Given the history of eastern Congo, it is not surprising that Congolese are overwhelmingly honest and frank about their lives, their fears, and how they have managed to survive over a decade in what Ban Ki Moon called yesterday, “…a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic dimensions.” Recently, my friends and I in Uvira have been talking a lot concerning the chances of eastern Congo going back to all out war, what their options are if that happens, and what they think about when they hear about the new rebel offensive, the unwillingness of president Kabila to negotiate directly with Nkunda and the CNDP, and the general crisis in Goma.
For this entry, I just wanted to provide some examples of some of the dialogues which we have been having since things began to get even more unstable in eastern Congo. All of the quotes below are from Congolese from Uvira between the ages of 18 and 30. I was able to verify with everyone I spoke to that the translations are correct and as close to exactly what was said as possible. In the two instances where the conversations were not fresh enough in my mind or journal, I asked my friends to sort of clarify what they had discussed with me earlier. I went ahead and left out their names so I could post these online and not worry about their anonymity being compromised, but I included their ages, which for me is a sort of natural reference point (“He/she has lived through all this and is 5 years younger than I am?”).
“Ned, the thing that really bothers me above all with Nkunda [CNDP rebel] is that if his offensive continues, he might make it to Uvira and begin abducting young guys to fight for him and young girls to be his soldiers’ concubines. He has already done this in North and South Kivu. We have never seen rebels coming through Uvira or occupying Uvira that refused to abduct children, because we are free to them and defenseless and able to fire a gun. So what will keep Nkunda from doing the same here if he makes it into South Kivu?” (Male, 18)
“What I think of first is more nights without sleep. Do you know what it is like to have three days or even a week of constant mortar fire and Kalashnikov fire? It’s something else! It is distracting, and impossible to work, and impossible to think. You see [many] crazy people around Uvira town, and it is because they have been hearing so much Kalashnikov fire for too many years. That is what people in Goma are living with now, and we are used to it as well, but I still think it is difficult to cope with. The sound makes you jump, even after years of it.” (Male, 24-lived through both the war in eastern Congo and the beginning of the war in Burundi in 1993)
“I am fearful of rising food prices and more people here going hungry. Don’t you know that when there is a war, food prices go up because the transport of the goods is more difficult? You go to the market this week, and you will see that everything is more expensive. In South Kivu, that means more people going hungry.” (Female, 22)
“If there was action here again, I am not sure whether I would go to a camp or find a gun and a militia myself. What is the better option? Get disease and starve in a camp or maybe have to kill another soldier to save my own life? I could protect my sisters if I was a soldier, and in the camps, they have no protection and could be raped. It’s a tough choice, huh?” (Male, 23)
“I know that many people from your home (he meant America) think that Congolese prefer not to work and enjoy accepting accept aid beans and rice and oil, but, you see, the problem is that we are always in war. There is no chance for us to find our own life and make a living, because we are always leaving Congo to go to Burundi or somewhere else for protection, then coming back to nothing at all and starting over. And then now we have to think about what we might do if we have to leave again. I know you have seen what Rwanda is like with their roads and all of that, but Congo could be like that if we learned to live in peace.” (Male, 30)
Although all of these conversations occurred in the last two weeks or so, all have resonances with countless conversations I have been having with people throughout the time I have spent in Congo in 2007 and 2008. One common thread in all of them is a feeling of lack of control and a general exhaustion with life in a war zone. Hopefully, the diplomats and officials currently organizing to meet in Nairobi to sort out what is going on in Congo (in particular, in Goma) have heard similar stories and know that, more than anything, people here are just sick of being on the verge of war, and tired of living lives dictated by events far from their control. The debates concerning possible EU troop deployment, the upcoming Nairobi summit, and diplomatic assertions to honor the cease-fire certainly take on a new urgency when considered alongside the thoughts and fears of the civilians actually living through the crisis in eastern Congo.
Posted Nov 4th, 2008