Where War Once Reigned, Still Waters Run Deep

Tuesday, July 20, 2004 | Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (map)

The smooth waters of Lake Kivu have seen much conflict in recent years.
Last Saturday we ate at L'Hôtel Nyira, home of Goma's finest restaurant (at least of the three that exist, by my count). I wolfed down a dish of local capitaine from the lake, while Edouard, Dr. Sussman, and Lisa tried grilled tilapia specials and a chicken dish with ground squash beans, cooked in a banana leaf. Following Edouard's lead, I dressed my fish with a fiery Congolese pili-pili sauce. The tuxedoed waiters hovered, in the near absence of other patrons, and eagerly brought additional rounds of Primus and Mutzig, the region's most popular beers. The Nyira even serves wine, a rarity in Goma.

Over dessert, Edouard recounted a previous trip to this hotel under very different circumstances. On a return visit to his country six years ago, during Congo's chaotic civil war, Edouard had taken shelter in the hotel with other Tutsis. Militias, likely composed of former génocidaires, hunted them throughout the city. Edouard fled his homeland once again.

At first glance, today Goma seems a less hostile place. Entrepreneurs are establishing internet cafés and cell phone kiosks, people are smiling, and the city looks headed for prosperity, its economy buoyed by the mining industry and international relief efforts centered here. But when I inquire about climbing the volcano outside Goma, Edouard and others at MHI quickly squash the idea, and remind me that interahamwe militias reign in the forest just beyond the city limits.

Even in the city itself, where the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, asserts a strong presence from its compound, I began to recognize signs of underlying tension within my first few days. Walking back from the internet café one day last week, I stopped to gawk as a large diesel truck rumbled through the streets with wild music blaring. The truck's sides bore no official insignia, and young men in plain clothes—not uniforms—stood in the open-top bed, each clutching an AK-47 or rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher.

This afternoon I saw another of these unmarked militias, which roared through town in two large trucks. I scampered to the roadside with the other pedestrians, and didn't dare to point a camera at them, gun shy as I already am after yesterday’s events.

Yes, I need to write all about that. Continued in next entry!

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