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