There are two new burial grounds in this steamy river town.
Gaston Nyimu Kaya built one. It looks like a small Arlington cemetery."We buried the people we could identify here," says Nyimu, the young Red Cross chief of Kisangani. He points to long rows of wet graves laid out in a precise grid. By a clean-swept communal tomb carefully hedged with bricks, he says, "These people were more difficult. Some of them had been lying in the streets for a week."
The dead are Nyimu's neighbors, citizens of Kisangani killed in a pointless battle between the Ugandan and Rwandan armies in Congo's civil war. Nyimu wants their resting place to be clean. He is a meticulous man who relishes neatness. Clad in a traditional tunic and trousers stenciled with colorful maps of Congo--"A Happy Country" the pattern says in French--he surveys his domain with satisfaction. It is a drizzly day, and the water drips from the white crosses like tears.
Outside his graveyard fence a less tidy Congo resumes.
A weedy mass grave bulges nearby, filled with the remains of ethnic Tutsis butchered in an earlier pogrom. And Kisangani itself is an unkempt corpse. Blasted by 6,000 high-explosive shells in June, the city is reverting to jungle. Trees grow out of the roofs of its university buildings. Hungry professors grow cassava in the boulevards below.
Kisangani's second new cemetery flows nearby; Ugandan troops have dumped scores of their dead comrades into the muddy currents of the Congo River.
"The only thing the UN peacekeepers did was send out bulletins to the world," Nyimu recalls of the fighting that destroyed his city. Standing in his sodden black dress shoes, gazing out over what may be the cleanest cemetery in Africa, he adds: "As it turned out, the world couldn't care less about our obituaries."
Two years after the outbreak of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world still largely ignores the body count in central Africa. Most of the cemeteries here are just humps of red mud in the jungles. And the mighty Congo River, curving like a giant scythe through the battle zone, often conspires to hide the dead.
Yet only two weeks ago, the United Nations announced that some 600,000 children under 5 have probably perished from hunger, disease and violence in Congo's war. Assuming this staggering figure is correct, it matches all the dead in Angola during its 27 years of nearly continuous fighting.
Far removed from the cameras and headlines, off the political map, Congo bleeds from one of the most lethal, complex wars in the world.
Congo's conflict has been called "Africa's First World War" because of its stew of combatants. President Laurent Kabila, supported by allies Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, is struggling to hold on to power against rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda.
Competing armies flying a host of banners--nationalism, rebellion, revenge, profit--make the killing hard to contain. And diplomats worry that the fighting poses the greatest threat to African peace and stability in the new millennium.
Mentioned far less often in international circles is the suffering of the ordinary Congolese. Millions are trapped in the maw of the fighting. Isolated in Africa's interior, harassed by some 100,000 widely scattered troops on all sides, their plight is almost completely unknown.
"Even the fish don't want to stay in Congo anymore," said Mosiki Pombolo, a fisherman who lives at some rapids near Kisangani, the remote midway point of the Congo River's 2,900-mile journey to the Atlantic.
Pombolo stared into the Congo's churning currents. Fishing was bad.
"Many, many rockets and bullets have fallen into the river," he said finally. "The fish, when they hear this, go far away. They are just like people. They want tranquility."
Few outsiders have seen Congo's war up close.
The only real pathway through the vast wilderness of Congo's battlefield is the river itself. Rising from the plains near the Zambian border, it enters the war zone peacefully, from government-held Katanga province, and exits more than 2,000 miles away at the capital city, Kinshasa.
In between, however, travelers floating down the world's sixth-longest river in a canoe are witness to a landscape haunted by war; a place where time appears not only to have stopped, but where the clock seems to have been turned back a century by the fighting.
Strange, car-less cities are subsiding into the sweltering jungle like so many ancient ruins. Highways that once rivaled Brazil's Trans-Amazon, already crumbling from years of neglect, have vanished altogether. In their place, traders push food-laden bicycles 800 miles along greasy jungle footpaths--more than the distance between Atlanta and Chicago.
On a recent afternoon in the heart of the jungle, one of these African versions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was busy with bicycle merchants rolling and pedaling their wares--live pigs, boxes of dried fish, sacks of sugar--through clouds of shimmering butterflies. Travel time was measured in months.
The mighty Congo River itself, once a winding highway for 250,000 boat passengers a year, has been cut by the front lines. The biggest artery of commerce for central Africa is eerily empty save for a few dugout canoes and the makeshift gunboats of Kabila's government.
"Only the fish can travel freely," said Renos Mahamba, a trader from Kisangani who has seen his "African Queen"-style boats confiscated by rebels and used as troop carriers. "We are a forgotten island in the middle of the continent. A prison island."
How many people languish there?
No one knows. The UN study with the numbingly high death toll merely estimates that 16 million ordinary Congolese on both sides of the front lines--fully a third of Congo's population--are either starving or left homeless by the fighting.
