Surviving Congolese soldiers deep in Nkunda’s territory

My boss decided that someone should report on the increased fighting in North Kivu, and chose me. I was apprehensive about the trip. But to tell the tragedy in DRC, someone needed to be on the ground.

My boss decided that someone should report on the increased fighting in North Kivu, and chose me. I was apprehensive about the trip. But to tell the tragedy in DRC, someone needed to be on the ground.

So for the first time, I agreed to be brave and go to North Kivu. I went to see and report the war. I was in contact with another foreign journalist working for an American newspaper. He was going to the same place and we would go together.

We wanted to meet with Congolese rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda, and the first thing was to arrange for an appointment.

We called from Rwanda, and spoke to the man who has given President Joseph Kabila so many sleepless nights.
Calling him on the phone seemed crazy, surreal. He picked the phone and said hullo.

The man was just calm and appealing. I know perhaps I am risking making some people think that I am consorting with a rebel by saying this, but it was true. We told him we wanted to meet with him for an interview.

“We would like to have an inside story of the fighting,” I told him.

General Nkunda asked us to contact his press representative.  A friend of mine had asked me to turn down the assignment because he worried I would get hurt or kidnapped.

“I know a Rwandan journalist who was almost killed in that territory,” he said.

I was proud to be with the American journalist who is a veteran reporter of international conflicts.  We drove comfortably to Goma, the Rwanda-DRC boarder. The bus broke down en route; we hired a minibus that took us to Gisenyi town.

Two Congolese nationals, the driver and my colleague’s translator, picked us up at the boarder with a huge wagon. They helped us through immigration and drove us to Linda Hotel, a beautiful establishment beside Lake Kivu.

We had to discuss our plans for the trip to meet Nkunda; it was going to be tough. At the hotel, we met a gentleman who worked for an emergency aid organization who knew my colleague. He briefed us on the current situation on the ground. I dialled the general’s press representative again.

The checks and counter checks

Nkunda’s press agent was furious. He was angry that The New Times had written something negative about his boss, and was sceptical because a previous visiting American reporter had got an interview with the general, and then written a story about him they did not like.

He did not believe I had talked to his boss and turned down the request. I insisted I had talked to the general himself and asked the press agent to arrange a meeting.

“I am going to consult with my boss first then I will call you back.” We waited and nothing was forthcoming. I sent him a text message but received no response. I called again, and after several attempts he picked up. Nkunda had accepted.

“You will meet a gentleman at Ihusi Hotel at eight (8:00am) and he will lead you to the general,” he said.

Surprisingly, appointment coincided with the VOA, Channel African, DW radio and Al-Jazeera news crews who had arranged appointments with the general too.

We stayed at the hotel for about three hours and then left. The reporters drove out of Goma in a convoy of three four-wheel drive vehicles into the conflict territory, about 100km away from Goma, this boring town.

After about 20 to 30km was a refugee camp called Mugunga, with a roadblock beyond it. The gentleman who worked for the emergency aid NGO had the other night warned us that after crossing this barrier, we were automatically in the danger zone.

Soldiers opened the barrier and let us through with no questions, and that was okay with us. After 15 to 25km, we arrived at Sake, one of the dangerous places in DRC. 
It was a terrible neighbourhood. MONUC had installed their tanks and patrol convoys there.

Just 50m ahead, General Nkunda’s soldiers were facing the MONUC forces as though they were both waiting for someone to blow a start whistle. Some MONUC soldiers checked our vehicles and asked us questions.  A crowd had started to gather but we were given the go-ahead.

We had one Congolese gentleman close to General Nkunda in the first jeep who answered all questions asked.  He was in touch with Nkunda on phone too. After about 200m, we met a MONUC patrol convoy.

They stopped us, asked a few questions, and radioed their men at the previous barrier to see if they had cleared us.
About 4km later, we met another group of General Nkunda’s soldiers.

They were so happy to see us and sounded like they knew we were coming, speaking mostly to the Congolese man who was leading us.

