THE BLOG
04/13/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Journey to Report on the Horrors and the Hope in the Congo - Part II

Crossing the border

The border is nuts!

Young men in uniform roam around, I wouldn't say wielding big guns; it's more that they wear their rifles like satchels, casually draped over their shoulders. Swarms of people, many of them "paperless," try to slip by the rank and file across the border. It's chaotic, and yet there is some framework, some order -- an order that's different than anything I'm used to, but a cohesiveness definitely exists among mayhem.

Our Rwandan driver parks in what is called "no man's land" -- the space between the Rwandan and Congolese border. He is not allowed to cross -- company policy -- Congo is considered a security risk. As we unload our suitcases, Joseph says something in Swahili and two kids in baggy jeans and dirty tee shirts appear from nowhere. Joseph signals me to follow him. I grab my computer and bag that has all my money in it, (Congo is a cash-only country), and leave the rest of my luggage with the young ruffians. I follow Joseph like a duckling scrambling to keep up with its mother, knowing somewhere deep down I'm fucked without him. Looking back, I say farewell to our bags, thinking I'll never see them again.

There is a L-O-N-G line in front of immigration and I fear we're going to be late for our first appointment in Goma with the hospital Heal Africa. Joseph speaks French to some young lady. Joseph speaks six languages including French and Swahili; I, of course, speak neither. Five minutes later we are third in the queue. All I have to say is thank god for Joseph.

Joseph Mbangu is part of the Congolese Diaspora living in NYC.

In 1996, when Laurent Kabilia, with the backing of Rwanda, declared war on the sitting Congolese president Mubutu, Joseph fled Bukavu for Lubumbashi, Katanga, to the safety of his family. He walked 600 kilometers (almost 400 miles) through the Congolese hills with a group of friends who were studying at the same private university he was attending. Among those students was his pregnant girlfriend (and now wife), Christine.

From 1996 thru 1998 Joseph finished his two remaining years of law school in Lubumbashi.
Then in August of 1998, President Kabilia decided to break his alliance with Rwanda, and what is known as the first African World War broke out. Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi aligned against Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and the Congo.

In 1999, fearing for Christine's life (she is from Burundi), the IOM (International Organization of Migration) evacuated Joseph, Christine, and their (now) two daughters to a refugee camp in the Benin Republic. They were there for five months.

Then in February of 2000, through the sponsorship of the HIAS (Hebrew International Aid Society), Joseph's family moved to Tucson, AZ, where Joseph finished his masters in international trade law.

In 2007 Joseph moved with his wife and (now) three daughters to NYC to practice law.

We are finally met at the border by Joseph's friend Kizito and his friend Seven -- they will be driving us around for the next six days while we are in Goma. Neither Kizito, nor Seven, speak English so I communicate with pigeon French and a lot of hand signals. Somehow it works. We all hop into the car and set out for our meeting.

Goma is like nothing I've ever seen. It's vibrant, angry, primal, desperate and hopeful -- lawless, but somehow not dangerous. Every energy coexists here. It feels foreign and familiar at the same time. The poverty is wrenching. There has been a huge population increase in Goma do to the war, pushing people from their villages into the city where it is believed to be safer because of the large MONUC (UN Peacekeepers) presence.

Today, Eastern Congo is considered the most dangerous place to be a woman or a girl. The country is caught in an epidemic of horrendous sexual violence. Numerous militias use rape as a military tactic to destroy communities and exert control over the natural resources.

Women are the backbone of Congolese society. They work the fields, carry the water, take care of the children, cook, and clean. When a woman is raped her community and family most often ostracize her. Considered dirty, her husband rejects her. Daughters are raped in front of their parents; sometimes fathers are made to have sex with their daughters or be killed. Whole communities are terrorized, their homes burned, their livestock stolen. Survivors flee to the city, the bush, or to IDP camps. The community is destroyed.

Sadly, multinational corporations, as well as governments, manipulate the conflict to further their lucrative economic interests in the illicit mineral trade. Valuable minerals (conflict minerals) needed for our cell phones, computers and video games are feeding the war through a bloody land grab, and Congolese women and girls bear the vicious brunt of the crisis.

We finally arrive at Heal Africa and meet with Lyn Lusi. She and her husband, Jo, began HA 12 years ago when the FDLR (Rwandan Hutu militia) fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide -- the beginning of the violent rapes in the Congo. Heal Africa began as a hospital and treatment center for rape victims, but has now expanded its program to provide counseling, leadership training, financing of micro loans, housing and treatment for orphaned children with HIV, and legal assistance to women. Once one problem seems to be under control another challenge presents itself. It seems HA, with its ever-expanding number of programs to ensure the empowerment of women and children, is literally trying to 'heal' Africa.

While talking with Lyn she shows a picture of a thirteen year-old girl who had recently been admitted. She had been violently raped several times by the FDLR, her arms burned, and then her eyes gouged out. Such brutalization is NOT uncommon in the Congo.

Later I meet two survivors in the recovery room; they are weaving beautiful baskets out of Cassava leaves. Across from them a young girl sleeps on another bed. She is snoring. Loudly. I smile at her, then look back at the women thinking she is one of their daughters as many of the children are on the HA compound. They shoot me a quick glance, and then look away. It registers... she is not there with her mother. I excuse myself trying to keep it together as I pass HA staff on my way to the bathroom. I close the door, sit on the toilet, and bury my head in my hands and cry. A few minutes later I rejoin Joseph and Modestine (our guide) in the yard. A young boy with a big girly smile challenges me to a scrap game of soccer. I smile. The game is on.

We get back in the car and head to our hotel. Cars, bikes, motos, and every imaginable vehicle that can carry every imaginable item vie for road space. Cars kick up black volcanic soot from the 2002 volcano explosion that wiped out two-thirds of Goma. Most of the city has been rebuilt on the rugged black lava rock. As we drive the black ash mixes with the exhaust of unregulated vehicles. My throat burns. I think of what my lungs must look like inhaling in all these carcinogens.

Soon we are at our hotel.

Hotel Stella sits on the edge of Lake Kivu. The view of the lake is stunning -- endless and blue. An armed guard -- let me revise that -- a young man with a big gun in his lap playing cards, sits outside the hotel's entrance. I swear he's not older than 16. (By the end of my stay this sweet-faced boy has taught me ten new French words).

As Joseph heads off to hang out with Kizito and Seven, I head down to the lake. An old man with a knotted face passes in a Waka, a hollowed out tree used as a fishing boat. A small lantern hangs from the side of the canoe. He smiles widely, showing his three teeth, and waves. "Jambo" he calls. My face breaks into a big grin, "Jambo," I reply. I watch him until he disappears, and then head to my room.