To Goma, the City at Horizon's End

Thursday, July 8, 2004 | Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (map)

Goma and Lake Kivu from nearby hilltop
When genocide struck Rwanda ten years ago, Edouard Mwangachuchu was a young cattle rancher just across the border in Bibatama, a small community in the hills northeast of Goma, DRC. He and his wife Odile, both Tutsis, raised their six children in peace, but grew increasingly worried as the génocidaires pushed closer and closer to the Congolese border. When the madness spilled over into Congo, Edouard recognized that to save his family, he had to flee. He wanted to reach the United States, where he knew he and his family could gain asylum.

Tragically, the only major airport within hundreds of miles was in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. To escape the genocide that threatened their lives, the Mwangachuchus would first have to travel to its very heart.

They left the ranch, abandoning their home and valuable cattle, and headed to Goma, near the
Rwandan border. There, a young Hutu man named Musengo, who was a friend of the family's, put them in the back of a truck, and covered them in piles of banana leaves. They drove east at night, literally passing through the ranks of the génocidaires as the militias headed west into Congo. Machete-wielding thugs threatened the vehicle, and it was nearly searched numerous times. The family huddled in silence at checkpoint after checkpoint, roadblock after roadblock, all the way to Kigali. As Musengo drove onward, they saw bodies beside the road, and houses burning.

* * *

They call Rwanda "le pays des mille collines"—the land of a thousand hills. On our drive from Kigali to Goma, it was clear that the name was well deserved. I saw no flat ground in the country, and yet every inch was used. Farmers planted tea, bananas, and coffee on steep inclines, or terraced the crops neatly around the contours of the twisting hills, which the roads followed faithfully in endlessly snaking arcs and switchbacks.

We reached the border at Gisenyi, on the north shore of Lake Kivu, in a few hours, during which I fruitlessly attempted to perfect the art of high-speed photography from the vehicle's window. At the border, we trudged into the door-less, concrete block that served as Congo's immigration post with extra $20 bills in our pockets, but (for the first time in Dr. Sussman's memory, he said) the basic entry fee sufficed to get our passports stamped.

As we rolled into Goma, the worn asphalt of Rwanda's roads disappeared, replaced by crushed lava rock. Throughout the city, most of the walls, road markers, and many buildings were made of the same purplish-black volcanic stone.

Two years ago, in February 2002, nearby Mount Nyiragongo, the volcano that looms just north of the city, erupted with little warning. Carrying only what they could hold on their backs, Goma's residents fled, as did the tens of thousands of refugees who, since the civil war that followed Rwanda's genocide, called the sprawling tent encampments around Goma home. Weeks later, they returned to find a new city. Lava had poured through the streets, all the way to Lake Kivu's beaches, and covered the city in several meters of nearly impenetrable rock.

Though distraught, the locals had faced tragedy in the past. In a true show of human resilience, they moved back to their city, cut doorways in the second story of those few buildings that had more than one, and started over on those that did not.

The rock that had covered their homes became the rock they used to rebuild. Driving through Goma's outskirts, we saw men working at the stone with pickaxes. For every cubic meter of the unyielding rock that a worker excavates and crushes for use in construction, our driver told me, he can earn a single dollar.

* * *

We checked in at the luxurious Stella Matutina Lodge, in the Himbi area of western Goma. A small path led to the lake from the hotel's veranda, past its white stucco villas and through gardens of brilliant flowers that cascaded to the water's edge. The lake stretched off toward the horizon and disappeared in a thick haze. Day and night, nearby Nyiragongo spewed gases that slid down the mountain's slopes and through the city, settling on Lake Kivu and permanently veiling its horizon.

On my first afternoon in Congo, Edouard introduced me to Musengo, the friend who ten years earlier had driven him, Odile, and their six children to the airport from which they fled to America and escaped the temporary horrors of their homeland.

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