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Trekking through the mountains to Congo’s “De Gaulle”

March 13, 2009

Emmanuel Braun was named as Reuters Video Journalist of the Year this month for his coverage of Africa.

The call takes me by surprise. It is our contact at the CNDP, the rebel movement in eastern Congo, telling us its leader Laurent Nkunda has agreed to meet us in his stronghold in the Masisi Mountains.

It would normally be a three-hour drive from our base in Goma to the region. But the government has banned journalists from using the main road to its enemy so we are forced to take muddy mountain paths. What follows is a 27-hour ordeal by car, motorbike and foot.

 

Our problems start as we approach the Rutshuru mountain area, a beautiful volcanic landscape. Our heavy 4×4 car is designed for deserts and is sliding toward the chasm below us. We get out and push it out of the mud. Night is falling. Some CNDP political advisors show up but are vague on how far we are from Nkunda’s headquarters. ”Twenty minutes,” says one of them. Pushed, he ups his estimate to 15 hours, maybe.

 

We decide to spend the night in the next village, Tongo, which is now in rebel hands. A young fighter stands with his RPG balancing on his shoulder as wide-eyed, laughing children scatter around us. In this remote place, white people are rarely seen. Villagers organize us a room and we go to bed exhausted at 6 pm.

 

We wake up with the first light to find a group of villagers gathered around two women sitting outside a hut. Behind the women are a dozen big shell canisters. “Look at what the government is sending us!,” says one of the women. “They are killing us. We are happy with the CNDP, they protect us …”’

 

A nice quote and visual, but the scene has clearly been organized by the CNDP. This is where getting to the truth of a situation becomes kind of an art. Guns in between witnesses and journalists can distort the most simple tale. But propaganda is easily detectable in every conflict and we are used to dealing with it.

 

The car has died. Before we understand what is going on, several barefoot young men have loaded themselves up with our luggage and equipment and hit the path at a remarkable speed. Progress is slow and exhausting. After a few hours of this treatment, I cannot count the mountains anymore. When my colleague Sarah stops at a big puddle, a young CNDP officer who’s escorting us barks an order in Swahili. A rangy soldier picks up Sarah, hurls her on his shoulder and crosses the puddle in his Rwandan army plastic boots.

After a six-hour trek, we reach a place at the edge of a tropical rainforest where a group of young men and rebel soldiers are waiting for us. We are delighted to see their Chinese-made motorbikes, but there are only three bikes for them and the six people in our party. The bikes are loaded with our equipment and we squeeze on three to a bike. We are so happy not to be walking anymore and at first the journey is a fabulous adventure. The drivers are amazing but we fall as the bike gets stuck in the mud. My buttocks are almost numb with pain. Then it starts raining. We stop at some nearby huts but the drivers insist on pushing on. The rain won’t stop soon and we are expected at the CNDP headquarters before nightfall. It’s impossible to open my eyes as I hold tight to Sarah, who is sitting in front of me on the bike.

Two hours later and 27 hours after we left Goma we finally reach the CNDP headquarter fence. We are standing in semidarkness, frozen and ready to kill for a piece of stale bread. A guard tells us the boss is out and we must wait.

It is another hour before we enter the headquarters, a brick room with only a table and a few chairs for furniture. A lit fireplace warms the room. A man brings a big jar full of fresh milk and several round yellow cheeses. I have to stop myself from rushing at the food like a starving dog. It is delicious.

 

Our first meeting with Nkunda takes place in this room with the fire and a weak bulb the only light. A tall man in a beige battledress appears suddenly out of the dark, a stick with a golden eagle head knob in his hand. He is followed by his wife, who is also wearing a battledress. I barely saw him when he entered the room and I know I won’t film him today.

 

 

 

He seems satisfied to see us and strikes up a conversation right away.  When asked how he felt about living in hiding, he starts to compare himself to General De Gaulle in his English exile during World War Two. I relay the quotes to my colleagues in Dakar.

We meet again in the morning for a proper interview and pictures.  In total, I have just four hours to make the most of this encounter, a difficult exercise when your brain and body are just begging for a break.  A UN armoured car takes us back to Goma.  As I write this four months later, Nkunda has been betrayed by his friends and ousted from Congo. He’s probably sitting in Kigali considering his plans.

Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda attends a rally in Rutshuru, north of Goma in eastern Congo, November 22, 2008.  REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

More Reuters coverage:
Rwandan troops leave Congo, stoking reprisal fears
Democratic Republic of Congo rebel leader arrested (video)
SCENARIOS: Nkunda arrest boosts risky Congo peace plan
FACTBOX: Conflict in eastern Congo

Comments

I am a student of journalism and international relations, currently working hard on a degree. A lot of people around me seem to wish to produce lifestyle magazines, follow fashion and celebrety, motoring or sport, but it is this kind of epic journalism which truely makes an impact.
Here, Braun is up against the dangers of gunmen, mountainous heights, exhaustion and warfare. We can imgaine through the imagry he evokes what is transpiring in that rainy African outback, concurrent to our boring trips to the supermarket or the pub, and begin to count our lucky stars. His intrepid mission into the danger zone is inspiring, I thought front line journalism of this type was fading out, considering the armchair politics which permeates most general reports these days.
Come graduation, I would aspire to follow in these footsteps, who knows, 2015, reporters may be rushed over to the Russian Chinese border to dodge bullets and make sense of an entirely unforseen conflict. It is never easy to be out there, at odds with a forign culture, it is amazing that this picture of the larger world remains constantly updated, and just great to hear that the intrepid reporter survived the early information age. Journalism lives beyond pop celebrety and armchair politics. That is something. At least that’s something…

Posted by James F. Wakeham | Report as abusive
 

Congratulations for the enormous effort to get this story out to the world. Reuters is one of the most influential media in the world and having its reporters to go that extra mile is amazing. When it comes to the country where I belong, it will always make interesting reading, especially being involved in lobbying Western government. Nkunda may have been betrayed by his friends, the very people who need help are not receiving the same media coverage.

 

such an interesting write up.i really like the way reuters present their stories from an objective stand point.

Posted by okontah oluchukwu | Report as abusive
 

Sure Nkunda and his supporters are considering their plans despite his arrest. The alliance DRC-Rwand has failed to oust FDLR. Everyone has to come to terms with reality: you cannot solve the FDLR problem without Nkunda and the CNDP. Media and politicians and predators have got to realize that, it’s never too late. Kabila is the only one who does not want to see the facts, he fears Nkunda, now he fears Kamerhe… and we know what he does in these cases, he just want to destroy those he fears. But he cannot always get away with it!

 

This is an amazing piece of journalism. I am inspired!

Posted by Neill | Report as abusive
 

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