"The forests are full of people," explains Mahamba. "Some of them are surviving on wild fruits. Others are surviving by the force of the gun."
Congo, a strategic country that borders nine other nations, is cursed by its riches and plagued by the circularity of its history.
Today's scramble for political power, gold and diamonds echoes the genocidal reign of Belgium's King Leopold II, a rapacious colonialist whose agents chopped off the hands and heads of countless Congolese in a quest for ivory and rubber.
Colonial riverboats paddled 1,000 miles up the Congo River to present-day Kisangani, trading gunfire with hails of arrows whizzing out of the river's 100-foot walls of trees.
More than half a century later, in 1960, Congo was once again the scene of major bloodshed: It was the first African beachhead of the Cold War.
Some 60,000 UN troops poured through Congo when Africa's richest colony exploded into mayhem after independence. American presidents starting with Kennedy anointed Mobutu Sese Seko, a caricature of a venal African strongman, to hold the line against Soviet meddling. Che Guevara responded by marching with 100 Cubans into the Congolese jungles to foment revolution.
"Nothing leads me to believe that Kabila is the man of the hour," Guevara wrote of Congo's current president, a young rebel back in 1965. Guevara complained bitterly that Kabila and other Congolese leaders spent too much time "in the best hotels, issuing communiques and drinking Scotch in the company of beautiful women." Huffing with asthma, the Latin American revolutionary abandoned Congo after six months.
Having toppled dictator Mobutu in 1997, Kabila himself now grapples with rebellion. Only today, with the Cold War a memory, nobody is marching to save backwater Congo.
Should a peace deal ever hold, only 5,500 UN troops will be sent to Congo.
"Let me be frank, this is probably the most complex situation the UN has ever found itself in," says a UN cease-fire observer stationed in Kisangani, the scene of fighting that claimed at least 700 civilian lives in June. "You have rebels fighting the government, rebels fighting each other, and foreign supporters on all sides fighting each other too."
Asked what the fighting in Kisangani was about, he shrugged and placed the tips of his index fingers and thumbs together to form a diamond.
The inner station
An arcane publication of the Central Bank of Congo offers the following key statistics:
Since independence from Belgium, copper production in one of Africa's most industrialized nations dropped from 282,000 tons to 37,000 tons. Official gold production fell from 22,000 pounds to 15 pounds. Cement: 347,000 tons down to 160,000. Palm oil: 244,000 tons to 81,000. The manufacture of shoes: 29,000 pairs to only 1,700. Cloth: 60,000 square meters to 10,000. The list is long.
Only two Congolese commodities buck the trend. Diamond output has climbed from 14 million carats to 20 million. And beer: 1.7 million cases to 4.3 million.
This patterns holds in rebel-held Kisangani, a jungle metropolis halfway down the Congo River, and arguably the most godforsaken city in the world.
"These are the only two industries still functioning in town," says Ekopi Kane Mokeni, a half-Lebanese merchant whose fleet of 12 trucks has been stolen by rebel soldiers. "Diamonds and beer offer escape."
Mokeni is among a growing number of Congolese who pine not only for the wretched dictatorship of Mobutu, but for the even more dubious days of colonial rule. He remembers when Kisangani--then called Stanleyville--boasted cinemas and clubs that played Glenn Miller. A rough river pearl, Kisangani then looked out across a half-mile of slowly moving brown water bustling with boats of all sizes. Belgian plantation owners, Greek ship captains and Indian shopkeepers rubbed elbows on its busy wharves.
Kisangani's history, however, is a recurring tragedy played by different actors. It has gone from Afro-Arab slaving center to Belgian colonial ivory outpost to independence killing ground. In 1965 rebels clad in monkey skins hacked and speared people to death here, and then ate them. It is the site of novelist Joseph Conrad's "Inner Station"--the outpost in deepest Africa where Kurtz, the protagonist of "Heart of Darkness," lost his sanity and his soul.
Today, cut off from the central government--marooned, in fact, from the 21st Century--Kisangani has seen at least four major battles in the last two years, all of them turf wars between the occupying armies of Uganda and Rwanda.
It is a weird, post-holocaust metropolis. Four hundred thousand people mill in streets that are virtually empty of motorized traffic. There are no working phones, water or steady power. In one building, men in snappy business suits sit in a second floor office that looks like performance art; the office walls are blown out. Hot winds carry off their paperwork. Though it is Congo's third-largest city, Kisangani runs on barter. In the market, vendors use the city archives to wrap peanuts.
Downtown, however, flashes of fresh paint stand out: new diamond bourses with names like "American Ninja," "Mr. Cash" and "Christ Is Rich."