We continued, staying on the dirty road for about two hours. Few people walked in the road. Most of them were civilians. Some were selling charcoal.

One of the civilians we met, Mutombo, rides his bike from Goma to the bushes in the conflict zone to carry charcoal for sale in Goma town.

“It is like committing suicide but because my family has to survive, I have to come,” he says.

After driving through all the mountains of Masisi territory, we arrived at General Nkunda’s ghetto. Young soldiers manning a roadblock stopped us and asked questions - our names, where we come from and so on. One soldier looked at me curiously.

I felt uncomfortable and tried saluting him but he never saluted back. The compound was very green. Healthy cows grazed under huge trees. The civilian population in that area is cattle oriented, with most living as pastoralists.
We parked there for almost 20 minutes.

Our leader seemed to have communicated with the general and we were told he was not in the area. We had to drive another 30km ahead to a place called Kitchanga, the base of the rebels in Masisi territory.

Shortly before we met with him, we had to be checked and screened. All of our journalistic materials that the soldiers suspected or whose function they did not understand, mobile phones, fancy pens and other things were confiscated before we met their boss.

Meeting the General

Finally I saw the man. The general was addressing local leaders and residents. He concluded his talk and asked them to let him go because he had visitors.
We followed Nkunda to a nearby primary school building that served as his press conference room.

The rebel is serious; he claimed he is fighting for a reason. The Congolese government says it plans to blacklist Nkunda as the final option to end the recent conflict.

However, Nkunda accuses Kinshasa of working with FDLR, a group which he says have ushered a reign of terror on his Tutsi kin with a mission of exterminating them in the same way they perpetrated the 1994 Genocide.

Our interviews ended at 8pm. The general left but we remained with the population and soldiers.  We were given chance to talk to prisoners.

I talked to Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) captives. They spoke fluent Kinyarwanda with fierce faces, and strange voices, full of guilt on their faces.

That very night, President Joseph Kabila announced that he was tired of the General and would not continue giving carrots to Nkunda. We had to make other interviews the next day before we left.

We wanted to get the general‘s opinion on Kabila’s announcement. Our trip back was what I will never forget about DRC. It took almost two and half hours back down to Sake. The Al-Jazeera crew was still shooting more coverage and did not come with us.

At the Sake roadblock, MONUC asked why the other jeep had remained behind. We explained and added that we were not concerned whether they remained or they came with us. Our job was different.

A dejected population

They let us pass. Ten meters ahead, a crowd of close to 300 angry civilians was waiting for us. They blocked the road with huge stones. Young men and women angrily shouting and cursing us came closer and closer to our jeeps, carrying stones, clubs and machetes.

MONUC was watching all this take place. The crowd became angrier, they started opening the doors of our cars, knocking hard at the windows telling us to open up and get out.

Policemen intervened first but they failed to overcome the angry crowd. MONUC soldiers tried to threaten shooting. The crowd just got angrier.

Congolese soldiers immediately arrived. Strings of heavy ammunition hung about their chests. They told MONUC to step aside – that they would take care of it. But it was clear that they were on the crowd’s side.

The Congolese made little serious effort to push back the crowd threatening us. MONUC protested and the two teams of soldiers began arguing. Ultimately the job was left to the police.

We pulled back to the MONUC soldiers. The policemen asked who we were and why the crowd was angry at us.
I heard some shout that I was a brother to Nkunda and that I was going to answer for what I had come to do in Masisi.

That night, the Channel Africa’s reporter had aired a news story and Nkunda was heard speaking over the station.
The crowd was mad at us and wanted to kill the reporter for airing Nkunda, who they say is a killer and a criminal and has forced them out of their homes.

Hatred for Nkunda’s name

The people of Sake are said to be extremists and loyal to Kabila and the name Nkunda is like that of a devil to them.
I was trembling and sweating. I knew that this would be my final day. I tried to call everyone I knew back home but could not get a signal.

The police detained us. They found we were merely journalists but became bitter, asking us why we went through the uncontrolled part of the country without the government’s permission.

