As we touch down in Goma in a hulking military Hercules C-130 aircraft it feels as though we are landing in the middle of nowhere. It is a late on Wednesday afternoon in July and it is extremely hot and dry, so much so that it is hard to breathe. We had left a cold Waterkloof Air Force Base that morning in our winter coats for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They were quickly shed.
The airport is poorly maintained. There is nothing more than bare ground, cordoned off by a high wire fence, and small brick buildings that are now used by the South African Air Force, which has taken over the management of Goma International Airport as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission there.
The poverty smacks you in the face as soon as Goma comes into focus. You see it in the small wooden houses cramped together just a few metres from the airport fence, built right on top of the dark-grey hardened lava left over from the Nyiragongo volcano that hit the eastern DRC in 2002. The eruption destroyed a good portion of Goma, including part of the airport and the business centre and killed about 147 people, according to UN figures.
In Goma no roads separate the houses and all that is visible from the sky is smoke from cooking fires and the lava rocks that have been used to build fences, or even small homes, many of them with tiny wooden windows.
There is no airport building to walk into, no luggage control section, just bags off-loaded by the uniformed South African National Defence Force soldiers who are my travelling partners. They haul the gear from the back of the plane and line it up on the ground as we — the media visitors of the South African contingent of the UN peacekeeping force — wait to be told where we’re headed. The only other people inside the cordoned-off area that serves as the airport are members of the Congolese army, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, known by the acronym FARDC. They stand to attention in their military fatigues, their intimidating long rifles slung over their shoulders and pointed halfway to the ground.
Welcome to Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, one of the still volatile regions of the DRC.
Many of the origins of the recent conflict in the DRC lie in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that led to the refugee crisis across the Great Lakes region. Some of the largest refugee camps were in Goma and housed Rwandan Hutu fighters who repeatedly attacked Rwanda.
The toppling of DRC presidents also created a civil war that never seemed to end. Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the late father of current president Joseph Kabila, toppled Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Laurent Kabila himself was shot and killed four years later by his bodyguard and was succeeded by his son eight days later.
The government of the DRC has since struggled to assert its authority and has sought assistance from the UN to help it stabilise the country. But the eastern part of the DRC remains a challenge, with soldiers supported by UN peacekeepers trying to fend off factions threatening to overthrow the government.
We are dropped at Goma’s Ihusi Hotel, one of the best in town, we are told. Inside the hotel grounds it feels as if we could be in a modern city, but outside are untarred, rocky streets lined with tuck shops. Locals walk up and down or ride on piki pikis (motorbike taxis). There is not a traffic light in sight.
One of the first words I hear from the locals is rafiki, to which members of the SANDF deployed here respond with a smile. Rafiki means friend in kiSwahili and South African soldiers say the locals like them best because they regard them as the friendliest in the UN’s 18000-strong peacekeeping force stationed throughout the DRC, including the capital Kinshasa.
The day after we arrive we head out of the city to the South African Mushake army base, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive on bumpy, gravel roads over rocky, green mountains.
We had been warned that things might get out of hand. There had been protests in the area recently, with community members blocking roads and throwing stones because they were unhappy about the non-registration of scores of eligible voters in the coming November presidential elections. Kabila is fighting for a second term. He succeeded his father in 2001 and led the transitional government until the country’s first democratic elections were held in 2006.
Because of the potential for violence we are escorted by the military’s Mamba armoured vehicle, with troops clad in full battle gear: helmets and bulletproof vests, rifles at the ready. An ambulance is part of the convoy, just in case.
I realise that it’s normal for DRC soldiers to walk around in public heavily armed, even while in civilian clothes or wearing military uniform mixed with street wear.
As we drive past in our UN-marked vehicles, the children playing on the side of the road scream “monique” or “biscuit”, happy to see the vehicles known for transporting the good guys. Monique is a bastardised version of Monuc, the acronym of the UN mission in the DRC. “Biscuit”, comes from the health biscuits that aid agencies such as Oxfam and the World Food Programme hand out to the poor.
Children run after any UN-branded cars in the hope of getting something: your half-eaten chocolate, a bottle of water or, for those who know better, just one US dollar will do. Poverty oozes out of every corner. Women are dressed in traditional long dresses, with a cloth wrapped around the waist, or old Western-style dresses. Children are barefoot or wear thin rubber sandals and they beg in Goma and the surrounding villages.
A living tragedy
After a few days and several interviews with soldiers in different army bases in the region, as well as a few locals who agreed to speak to us for free — we are told most of them demand payment for interviews and photographs — it became abundantly clear why the DRC is referred to by the UN and aid agencies as one of the world’s largest living tragedies.
The seeming lack of progress in implementing peace among several armed groups in the country — including the Mai Mai, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Lord’s Resistance Army — is exacerbated by repeated attacks on villages, abductions and mass rapes. But it is also partly a result of the failure to integrate the rebel forces into one official government army and, in some cases, to give rebel leaders high positions in Kabila’s government.
Rebel leaders continually break away from participation with the FARDC, the Congolese army. Meanwhile, it’s difficult for UN peacekeepers to know who is a genuine government soldier and who is a member of the opposition armed forces, because even government soldiers regularly defect to rebel groups.
Major Richard Mhlanga, a company commander of the South African-run Kichanga and Kalembe army bases, both in North Kivu, says those who repeatedly defect from the FARDC are “very manipulative”. Mhlanga describes how the rebels surrender several times in different places, get the compensation packages the government offers to surrendering rebels and then defect after a few months. Later they move on to another area to surrender again and get the same compensation.
A young Congolese man — who works as a kiSwahili interpreter for the South African soldiers – tells me that the country’s military is one of its biggest employers because surrendering rebels, as is the case with most in the region, don’t have any other options for work. Even in the military, he says, salaries are sometimes not paid for months.
The majority of former rebels, meanwhile, are unskilled young men whose only experience was obtained in warfare at the height of the conflict in the 1990s. And things are getting worse for the next generation. Young children aren’t able to attend school because their parents cannot afford the $5 annual school fee.
A 2009 report commissioned by the UN Security Council found that military operations intended to dismantle one of the strongest rebel groups still active in the eastern DRC, the FDLR, had been unsuccessful and the rebels had regrouped in several locations around North Kivu province.
The report found that the FDLR continued to recruit new fighters in parts of the country’s Kivu region in spite of military efforts to disband it. While most of the DRC is at peace, the three provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Orientale are racked by attacks that include looting, the abduction of men and boys, and rape by the FDLR and the Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda, which crossed into the DRC in 2005 after the Ugandan government launched a massive military offensive against the rebels.
Presence of soldiers
The presence of 1 200 South African soldiers has, however, made some difference. Of the 1.3-million people who were displaced in North Kivu since 2008, 700 000 have returned to their homes in the past year, according to UN statistics. The mission has the second-largest budget of all 13 UN peacekeeping missions around the globe, topped only by that in Darfur. It used up $8.73-billion between August 1999 and June 2010. The current budget is $1.42-billion, which keeps just over 18 000 soldiers on the ground.
Part of the UN’s budget pays for South African personnel. This cost R819.6-million for the period between 2003 and 2006. It was estimated that the mission would need an additional R620-million between 2007 and 2009.
The UN reimburses all deploying countries, including India and Bangladesh, for each soldier and all equipment used on the mission. South African military spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya says it is money well spent.
“You can’t quantify help by the amount of money spent, you need to quantify it by the benefits that come with it,” he says.
“When Burundi was unstable, its citizens migrated to neighbouring countries and that destabilised the whole region.”
In spite of the uncertainty and lack of progress in infrastructure development in the region, South Africa’s contingent commander in the DRC, Colonel Albert Makgae, is optimistic about attaining stability. Speaking from the headquarters of the South African contingent, which overlooks the peaceful Lake Kivu, his tall frame towering over a desk between the flags of South Africa and the UN, Makgae says that the DRC will prosper eventually. His contingent’s motto, “we are giving our today for their tomorrow”, was chosen, he says, because the defence force knew it would take time to stabilise the country.
“We are here as peacekeepers now, but we know that absolute peace might come only after 10 or 15 years – long after we’ve left,” says Makgae.
But air force flight sergeant Benjamin Pearce, who has been deployed six times to the DRC in the past six years, is sceptical. He sits across from me in a minibus at Goma airport, our makeshift interview room, where he tells me about his deployments and what he’s learned.
