My first day in Northeast Congo marks the first day of preparation for the Peace Conference. After 11 years of war, America called a cease-fire and peace talks have begun.
There are five general forces fighting in this region. The Congolese Army (FARDC), the Rwandan refugee army (FDLR), Nkundas rebel army (CNDP), the Mai-Mai and of course, the largest UN force in the world MONUC.
A few months ago Lindsay met a dozen former child soldiers and had reports that they had rejoined the Mai-Mai. We went into the bush to see what it would take to get them out. That simple step forward has unfolded a deep drama provoking dangerous doors to open our way.
We teamed up with a Congolese man named François who took us directly into Sake, the strategic village just outside of the major city of Goma. The UN won't allow the rebel armies to move past Sake, so it has been the place of constant war for years. The village is between two hills. He pointed to the left hill and said, "there is the base of the Congolese Army" and pointed to the right hill and said "there is the base of the rebel army." The people of Sake had spent the better part of a decade fleeing their homes and returning when it felt safe. They were just returning from having fled one week ago. Neither base was more than 200 meters away.
Our car broke down so we resorted to motorcycles as we traveled deep into the conflict zone. We crossed four security checkpoints and each time François negotiated for over thirty minutes to push our way in. Here, automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade launchers (RPG's) are more common than food.
At the fifth security checkpoint, we asked the soldiers where the Mai-Mai were and looked at us with a chilling laugh. "We are the Mai-Mai," they responded. We looked at each other and knew. We had entered rebel territory. It would be my first of many encounters with this rebellion that had stolen the lives of so many children.
They looked just like government soldiers, except that here and there, I saw personal artifacts of style or expression that would never be found in a regulated military. One boy of about 15 had a motorcycle racing jersey on with army green sunglasses. Classic. And tragic.
I'll be honest...I don't know how to tell the story of Congo. The chief of Sake said to me, "We live our lives running from bullets. My children die for nothing." The trauma reveals itself in every dead plot of land and bullet torn home.
The following is simply my best effort to explain. It will not do this land justice - this land that has known none - but I suppose it's a start.
We stumbled onto a town hall meeting filled with leaders from the surrounding villages.
The Peace Conference has asked every district to hold meetings and discover what people on the ground felt were effective solutions to ending the war.
It bore a strange resemblance to the town hall meetings previous to the American Revolution. Leaders from every town had come together to decide whether they would risk the lives of their children to gain freedom from the British. Those were brave gatherings with men of principle. This held the same resonance of patriotic defiance. The difference was that the men and women here had already lost their children.
We met a schoolteacher who, despite his conviction that education was the only way to move his country forward, had closed his school. We struggled to understand why. He looked at us with sad eyes and responded that the schools have become like a corral for cattle. With all the children in one place the rebels job is that much easier - they're captured, boys and girls, in one fell swoop.
On our way out of the conflict zone, we stopped by a hospital to see the local conditions and report back to our medical friends in Goma. We found bullet holes and signs of heavy artillery. One of the rebel groups had attacked the hospital just a few days ago to steal medicine. I could see in Lindsay's eyes the same question I knew was in mine, "Where in the hell are we?"
Leaving the hospital we turn around and see Bahati come out from behind a pillar. Bahati was of the boys who had reportedly gone back to the Mai-Mai and we simply couldn't believe we had found him.
A man had found him wandering alone in the bush and seen in him a staggering intelligence. The adopting father took him in, despite his eleven other children, and put him in school. A miracle.
Bahati's goal is now to transform his nation. He studies with fervor but at any moment you can still catch the horror in his eyes. Because at age eleven he killed fourteen people.
Children who have killed stand at the far fringe of any society. Even societies riddled with war and violence such as this one. Many are unable to ever find their place again. Instead, they go on to create new rebel movements and with each child trained to kill, peace takes two steps backward. You can see it in Bahati. Had this man not found him, he would have refound the only family he knows - the Mai Mai.
We returned home that night only to discover that the cease-fire had been broken not far from where we spent the day. The cease-fire had lasted all of a couple hours and eighteen women and children were shot in the back while running away.
The pursuit of liberty has never seemed more real. They were simply living in their village under the auspices of an American led cease-fire. When the bullets rained down, they fled toward freedom and away from oppression. In the process they were shot down like hogs.
This Peace Conference will begin dialogue, but today was an acute reminder that talk without might falls deaf. The poor have little hope in the Conference. A man said, "They will speak French and drink milk, but we will still starve."
We who wish peace in this world cannot cower from power. It is our burden to earn it, and with it, honor the helpless.