But when it came to me, a Rwandan journalist, things became worse. They never believed I was a journalist and what exactly had I come to do. Some thought I was a Rwandan soldier.

They hate and fear the Rwandese army. One would guess it’s because of the serious blows Rwanda struck in DRC during the 1997-2002 Congo war.

The police released us but the military was at the door waiting. The crowd had also reassembled outside, shouting they wanted us hanged or otherwise they would kill us.
The military decided to take us to Mugunga military camp, about 15km from Sake. 

I knew that was the end despite taking us past the ravenous crowd. My American colleague sent an SMS to the man he knew working with the emergency organization, who informed MONUC that the Congolese soldiers were taking us to Mugunga.

After just a kilometre, MONUC stopped the convoy.  They negotiated with the soldiers to ensure our safety and made sure they knew where we were being taken.

At the camp, we were introduced to a colonel. It was close 8pm.  Soldiers were preparing for a deployment, packing food and arms in good spirits. The soldier who was in our car had been told I was a Rwandan.

He started singing a Kiswahili song insulting Rwanda, that said Goma is a nice town and DRC is a rich country, they love it but Rwandan hyenas are fighting for it.

When we reached the camp, the Channel Africa reporter and I were called first. The American reporter’s translator came with us too. The colonel seemed like he had just got out of bed. He looked lazy and at ease.  He gave us a seat; the other soldier just stood next to us.

The colonel asked us to explain what was wrong. He gave us a chance to tell our side of the story. He thought there was nothing wrong with us, warned us not to travel in that area lightly, and told us to go. We asked him to give us his mobile phone number.

On our way to the barrier at the refugee camp, about 25km from the camp, we were stopped and thoroughly searched. We called the colonel but it seemed there was an order from the top military guys that we should be arrested and questioned further.

Interrogated

We were then taken to the military headquarters in Goma. We were interrogated and our journalistic materials confiscated. Whenever my eyes met with one of the soldiers outside watching us, I got scared.

I heard some people in the crowd say that I was a soldier and resembled Nkunda’s brother. “Huyu ni soda, muone ville angalia!” meaning that I am a soldier. Our details were recorded.  In a phone conversation, the man who was doing the recording was ordered to treat us harshly.

The man insisted. “Why and how did you go into an uncontrolled zone, that place is out of control.”  The phone talk took some time and the man ordered that he wanted to meet with us. They knew all our materials were there and we could not easily go back without them.

During our interview I had asked Nkunda to pose with me for a photo, and he did. With the crowd claiming I was Nkunda’s brother, what would happen to me if they found all these pictures?

My heart was melting when they told us to hand over our materials. But thank God none of them were seen – one of my companions somehow managed to pull the memory card out of my camera before handing it over.

After they released us, I called my boss about the harassment but he could do nothing. It was just to inform him. When I was having supper, my colleagues told me I was likely to be in further trouble if I stayed any longer.

They said I should find a way to cross the boarder as soon as possible. I left the next morning. I suspected someone was waiting for us at the border but the man at immigration had just arrived that morning. I was the first person there to get my passport stamped.

I crossed the border and sighed after stepping on Rwandan soil.  But I was still scared crossing through the no man’s land.
I called everyone back in DRC and woke them up with phone calls to tell them I had crossed and was safe and breathing freely again.

The rest of the reporters went to pick their materials; only the Channel African reporter and I did not. They were detained for almost two hours and told that Nkunda was a criminal, and how the government was trying to stop him but that the press goes ahead and gives him publicity that works in his favour.

Since then, a daily advertisement passes on a pro-government radio station, OKAPI, calling us to come to the military headquarter and pick up materials. A source told me President Kabila was given a report about our harassment.

He was reportedly even at the military headquarters on Wednesday and later visited Sake, but the people in Sake say they did not see him. I am still getting congratulations for surviving the ordeal, but many are asking me whether I will go back.

Yes, I would go back if necessary or if my boss wants me there for another assignment. But believe me, most Congolese, especially in Sake, would eat you alive if you are Rwandan. 

magnusmazimpaka@yahoo.ca

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