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Three Days in Goma

August 14, 2000

I Just spent three nights and two days in Goma, DRC, by beautiful Lake Kivu, where the mosquitoes aren't the only things that want your blood. The DRC, Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of Africa's "newest" countries, having only existed for three years. The first half of this time was spent putting the former Zaire's house in order: new money, new cabinet, new foreign policy. The second half has been used fighting a multi-front, multi-issue war that has grown to involve the Congo's immediate neighbors on all sides either as allies or enemies, and an ever-expanding list of rebel insurgents within the country and on its borders.

My journey started when I boarded the Horizon Coach overland bus at 0500 from Kampala. I shared this vehicle with countless hens, many large bags of rubber thongs, and an abundance of foam mattresses and bicycle frames suspended by bailing twine from the overhead luggage racks. We traveled through Kabale and Kisoro, and over the border into Rwanda at the volcanoes. Rwandan visas are free to US citizens, but that didn't stop the Rwandan immigration official at the border-post from conning me out of $10, and getting another $10 from me "for my time." After leaving the border, the bus drove us due west, through northern Rwanda, to Ruhengeri and Gisenyi, and into Congo at Goma's Corniche border post.

In Goma, the visa transaction went fairly smoothly, although a seven-day visa cost twice as much as it should have, $60 versus $30. The issuing officer quickly slipped the funds under a magazine for security reasons. While I waited for my paperwork to be finished two soldiers begged bread and cigarettes from me. One said he was eighteen, but looked no more than a day past his sixteenth birthday. The other man seemed to be at least thirty, and had a long, thick scar across his throat. This was where, I was later told, he was slashed and left for dead. After obtaining the correct letters and ink smears, I was escorted to the Hotel des Grands Lacs by two very nice younger agents. There was a bit of confusion once they realized there would be no remuneration for their troubles. The hotel only had a chambre avec lits jumeaux available which ran a fairly steep $60/night, but was worth it when I had to stack one mattress on the other to almost get a passable night's sleep. The bathroom had cold running water only. Some had none — so no complaining. I shared my washroom with an overly large American cockroach, the kind seen in books where the photo caption reads "enlarged to show detail," and another segmented insect that I just assumed was its Congolese counterpart. I had a scenic view overlooking the rear parking lot, complete with three Range Rovers slowly being dismantled for parts.

I secured the services of a driver, Clement, and a translator, the thickly accented Donat, pronounced like "doughnut" with emphasis on the second "u". Clement was a good guy, fluent in English, and had a good sense of humor, but proved himself too soft in dealing with hardcore Goma politics. Donat, on the other hand, was street smart, and had some serious credibility with the soldiers and other officials, just what you need in a mouthpiece. He took no crap, and doled out large amounts of it.

At my request, Clement took me to the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). While interviewing Philip Spoerri, chief of the Red Cross mission in eastern DR Congo, he explained how the politics worked between missions in the eastern and the western portions of the country. On the wall of Spoerri's office is a finely detailed map of DRC with color-coded pins marking the eastern missions in Kisangani, Bakavu, Goma and so forth. The western missions are of a different color because they are, essentially, in a different country, and are under another chief's authority completely. Spoerri's missions are further complicated because Goma and the next largest city to the west, Kisangani, are located in rival territories of Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) factions.

Much of our talk revolved around the war in the Congo, the Kabila government's rhetoric, the longevity of the recently signed Lusaka cease-fire agreement, and the growing belligerence between the various rebel groups: RCD-Goma, RCD-Kisangani, and a third group battling Kabila in the northwest, the Uganda-backed Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) led by Jean Pierre Bemba. But, even Spoerri had to admit that he felt the deadliest battles in that Great Lakes region were the constant tribal wars between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups over disputed lands in the northern Ituri district of the Congo, where thousands have been killed and tens of thousands displaced over the past few months.

Back at the hotel, I lived on the only food I had held back from the soldiers – biscuits and peanut butter – and drank large amounts of Primus beer in BIG brown bottles. I bought one breakfast from the hotel restaurant- a single egg omelet, three hotdog bun "rolls", and a thermos of coffee. After paying the bill, $10, I made a mental note not to buy any more prepared foods, but at least the coffee was dark and rich and was the only good cup I had been given since my arrival on the continent. Thank God for Francophone Africa!

The following day I was to take a TMK commuter plane from Goma "International" airport back to Kampala. I gave in to Clement's urgings that I get my sortie visa at the Corniche border post where I arrived, protesting that once I have the exit visa I am supposed to be on my way out, not on my way to the airport. To make a long story short: I was right, he was wrong, I cut his rate accordingly, he bowed out sheepishly, and Donat had to bail me out of a tight spot. Luckily, I got away with only paying out $4, a few packs of Wrigley’s JuicyFruit gum, and a fat fistful of Nouveaux Zaires (approximately $.60) in bribes for this misstep. Trying to run the gauntlet in Immigration, I heard the query, "Can you do something for me?" countless times from countless officials. Seemingly, this phrase is the official equivalent of "give me money," a familiar financial lament heard throughout Africa.

Donat and I sat down in the waiting area for two hours while the man who owns TMK took an unscheduled jaunt down to Uvira, as all the ticket holding, paying customers tried to avoid the stares of the ever present intelligence agents orbiting the stands of cracked fiberglass chairs. Donat deftly pointed out every one of them to me. The long wait gave my system time to relax, and soon I had to answer a lower calling: the airport washroom. I stiffed the cleaning room attendant on her $1 bathroom tax. And whenever my hand would stray into a pocket or pull a card from my wallet, people quickly walked over to give their names for "the next time you come to Goma, I give you good service." Although seeing all these palms waiting to be greased is frustrating, one can only help feel that this is pure capitalism — every commodity is for sale.

I finally caught my plane and soared off to the east and Kampala. I had serious misgivings that it might work as a matatu, the main source of public transport in East Africa, i.e. “we don't leave until the plane is full,” but was proven incorrect. This plane, a turbo prop called "Twin Otter," did not instill confidence, but since it didn't crash, I had no real problems. Back in Uganda, as the special hire taxi I picked up at Entebbe International coasted through the Nakivubo Market, I marveled at the Garden of Eden-like quality Kampala had attained after my Goma hunger experience. Ripening fruits and brightly colored vegetables for sale cheap, right in front of my eyes! I bought a pineapple for 500 UGS ($.33) and 15 minutes later was gorging myself on the sweet fruit. After throwing away the rind and stiff spiny leaves, I realized one thing above all else I had learned from my trip: Goma is a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

-Andrew Meissner
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