The gems, sifted by hand from thousands of gravelly creeks that spill into the Congo River, were a source of fighting between erstwhile allies Uganda and Rwanda in Kisangani. Today, Rwanda flies some of these milky-yellow stones to its capital in old Soviet-made Antonov aircraft. Canned food, ammunition, gasoline and cheap boomboxes trickle back by air.
If the geographic source of the Congo River lies in the faraway savannas of southern Congo, then the political headwaters of Congo's complex war lie to the east, in the ethnic conflicts of Africa's Great Lakes region.
Rwanda ignited the current war after the Hutu militiamen responsible for the genocide of some 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis escaped into the jungles of neighboring Congo. Unable to secure Kabila's help in rooting them out, Rwanda decided to foment rebellion inside Congo--exactly as it once had helped Kabila overthrow Mobutu.
Many bitter Congolese see the Rwandans as the puppet-masters of the war. At the outbreak of the fighting in Kisangani, scores of Rwandan Tutsis were massacred.
"Congolese are joyful people, people who like life," says Andre Babusia, a priest whose seminary was smashed by an artillery shell in June. "But this war has changed us. We are learning to hate well. The Rwandans have infected us with their virus."
What hasn't changed is the Congolese genius for survival.
Kisangani's stately old parks and streets are given over to survival crops. With rural areas picked clean by marauding soldiers, the city now actually exports food to the nearby countryside.
Hundreds of youths, meanwhile, have attached padded seats to the backs of their bicycles: Kisangani taxis. Women riding these seats have broken new fashion ground; they wear trousers.
"We are inventing a new vocabulary for the war," says Samuel Benda Ndomba, a jovial man who always carries a briefcase. "We call these bicycles `toleka,' which means `Let's go!'"
Ndomba is a language professor at Kisangani's comatose university. He is a British-trained linguist and the author of a doctoral thesis titled "A Lexico-Semantic Study of Word Derivations in Bantu Languages: Some Applications."
Currently, he is growing cassava, a starchy root, to feed his family.
The professor's river
One day, Ndomba decides to travel down the Congo River to the town of Bumba. He does this as a favor to us, as a guide.
The Congo River runs miles wide in the country's war zone; a big, flexed muscle that arcs 1,000 navigable miles from here down to the capital, Kinshasa. It is king of a watershed that covers 1 million square miles, all of central Africa. It pours more fresh water into the sea than any other stream in the world save the Amazon.
From Kisangani, Congo's main hinterland city, the waters roll west and then south toward the Atlantic Ocean. Scores, then hundreds of islands appear in the warm stream, some of them bigger than Manhattan but covered only in giant, dripping trees.
Bumba, some 250 miles downstream, is about as far as it is safe to journey downstream now. Few boats of any kind make even this short passage. Congo's two rebel groups, the Congolese Rally for Democracy and the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, control the river's banks across shadowy lines of control. The armed boys in gum boots and soccer shirts who wave their guns from the jungled banks are unpredictable.
This is the war in Congo's vast interior: a soldier of uncertain allegiance demanding something--anything--at gunpoint.
"The war has stopped everything," said a youth named Albert at a fisherman's camp. "Most of the camps have fallen apart because of the attacks by soldiers. They loot. They rape our women. So we run into the forest and eat berries like our ancestors."
Missionaries and the few humanitarian groups still operating in Congo's rebel-held east confirm social devastation on a staggering scale. The aid group Doctors Without Borders reports populations of 150,000, 400,000, even 500,000 people living in the bush without access to as much as a single aspirin. The few clinics have been looted. The medics chased away. Resurgent diseases such as malaria, experts say, are by far the biggest killers in the Congo war.
"Stanley would probably feel at home on this river," says linguist Ndomba, referring to American explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the first white to descend the Congo in the 1870s. Stanley shot his way down the long river, spilling the blood of hundreds of attacking tribal warriors into the currents along the way.
Ndomba sits cramped under a rainbow-colored umbrella in a 25-foot-long canoe. Riding with him are an agronomist and two women soap traders who have overcome their fears to make their first business trip on the river in a year. They plug the leaking canoe with dabs of soap while Ndomba expounds on his semantic theory of the war.
The Congo's more than 250 tribal languages, he says, are not a potential root of warfare. Instead, it is the imperfect application of a foreign lingua franca, like Congo's national language, French, that leads to misunderstandings, confusion and aggression.
Politicians say "the people" not knowing it means only men in certain tongues. Or they hide behind foreign words like "democracy," "development" and "geopolitics," which have no exact local meaning, thus raising false hopes--or suspicion.
"We talk ourselves into war," says Ndomba.
Ndomba recites the poetry of Robert Frost while the canoe floats past impenetrable jungle.
The dark windows of abandoned palm oil factories gape now and then over the Congo's empty currents. The sharp cries of fish eagles are often the only sounds echoing over a glassy stream on sweaty afternoons. At night, the river mirrors the sky so perfectly that paddling down it after dark is like floating through the cosmos, with stars above, below and all around.
