I wanted to wait and write when I understood more about the politics behind the mind-bending atrocities going on here, but it will take much, much more time for me to absorb, process, and understand the components and intricacies that perpetuate this senseless and obscene war. Every day I see and learn something new about this country, its people, and the unrelenting conflict that's turning both inside out.
So that being said I am going to report on both the horrors I've witnessed during my recent time in Congo as well as the hope, for the Congo encompasses high degrees of both.
First stop Kigali, Rwanda:
After 2 days of flying my travel buddy, Joseph Mbangu, and I finally land in Kigali. Safe. The supposed direct flight from Nairobi to Kigali was redirected making an unplanned stop in Bujumbura, Burundi. No one tells us why. Needless to say I was a little tense. I kept checking the faces of the flight attendants -- they seemed calm so I, thankfully, did not head for the exit.
Forty-five minutes later we land in Burundi to an army battalion standing in the middle of the airfield in full military regalia. They turn and salute the plane. A red carpet is rolled out onto the runway. Once we come to a full stop the Tambourinaires (drummers) begin the local Intore Dance warrior dance. TV cameras roll, photographers point their lenses toward the aircraft--it turns out the vice-president of Kenya is on our flight! And because of security reasons they couldn't tell anyone about the impromptu stop. As the Vice-President disembarks, Joseph and I, along with the rest of the passengers, watch the ceremony from the plane, and then head off to Kigali. Nice way to start the trip, and the first of many unplanned happenings. "This is Africa," I tell myself and settle in.
Kigali is wild. Cars, pedestrians, and motos, scrap for a piece of the road. It reminds me of the media footage I've seen of New Delhi or Islamabad only without the poverty. An enormous amount of investing is taking place in Kigali. Lots of new construction -- parks, schools, office buildings, beautification projects, and sub-divisions -- part of the government's rehabilitation plan to bring money back into the country after the 1994 slaughter of nearly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in just 100 days by the Interahamwe (Hutu militia).
Two things seem to be so consistently true here that in my mind they warrant skepticism -- First, everyone in Kigali loves their president Paul Kagame, the RPF military commander who eventually drove the FDLR out of Rwanda (more on him later, A-hem). It's hard to imagine that with a population of nearly eighty-five percent Hutu, that no one has a contrary word to say about Kagame. Second, no one likes to talk about the genocide -- at least directly. Indirectly they talk about it all the time, in fact, it defines time: Rwandans often preface their sentences with "Before the genocide," and "After the genocide," but that's all you're likely to hear about it. They want to 'forget' it, which is understandable, and alarming.
Our lovely driver, J, a twenty-six year-old young man with a smile a mile long, was ten during the massacre. He said, "Now Tutsis and Hutus are living side by side peacefully. Kigali is growing. Things are good. People want to forget about these things."
As we drive through Kigali I take some photos and receive a few hostile looks. J tells me, "After the genocide, people are very suspicious." I put away my camera and respectfully ask permission before taking another shot.
The drive from Kigali to the DRC border is fantastic -- as we drive on a surprisingly perfectly paved road we are exposed to a more unidealized part of the country. The further away from Kigali we get the poorer the communities become. Many buildings, actually more like shacks, are marked with X's. The government has given these roadside businesses/markets a year to "beautify and unify" or the buildings will be torn down. I have to say I am not one for conformity, especially when it's mandatory, but the Rwandans make it look awfully good.
I gaze out the window at the spectacular terraced hillsides -- they resemble pieces of art, the people are true land artisans. The yards in front of their circular mud and palm huts are free of debris and marked with a variety of colorful flowers and pots. Individual doorways are painted magenta, turquoise, and sunshine yellow. And it works! I watch women carry enormous baskets of fruit and wood, and buckets of water on their heads. Men bicycle up and down the steep hills on a one speed with hefty loads of wood and palms leaves on their backs. I try not to miss a thing.
After four hours of driving, the perfectly paved road ends. We are in the Congo now.