Democratic Republic of Congo

A visit to Goma

In May 2009, two of the brothers went to Goma where they met the young people who had taken part in the meeting in Nairobi in November 2008.

We are sitting on two volcanoes that can awaken at any moment. One is the Nyragongo which has destroyed the town twice in thirty years. At night the molten lava of the crater projects reddish reflections into the sky; in the daytime, its trail of smoke spreads over kilometres. The other is the enemy rebel factions, whose extortions have been ravaging the province of North Kivu for years. In November 2008 there were two million displaced people. There are still seven camps of refugees staying around the town.

Situated at the frontier between Rwanda and Democratic Congo, on the north bank of Lake Kivu which allows one to rejoin Bukavu, capital of the province of South Kivu, in two hours by rapid canoe, Goma, which is endowed with an airport, is an epicentre of the troubles in the Great Lakes region. People here remember the cholera epidemic that decimated the columns of refugees during the mass exodus of Rwandans in 1994.

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Main street

Detachments of the blue helmeted soldiers of the United Nations Mission in Congo have installed entrenched camps in various sensitive places in the town. The soldiers come from India, Bangladesh, Uruguay… They go past in convoy or in a helicopter. “They observe but they are powerless to stop the troubles”, the people regret… The four-by-fours of the non-governmental organisations crisscross the town, flags waving in the wind. No need for speed restrictions on the only tarred road that crosses this built up area of over six hundred thousand inhabitants: the craters in the surface are enough. Elsewhere you drive on the lava that has covered vast areas, several metres deep. The soil is dotted with pointed projections, some of which transform the road into steps. This does not prevent the Tchugudus from working: adolescents steering large wooden scooters which make possible the essential transport of merchandise in the town. They can carry up to four hundred kilos of food or of the most diverse materials. What courage to push these amid the fever of the traffic, in the swarms of motorbike taxis, amongst the lorries…

The deficiencies of the administration have stimulated strategies for coping. The contradictions between signs of prosperity and of distress are striking, here even more than elsewhere. The edge of the lake is ringed by building sites for well protected, sumptuous villas. A chain of planes put down their cargo of rare metals extracted a hundred kilometres away. Electricity and water are often lacking in the houses. But the most difficult thing is the insecurity. Stories of aggression are told daily and shots in the night do not surprise our hosts: “They are grilling peanuts!” they joke before telephoning two or three neighbours to check that all is well with them…

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A camp for displaced people

“If we could join together the sociability of the Congo people with the sense of organisation of people from Rwanda, then we would go a long way and life would be easier”, explains one of our hosts. At the Makunda II camp for displaced people, 14,000 are sleeping under sheets of plastic stretched over arcs of branches. The walls are of straw. They cook with wood on a range in front of the entrance. “When one hut catches fire, twenty of those around it are destroyed” explains Blaise, co-ordinator of projects for the Jesuit Refugee service.

The World Food Programme has just reduced its distribution of flour rations by half: no more than six kilos per person per month. This is to encourage people to return to the villages. Some go back regularly to work on their plot of land, sometimes travelling for several hours to get there. However, they do not decide to move back there, dissuaded by the actions of rebel bands passing through, and by the sudden reversal in their position and connections. It is difficult to see things clearly: “The troubles are greatly exaggerated” states someone returning from a weekend of evangelisation in the Rutchuru region. “There are reports of columns of people, carrying their bags on their heads, fleeing the new troubles in the Masisi”, a sister explains…

The Salesians run a technical school in the north of the town. Three thousand pupils are training in carpentry, masonry, electrics, plumbing, sewing… Three hundred of them have come off the street or have lost their parents. A hundred children who have been demilitarised by UNO are welcomed separately. They have to follow a programme of preparation for social reintegration before obtaining the indispensable papers in order to circulate freely. These are the most difficult and the most exposed. This morning they attacked the carpenters and threw stones at the workshop windows. When they heard this, the local youths came running with bars and machetes, wanting to punish them. It took the threat of calling in the army again for calm to be restored. The ex-soldiers cannot leave the centre: they could be lynched by the locals. Unwelcome when they return to their village, stripped of the prestige of carrying arms and no longer on a payroll, some return to the centre to ask for professional training – but they can easily be retaken by the rebel bands.

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Part of the youth delegation from Goma who came to Nairobi

The joy and the emotion of the young people who welcomed us are on a par with the isolation they feel after the successive trials that have marked their country. “The region has seen so much trouble that it is difficult for young people to believe in their future”, explains a support worker. A dozen of them made the journey to Nairobi in November 2008 to take part in the pilgrimage of trust. At the end of a Sunday of prayer and sharing with the young leaders from various parishes in the town, the young woman co-ordinator came back again to that experience in a carefully prepared three-page message. “… We were no longer young people from Congo, Rwanda. Tanzania, South Africa, China, Europe… we were all daughters and sons of one same Father, He who through His Son united a scattered multitude. This unity in diversity allowed us to have another vision of the world, through faith. Only the Gospel could unite people in this way, beyond their socio-political rifts, and make of them one people, speaking one language: that of love.” She finished with an invitation for us to come back again, to prepare meetings in their country, and to remain close to them…

Last updated: 19 May 2009