Two days later, the canoe slides off the desolate currents of the Congo River at Bumba, one of the last ports before the river switches into government hands. The town of 60,000 is lit at night by thousands of little cups of burning palm oil. Five lumber mills line the riverfront, all of them shut down, their equipment looted. Without saws, the people have begun using the doors in their homes to build coffins.
"Who are the real people driving this war?" Ndomba asks bitterly, seeing the ruined town.
He repeats the two questions that are voiced by virtually all the Congolese who are trapped in Africa's biggest war: "Who is behind it all? Who is benefiting from it?"
The children's crusade
In Gemena, a town about 100 miles north of the Congo River near a tributary called the Ubangi, a lone jet buzzes high across the hot, tropical sky and drops a bomb.
Sometimes this bomb does not explode. It embeds itself in the mud of the jungle like a raisin in soft dough. On other occasions it may crush a hut. Or perhaps it does detonate, and kills. This is another face of war in the Congo: dying as if by lightning strike. "Mal chance," the Congolese say, bad luck.
"I am very afraid when I hear a plane," says Janet Gbademogo, a thin, nervous young mother in this rebel-held town. "When I think I hear one, I run into the trees. I stay there for hours."
A 10-foot-wide crater is all that is left of the bomb that fell into Gbademogo's mud yard. The bomb had been kicked out of a government cargo plane. It decapitated one of her young nephews and killed eight other people. The youngest was Moise Fiokowose, 4, her son.
President Kabila is bombing the northern territory of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) more frequently these days. Government troops also are on the move in Congo's far south. Despite almost monthly diplomatic summits, the Congo war is heating up.
"Our patience is running out," says Jean-Pierre Bemba, the leader of the MLC, a Ugandan-backed rebel group based in Mobutu's old tribal homeland.
The son of one of Congo's richest businessmen, Bemba, who favors bluejeans and colorful African shirts, has established his forward headquarters at an abandoned coffee plantation.
"Either Kabila accepts the Lusaka accord or we attack him," he says defiantly. "It is that simple."
In truth, all sides have been violating Congo's battered cease-fire agreement. Recent negotiations aside, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), backed by Rwandan troops, has been on the move in Katanga. And Bemba's own soldiers are trying to encircle a river town called Mbandaka, the last upstream stop before the capital Kinshasa--and power.
But who are the Congolese rebels? Who, as the Congolese ask endlessly, are the people driving the war?
There only can be one answer: strangers. From the foreign armies pursuing their own interests to the supposedly home-grown rebels they support, the people guiding Africa's First World War are strangers.
Many of the insurgents are young, affluent expatriates, the children of old Mobutuists or anti-Mobutuists who have spent much of their lives far from Africa. Bemba's "foreign minister," a businessman in Belgium, is now attempting to relearn Lingala, the national language. The "commissar of foreign affairs" for a rebel group called RCD-Kisangani is a young Congolese doctor from Cincinnati.
On the government side the trend is much the same. Kabila's interior minister washed glasses at a Brussels cafe. A former foreign minister was a psychoanalyst in Paris. The new chief of forestry spent years as a professional student in Kentucky. Even Kabila, who had not visited Congo's capital in 30 years, spent most his life as an exile in East Africa.
In some ways, the chaotic war at the heart of Africa seems like a medieval children's crusade: a parade of young outsiders sent to conquer the Holy Land. The analogy is not perfect. Congolese warlords are not innocents. But their outsiders' brutal ignorance, and the sorrows it has planted, are the same.
"You can hardly get around this in Africa," argues a Western diplomat in Kinshasa. "Who else has the expertise to run a country in a place like Congo? Or run a war? And what is wrong with coming back home and getting involved?"
Yet the startling fact remains: At the turn of the millennium, 40 years after the end of colonialism, many African leaders are still not connected, in any fundamental way, to their own people. In Congo, the figure most responsible for this debilitating gulf was himself a man of the soil. Mobutu, a lowly army sergeant who died a broken king in exile in 1997, still rules Congo through bleak absences. He destroyed a generation of leadership. He made today's crusade possible.
"For 32 years he kept us like children," says David Sinalokumbe, a high school student in Bumba, the dying river town. "So we pulled him down and threw him in the river."
Sinalokumbe gestured at a concrete plinth in Bumba's plaza where a bronze statue of the dictator once gazed down on his subjects. The platform has been empty for three years.
Sinalokumbe, a smart and ambitious youth, practices poling a canoe on the Congo River every afternoon--learning his grandfather's skills because the huge ferries, carrying 2,000 passengers and tons of goods from Kinshasa, no longer dock here. Cautiously, he keeps close to the shores of powerful currents that draw waters from a million square miles around, into the immense, invisible heart of a war that appears to have no end.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun