A Day in the DRC

Witnessing life in Goma, a city that's been invaded, ransacked, inundated with refugees, and flattened by a volcano -- all in the last 17 years.

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Goma residents on the banks of Lake Kivu, on April 21st, 2013. (Armin Rosen)

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.

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.)

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The view of the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu from the Ihusi Hotel's backyard. (Armin Rosen)

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.

This idyllic, and, in most countries, illegal scene would be more appropriate for honeymooners than conflict journalists, but it makes a perverted kind of sense: the war has filled Goma with NGO workers and UN staff and outsiders trading in weapons or minerals -- the eastern Congo has an abundance of both. It's created a low-end market, like the scene outside of the Uruguayan base, and a high-end market, where French army generals in blue UN berets can eat a $20 veal cordon bleu amid rare exotic birds and mindboggling natural beauty.

At least some of the locals benefit from this. As James explains, Goma has hotels with connections to the army, and hotels with connections to the rebels -- directly across the street from each other, in one case. There are hotels that serve as transit points for conflict minerals, and high-ceilinged restaurants owned by apparatchiks for ethnic militants and smugglers. The local wealth might not always be scrupulously obtained (although scruples are a loose concept in a place with as little authority as the eastern DRC, where a weak and predatory state has chased over 90 percent of economic activity to the informal market), but at least it's local -- unlike other places in the continent, the city doesn't have the feel of a French or South African colony, even if French is still, well, the lingua franca.

The Ihusi Hotel is only an hour away from sweltering IDP camps prone to food shortages and cholera outbreaks, tent cities that have cropped up in the year since the M23 crisis began. Goma had only 80,000 inhabitants in 1980, but it boasts over a million now. New customers and cheap labor flee for their lives and then glom on to the city's periphery. Today, there's little evidence that the western neighborhood of Kituku was recently a camp for the internally displaced. Beyond it lie squalid IDP camps that are likely to later undergo the same integration into Goma's urban fabric.

War has ensured that there are large communities of each of the region's major ethnic groups, even as it's also ensured that there's a starving and ever-growing underclass adding to an already-disorganized mass of humanity. In eastern Congo, conflict is the catalyst for the same kind of breakneck urbanization that's happening all over Africa, whose urban population is set to triple by 2050. Elsewhere in the continent, rural migrants settle in cities for employment or educational opportunities, which are drivers of urbanization the world over. In Goma, a similar process is occurring -- but because of the conflict that's seized the region's more remote and rural areas while sparing North Kivu's metropolis. Goma is calmer and more prosperous than the rest of North Kivu, those pesky rebel and volcano-related threats aside. It grows not despite, but because of, the violence and chaos that threaten to engulf it.

This suffering has created its share of opportunities.

"I'm afraid of those guys," James joked when we pulled up to a downtown construction site for a half-finished five-story building. "Where did they get money to build like this? This wasn't here a month ago." And there are small opportunities -- below the building, I spotted a wooden rack of coffins, which were apparently handmade and sold for about $60 each. Every coffin was wrapped in a colorful thin felt -- in Goma, you can be sent off in purple or bright red or butterscotch-tinted psychedelic marble. I asked the proprietor, a bearded man wearing a peeling, Dolphins-era Ricky Williams jersey, whether he was doing well out here. "Yes," he said. "There's a lot of death." The smallest coffins were just a couple of feet long, and there were a lot of them.

Later in the day, as the compact jerked over cratered gravel streets, James explained a typical Goman funeral. "Even in war, people try to live their ordinary lives. It's a reflection of the Congolese people. Even if you go to a death ceremony, people will cry. And then they start to relax -- to laugh, to sing." They will mourn and pray for three days. And then the rumba music will restart, and life will struggle back towards normalcy.

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The ruins of a church damaged by the eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in 2002. (Armin Rosen)

Church is everywhere on a Sunday in Goma. The city has austere Catholic churches and wild Pentecostal churches and rumba churches where congregants worship to the tinny and wandering guitar phrases of Congo's national music. There are street churches that form beneath the crumbling turret of the old Belgian post office near the center of town, as well as churches in wooden lean-tos, churches in cinderblock shacks, and churches built out of stately volcanic brick. In the slums on the northern edge of town, the sounds from the churches carry and mix, but at the small city dock on Lake Kivu, it could easily have been any other day of the week. Ferryboats bobbed lazily in the waves as men fished and washed their motorcycles in the lake. The port is tucked inside a deep natural bowl, below the sweaty and eternally-gridlocked downtown, cut off from the anxiety and noise of its environment. The sliver of mud at the end of the dock, which faces the mountains of Rwanda and South Kivu on the lake's distant opposite shores, would be an excellent place to meditate or relax, and the waters seem to open into a paradise where violence and suffering are inconceivable. And indeed, a pleasant marijuana odor lingered over the little mud beach, whose distractions included analog pinball machines and sundry other games fashioned out of old crates. One such game was jokingly named after Mobutu, the kleptocratic ex-president for life who once owned a massive estate just a few hundred yards away from the port.

But the real centerpiece of this homemade arcade was the foosball table, built by a sturdy and industrious man named Stanislaus, who bought the player figurines and steel rods from a Burundian dealer and then sawed and nailed the rest of it together himself. "Many people here didn't know how to play this," he said, before claiming that his was one of only two foosball tables in the entire city. "It was not very popular." Now, he makes about $3 a day renting it out to the children, motortaxi drivers, weed smokers, and pickpockets milling about on the docks. Opponents could play to 10 for 10 cents each. "Out of about 100 young guys, maybe three of them have a good job," Stanislaus told me. "I can't be a thief." He lived in the western part of the city, in a slum of wooden shacks near the IDP camps and far away from the source of his livelihood. He could return to the dock one day to discover that his table had been stolen or harvested for parts of reclaimed by the waves. Already it was showing signs of wear -- the wooden playing surface was chipping and all but one of the red players was missing its head.

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Men fish in Lake Kivu, near Goma's port. (Armin Rosen)

On the drive back up to the city, James and I passed Mobutu's old estate -- a grand Italianate mansion more tasteful than the late dictator's flamboyant reputation would suggest -- and a neighborhood with walled UN compounds spaced every couple hundred yards, places with names like the MONUSCO Integrated Command, MONUSCO Headquarters: Goma, and the UNOCHA IDP Data Analysis Center. In its leafier lakefront precincts, the city is a dirt grid of terraced mansions rising behind barbed wire, with streets like intersecting box canyons of high walls and iron gates.

Goma is calm, but ungoverned: home invasions are common, and militants have allegedly pulled off grenade attacks and assassinations in the city center. NGO employees adhere to strict curfews, and there are no clear lines of authority within a city split between the national army, the UN's army, and a municipality that barely exists. The uniformed police are seldom paid and subsequently operate more like a mafia-style protection racket than a true professional force -- people fear them for the bribes they'll be forced to pay, and not because the law carries any meaning.

And the authorities are hardly the only people with guns: one day, near the edge of town, I saw a pickup truck from a government-allied group of local militants, one of whom was carrying a shoulder-fired rocket launcher. It's no wonder the houses are well-protected: they have flying bay windows and fresh layers of roofing; fake third floors with sharply sloping gables, and broad balconies that are always empty. They advertise wealth and importance in a place where people are poor, anonymous, and frequently armed. And they all look brand new. When Nyiragongo partially erupted in 2002, it destroyed over 40 percent of Goma's buildings; the eruption was so violent that a river of lava made it to the lakefront some 15 kilometers away. Ten years later, the city is a patchwork of improvised slums and handsome new houses. For the most part, the volcano's immediate damage has been reversed. But not entirely: an old Catholic church by the central marketplace is still roofless and partially buried in a swamp of hardened lava. The altar is still there, and when I visited, teenagers were breakdancing and practicing backflips on the smooth concrete where the pews used to be.

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A street scene in Goma, with Mt. Nyiragongo smoking in the background. (Armin Rosen)

As James showed me in the early afternoon, the basketball court was one of the few places in Goma immune to the disruptions of nature and man. He took me to a blacktop court in a city park overgrown with cornstalks, where two teams from Goma's municipal league battled through the humidity and dust. James had gone to a local Catholic high school, where he received what he described as a "basketball education" from the school's hoops-crazy priest and headmaster -- more than once, he told me that the sport had taught him the self-discipline needed to survive in a place where living into your late 20s was hardly a guarantee. Basketball, he said, had saved him from aimlessness or militancy -- it had saved him, period.

We sat down near the top of a crumbling concrete grandstand, from which shouts of "Se bon! Se bon!" would issue from a mostly-male crowd whenever a player heaved a plausible three-point attempt. On the court, the teams and referees wore bright new uniforms and children minded a wooden scoreboard. The blue team's forwards were a head taller than red's, but had no idea how to use their size against the opposition's speedy and accurate sharpshooters: blue hoisted one ill-advised shot after another, while red would press a merciless fast break that reduced blue's defensive strategy -- insomuch as they had one -- to a series of nasty and desperate fouls. Skill and intellect were winning. "They don't play defense," James said of the blue team, which ended up losing by fifteen. "They don't even have a coach." They actually did, but he remained impassive as the game slipped away.

In a region where authority is so totally mystified, the referees displayed an enviable ability to maintain order. The game was logical and organized in a way that nothing else in town seemed to be. Afterwards, the league's president, a graying man with a dignified gut, described to me how the league had endured through the war, and how, as a result, the city now had an entire generation of players who had grown up with the sport. I asked him to name one area of the game in which the city could improve. "Defensive tactics," he told me without hesitation.

"Here in Goma, basketball is considered a more intellectual sport than football," Selemani, one of the game's referees, told me. "Football is for guys who aren't intellectual, who don't go to school or think in the right way. In basketball, you're supposed to follow the rules." The sport promoted education and civic virtue -- it was a way that the city could triumph over the insanity of the conditions in which it existed.

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The Golden Tchukudu. (Armin Rosen)

The most notable monument in Goma is the Golden Tchukadu, a double-life-sized depiction of a lanky and shirtless young man pushing one of the handmade, oversized two-wheel wooden scooters that ply Goma's unpaved streets. In the monument, which sits in the center of the city's largest roundabout, the scooter's payload is the planet earth itself. This corresponds perfectly with reality: I saw tchukadus laden with jerricans, furniture and sacks of charcoal, some with entire harvests and livelihoods piled over the handlebars. They are dangerous conveyances, dependent on the driver's sense of balance and sometimes controlled using a footbrake positioned over the back wheel. They rumble down even slight inclines at speeds that seem heinously unsafe, with tiny young heads poking over the high steering columns. The scooters always look as if they're one ridge or pothole away from splattering their drivers and cargo over the jagged volcanic streets. The odds of such a mishap are high, and the tchukudus must contend with armored UN trucks, NGO Landcruisers, motortaxis, and the woeful state of the roads. But Gomans are expert tchukudu drivers. They carry their lives on the scooter's back, after all -- the entire world, and nothing less.

So much of life in Goma rides on these syntheses of necessity and ingenuity and constant mortal danger. For all of its churn and anarchy, Goma is still aware enough of itself to commemorate them.

This reporting was sponsored in part by Oxfam America.