After linking up with Aaron in Kigali, he hired a driver to take us north to Gisenyi, a small Rwandan tourist town along the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just a few kilometers from the city of Goma. As we drove, I lost myself in backseat window frames of green-speckled rolling red hills that gave the Rockies a run for their money, not in size, but in sheer untamed natural beauty.
The ancient levels of cultivated terraces across the hills spoke testament to the fact that these lands had been the epicenter of a sophisticated culture of agriculture that far predated any Belgian colonialists. It wasn’t mechanized, but you could tell there was a certain beautiful harmony with nature that can only exist after years spent in cyclical synchronization with the environment.
As we got closer to Gisenyi, in the distance we could see the three massive volcanoes that stood in strange dominating juxtaposition with the curvy landscape. Aaron turned and explained that locals call them “The Jagged Teeth” because of the way they stand out against the rounded hills that looked so small in comparison. The volcanoes seemed ominous even before I realized that they demarcated the boundaries to a region plagued with war, slavery and misery for the better part of 200 years.
Things started to go south for the Congo when King Leopold II of Belgium took a large portion of central Africa as his own personal colony in 1885, ironically naming it the Congo Free State. What followed was years of brutal enslavement of the local population, forced to collect industrial amounts of ivory or rubber with their bare hands, the profits of which flowed directly into the king’s coffers. A victim of what’s known as “The Resource Curse,” the Republic of the Congo got its independence in 1960, but a Cold War fuelled civil conflict over power would sow the seeds for a greater war that would engulf the region in armed guerilla warfare and misery to this very day. The Second Congo War, or more popularly known as the Great War of Africa, involved troops from Rwanda, Uganda, The African Union and a host of other in-fighting groups that turned a country that should be one of wealthiest in the world into a humanitarian disaster of corruption, poverty and forced labour.
Though the war is technically over, fighting in the Eastern Kivu areas near the borders with Rwanda and Uganda goes on, with many armed groups like M-23 and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army still active in mineral rich rural areas, though in early November, the M23 rebels finally called for a ceasefire with the Congolese army, bringing a 20 year rebellion to the negotiating table, at least for now.
These days, the fighting isn’t over ivory or rubber, but minerals like gold and coltan used to manufacture chips and small circuitboards in just about every smartphone and laptop on the planet. It’s undoubtedly the breadbasket of the tech industry, a global trade that involves everyone from Chinese manufacturers to North American mass consumers.
On the way to Gisenyi, we passed refugee camps where displaced people sat and walked around behind heavy iron bars and barbed wire that made them look like open-air zoo animals. These people, without saying a word, spoke volumes to the ongoing Congolese conflicts that have claimed the lives of several million people and counting. Believe it or not, the refugees are the lucky ones, living in the hope that they might one day be able to return home.
The next day, we headed to a border crossing along the lake known as the Grande Barrière to try and see if we could get to Goma to meet up with some NGO workers on the other side. There, a bright blue reflective road sign read “Democratic Republic of the Congo” with another more weather-worn board that read “Safe Journey” and I couldn’t help but laugh a bit.
M-23 rebels group captured Goma in 2012, but despite the city having been retaken, there was still a sort of heavy tension you could almost touch. Heavily armed guards and military outposts along the border told the story of a multi-belligerent conflict with no end in sight, the prolongation of which both Rwanda and Uganda have their hands in just as much as the Congolese. It’s the kind of place you don’t need to be told not to take pictures. So I made sure to take a quick picture.
A tad short on $350 visa tab necessary to enter the country (at least only half of which I assumed was bribe money for the guards) we headed to a nearby bar where they set a table and a few plastic chairs for us on the grass. There, we sat and shared drinks with political activists, former rebel fighters and NGO workers from groups like Free the Slaves and the Enough Project who crossed over to meet with us, keeping an eye on their watches so as to not miss the 6:00 PM border curfew that would leave them stuck in Rwanda until sunrise.
They talked about the situation in Goma and the complete lack of political will for change that held a stranglehold on the whole region. A perpetual wheel of lies and bullshit good intentions that fed into a system so genuinely sickening, it was actually easier to just ignore it altogether and wait for the new IPhone to patch over the dark parts. A perfect system by which the rich remained so, uninhibited as long as people could be pacified by a blood-soaked touchscreen at a reasonable price. The irony of it all, is that I write this on a laptop that I know is riddled with minerals from the Congo, myself a devoted slave to the whole damn pixilated process.
It all seemed so strange, all the heavy security and general malaise backdropped to beautiful Lake Kivu, with its quaint sandy beaches and ritzy waterfront resorts. Separated by an arbitrary border and heavy fortifications, this was the division not only between two countries, but two seemingly different worlds. As Rwanda became the beacon of East African post-war political stability, the DRC had sunk deeper and deeper into a routine of systematic corruption and failed political will where they rich, just like in the old days, lined their pockets with the blood of those too poor to realize the true value of their work. The whole place was living testament to the fact that if you turn your eyes away from someplace long enough, it really can just disappear, vanish into the depth, buried beneath terabytes of Buzzfeed articles about Miley Cyrus and 25 reasons why cats are more important than breathing. The world had all but forgotten the Congolese struggle, and there I was, straddling the line that separated two worlds I’d never be able to reconcile or even fully understand.
After the interviews, Aaron and I decided to take a stroll down the waterfront as the cloudy sun was setting over the lake. We sat on a natural dock of jagged volcanic rocks and took turns unsuccessfully trying to snap pictures of lightning bolts over the Lake Kivu.
As I finally made it back to my hotel gate, I felt a single drop of rain fall on my head and I rushed inside just as a nearby bolt of lightning broke the sky open. In the distance, I could see Lake Kivu momentarily illuminated in vibrant shades of blue and cherry gray.