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Bukavu, Gorillas, and the First Congo War (part one)

That machete is a little too close to my face..


View les deux Congos on mjsimek's travel map.

Squint your eyes and you are in Italy or one of many Mediterranean hotspots. Indeed, before modern-day DRC, before Zaïre, the Bukavu of the Belgian Congo, along with Goma, was a honeymoon and vacation destination for people throughout southern Africa. The stunning location of Bukavu on the southern shores of Lake Kivu is a benediction to its residents. But roaming the streets of Bukavu are the wraiths of decades of war, assassinations, and invasions by troops and refugees. Bukavu, as is the case with much of Congo, is a place where the often jaundiced eyes of the Congolese surrounding you have seen what you pray you never will.

I stayed at l'Hôtel Résidence, a name that I was certain that I had heard before. I had not been wrong. It was the hotel's grand balconies which lead me to search back through the pages of one of the books I had read in preparation for my trip, entitled Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. The following excerpt describes an incident at the hotel during the beginning of the First Congo War, an incident involving a man named Lieutenant Colonel Prosper Nabyolwa, the commander of operations in Bukavu for Mobutu Sésé Seko's army:

Nabyolwa was in downtown Bukavu when the rebels finally reached town, entering across the Rwandan border and from the south at the same time. He raced in his pickup to Hotel Residence, a large monolith on the main strip where the army high command had rented apartments. His commanding officer had barricaded himself there, swearing that he would not abandon his position. Nabyolwa rushed into his room, urging him to order a tactical retreat. His commander refused, saying that they would still be able to hold the town. Exasperated, Nabyolwa took him out to the balcony, from where they could see Rwandan troops swarming into town. As they stood on the balcony, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the wall just meters away from them, knocking them both to the ground. Convinced, the general informed his staff to prepare a hasty withdrawal to a suburb on a hill adjacent to Bukavu, from where they would be able to prepare a counterattack.

My hotel room walls had filled-in blotches which did not resemble watermarks. Drunken soldiers from 1996 playing with their guns?

The city is well beyond capacity and has few visitors from abroad today, besides Rwandans and Burundians. The occasionally lit grocery stores contain random goods which can easily be smuggled across the border without paying ridiculous bribes. Most inhabitants seem to do their purchasing from the streets in any case, from people who descend upon the town daily from the surrounding hills to sell what they have grown or found. According to General Nabyolwa, Mobutu once proclaimed in a speech to a dejected and hungry Zaïrian army troop: "You have guns; you don't need a salary." The psychological remnants of this statement, a proclamation with its roots in a nonexistent "Article 15" quoted by Mobutu from an invalid Zaïrian constitution, can be appreciated by the traveler in the warnings s/he is given concerning which parts of town to avoid. Displays of any wealth are of course discouraged everywhere while amongst people who never have enough money to survive healthily (although, bless these people, they look but they do not take... usually), but it is the warnings against going near police stations or places where soldiers gather that are peculiarly Zaïrois. The police and military too often receive little to no pay, so you become their means of survival. It matters little to them if they must arrest you to get what they want. Of course, the "foreigner shakedown" is best avoided by always being with a local, which I was, but it is something which the locals have to deal with as well. Anyone with a business, a productive field, or anything that the police and soldiers want, is fair game. This is more than legend and lore, but I was lucky to only experience this at certain checkpoints along the road while being driven outside of the city. Most bribes are expected and folded in palm in advance, barely necessitating a stop.

So why visit Bukavu? The city itself is beautiful, the surrounding hills are as bucolic as one can find, and the nearby national park of Kahuzi-Biéga is home to the only remaining wild population of eastern lowland gorillas. It is also home to numerous coltan mines (if you are not sure how you have anything to do with the problems in this part of the world, take a closer look at the device you are reading this blog on). The wealth contained in these mines keeps parts of this park unvisitable. It is possible, however, to visit some of the gorilla families within the park, and it is highly recommended!

Part two coming soon...

Posted by mjsimek 01:24 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo

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