Pearce then turns his head towards the poor villages surrounding the Goma air strip. “My personal opinion?” he tells me, is that “there is no progress at all.”
‘I love the Congo,’ says veteran of six deployments to war zone
Every time Flight Sergeant Benjamin Pearce leaves the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) tears run down his cheek he says. “I love the Congo,” Pearce told the Mail & Guardian in a recent interview at the South African air force base in Goma.
“The people are respectful and honourable. Here they don’t see the colour of your skin, they see a rafiki (a friend) or a msauza (a South African). They appreciate the little that you do for them.” This is the sixth deployment to the DRC for the 37-year-old in the past six years. He has learned a bit of kiSwahili, which helps him understand what locals — and rebels — are saying.
He also knows how to spot the rebels, defining them by their trademarks: weapons with red tags and in the case of the Mai Mai groups — the Mai Mai Kifuafua and Mai Mai Yakutumba — necklaces with two water bottles. Mai mai refers to maji, the kiSwahili word for water. “These groups believe that if they go through certain rituals with special potions, including holy water, they won’t be defeated. They wear gumboots, rags and leaf headdresses,” Pearce said.
Photograph: Benjamin Pearce
“You don’t get into arguments, because some of these guys take drugs. To avoid conflict with the rebels, you just listen when they talk and when they finish you walk away or you let them walk away first.”
But the trauma of soldiers sent to war zones often remains with them long after their deployment.
“I get involuntary twitches and spasms whenever someone claps unexpectedly or if a balloon explodes, I jump because I’m always ready for anything.
“The rebels in Burundi (where he was deployed in 2004) used to fire over our heads just to let us know they didn’t want us there. The sound from that time is still with me,” said Pearce.
One of his most traumatic experiences occurred in 2004, when he had to face a teenage rebel.
“He was 16 years old and carrying about seven machine guns. His tongue was cut out because the rebel leaders didn’t want him to divulge any information. When I opened a Coke can, he aimed at me, preparing to shoot. He thought it was a hand grenade. He had never seen a Coke can in his life.”
It is the child rebels that affect him the most. “When you see them you think of your children at home, but as a soldier you know that this 10-year-old is a rebel. The first thing that comes to your mind is ‘this could be my kid’. Then something in your mind says ‘cut it out, he is in combat, he can kill you first’ if it comes to that.”
South African National Defence Force members returning home from deployment are required to fill in assessment forms containing questions such as whether they have witnessed any killings or abuse during their deployment. The questionnaires are used by the military’s social workers to determine whether a soldier needs counselling.
“Normally I sort myself out on my own. I’ve got a strong personality so I can find ways to get myself back into normal life,” Pearce said.
He keeps his mind off things with crossword books, reading and talking about his experiences. “If you don’t talk about these things, one day you’re going to explode,” he said.
Monkey business among SA soldiers
The South African National Defence Force has been rocked by a racism scandal involving a senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Kim Moorcroft, and one of his subordinates, Lieutenant Katleho Maleke.
Moorcroft called Maleke and three of his colleagues, all black or coloured, “fucking monkeys” in an angry tiff about two weeks ago. He was unhappy that a trip from the headquarters of the South African contingent in Goma to a hotel where a team of media visitors — including this reporter — were staying had started at a military base outside town, making the working day longer than it was supposed to be. “This is what happens when you work with fucking monkeys,” Moorcroft said, standing at the door of a minibus full of civilian visitors at South Africa’s Munigi base outside Goma.
Moorcroft apologised to the media team on the day of the incident. “They’re not monkeys, but hey, there’s a lot of monkeying around here. There was absolutely no reason why we had to go there.”
Maleke pressed charges against Moorcroft, including charges of crimen injuria.
Four defence force sources told the M&G that it was common for white senior military officers to call their black subordinates degrading names.
Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s spokesperson, Ndivhuwo Mabaya, said the ministry’s office was “alerted” about the case and was awaiting a report from the national contingency commander in the DRC.
Corporate communication director Brigadier-General Marthie Visser said the SANDF viewed the matter in a “very serious light”, but would not respond to questions from the M&G because the matter was “still under investigation”.
Mmanaledi Mataboge was the guest of the South African National Defence Force, which covered the cost of her travel and accommodation on her trip to the DRC