on the roof of our hut was stolen."
The storm began as a hum, as the suggestion of rain, droplets whispering on a tarp roof. And then it became loud enough to silence our conversation and any worries I had about the conditions of the road -- to overwhelm even the most natural thoughts and fears. Our voices faded into the static roar of the deluge, imposing total silence upon us. The onslaught showed no signs of passing, and the roof did not leak, even as heavy raindrops shattered overhead.
Then tiny, clear marbles began skipping trough gaps in the bottom of the tarp, ice like mancala beads, smooth frozen disks dumped from the raging sky. It seemed impossible in a hot equatorial country, a place with palm trees and tropical birds, as if an ice storm in Kitchanga was some deliberate final rebuke to the idea that anything here, or anywhere else, needed to make much sense. Ice skipped across the ground like firm glass pills. Even at a touch they would barely sweat. This was strong and resilient ice -- brilliant, opalescent, dangerous to our purposes. "We have to go," James said. Before we ran into the storm, I asked one of the women if it rained like this very often. Every day, she replied.
The center of town sat deserted. By emptying the city, the ice and rain had revealed the extent of the devastation. The blackened trees and lumps of concrete went further back from the road than I'd realized; the men selling shoes and dress shirts, now sheltering under flimsy tin ledges, had hidden the empty frames, the piles of rubble and ash, flat reservations patterned with the footprints of destroyed buildings.
Weather, like war, is a situation from which no one is wholly immune. And this rain seemed possessed with a conscious rage: the sky heaved with force and violence, pounding Hutu and Hunde and Tutsi, pounding FARDC and APCLS and M23, slamming into refugee tents and army bases, into bicycle pushers and NGO trucks, pounding the rocky earth, pounding the empty gray spaces where a city once stood.
This reporting was sponsored in part by Oxfam America.