Saturday, August 16, 2008


Goma city centre © Ryan Hicks

A mere 15 metres of neutral territory and two ramshackle steel barriers on either side separate Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), whose relations have been strained since the 1990s.

Before entering the DRC, we stop at the Rwandan immigration post to get our exit stamp. We explain why we are leaving (a team from Internews, where I’m currently working, was going to contact some NGOs in the DRC for a film they want to produce, and I tagged along), receive our stamps and then walk to the side of the barrier, show our stamps to the Rwandan official, and then enter neutral territory.

It feels like you are in limbo simply because of what lies on either side of you. Behind you, in the city of Gisenyi, there is a sense of order – the immigration office has computers and the officer swipes your passport, people are going about their business calmly, they’re smiling and seem generally satisfied to be on the Rwandan side of the border.

On the DRC side, in the city of Goma, on the other side of the second steel barrier in front of you, people are walking in a rush, crossing and re-crossing the street, going back and forth between people and vendors. The narrow road is decaying. An empty Blue Sky Intermodal container waits to pass through the gate to Rwanda.

When you walk into the immigration office, the officer takes your passport and logs it, by pen, in a notebook. On the other side of the office is a female officer in front of a window with a tiny opening where four people are sticking their hands through, waving their immigration documents frantically, in an effort to get processed. There’s no organized line, just a crowd, and they seem to really want to cross to the other side where they think the grass is greener.

After the team and I get our documents stamped, Jean Paul, our driver, is told he has to go pay a $15 USD vehicle entry and authorization fee. The DRC officer refuses to give him a receipt, but Jean Paul and Babonne, our cameraman, say that, if we were ever stopped by police officers during our time there, how would we be able to prove that we paid the fee and were authorized to drive our vehicle in the DRC. Not to mention the fact that we don’t really know if they officer is just pocketing the $15 USD. But then the officer told JP and Babonne that he was “the one that decides whether you enter or not,” and that they need to pay the fee without a receipt in return. Five minutes later the fee is paid and we go on our way.

In 2001, a volcano erupted, devastating the city of Goma. And for years, the DRC and its citizens have been embroiled in a bitter civil conflict (largely ignored by Western media).

It shows.

There’s hardly any grass. Patches at best. Roads are marked by potholes…everywhere (imagine worse than Ottawa this past spring). Over the course of four hours, I see no smooth surface outdoors. You can tell that this was once a nice looking colonial city. The lanes of main roads are divided in two, with a raised lane of dirt with patches of grass. Huge roundabouts make up the intersections and also look devastated. People congregate there, lying about, like they are just passing time.

As we go between appointments, we drive through commercial areas. I watch people as they go about running their errands. They look uneasy and “on edge.” When we go to visit the NGO Actionaid, an old woman is wheeling a boy down the rubble road. The boy is sitting in a patio chair that has been placed on a wheelchair because the wheelchair doesn’t have a seat.

On our way to the state broadcaster, we pass huge, empty, and deteriorating buildings. We pass a large empty space, about the size of a football field, made of dirt. About five different games of soccer are going on.

When we drive away, I look out the back of our Land Rover. A boy, who looks to be about six or seven years old, carries a tray on one hand and is runs after us. He points at me with his free hand. Then he makes his thumb and index finger into the form of a gun, points it at the side of his head, and pulls the pretend trigger with his thumb. He performs this sequence five times as we drive away. Pointing at me, shooting at his head. Pointing, shooting, pointing, pointing, shooting, pointing, shooting, pointing, shooting.

We drive back to the border. Check out time. The DRC official logs me into his notebook and I cross into neutral territory where a Chinese shipping container waits to cross into Rwanda. We check back into Rwanda. The immigration is fascinated by the fact that we are journalists. He swipes my passport and we get our documents stamped. I turn around , facing the road leading to Rwanda and a wave of calm hits me. I take a deep breath, realizing that throughout the afternoon in the DRC, my breath had been taken away.

1 comment:

AJ from the 613 said...

Wow are an amazing writer! Thank you for sharing & for the experience of an afternoon's journey (half way across the world) through your eyes.