Death all around

December 3, 2008

A Congolese refugee in a tattered baseball cap, worn clothes and blue flip-flops begged me for a cigarette at Kibati, a camp for 65,000 people displaced by fighting in eastern Congo.

I scolded him, saying smoking was bad for his health, as if anything could be worse for your health than living in this conflict-racked corner of Democratic Republic of Congo.

Machine gun fire erupted nearby and people dived for cover, ducking into rows of flimsy tents made from torn sheets of white plastic stretched over sticks.

“Mister, mister, come lie down in here,” a voice called from one tent as bullets hummed nearby like an electrical current.

I snapped a few blurry pictures of people running before crawling through the curtain door of the tent, where a man and two children huddled on the ground. I kneeled above them and took a few more photographs.

“When you hear gunshots, if you lie flat, you can be OK, but if you stay up like that, paff!” said the man, Boniface Buhoro, a tailor who had fled weeks of combat further north in an area now controlled by anti-government Tutsi rebels.

Several people had already been killed by gunfire in this refugee camp in North Kivu province at the foot of Nyiragongo volcano on the front lines between Congo’s army and advancing rebels. At least two more were killed in the next few days.

For 45 minutes, I lay with my legs intertwined with Buhoro’s, his three-year-old son Sadiki wedged between us.

Army boots crunched past outside over black lava rock as soldiers fired their weapons at full stride.

At first we assumed rebels were attacking, but in fact drunken army troops were fighting each other, shooting randomly.

In the panic, soldiers went from tent to tent robbing refugees who had already lost almost everything, typical behavior for the badly paid and poorly disciplined army.

“Every day, something like this happens. They rob and steal and kill us or rape the girls. We don’t even have anything to eat, but they take what they want,” said Buhoro.

I crawled outside as things calmed down.

The man who’d asked me for a cigarette lay face down.

“He’s dead already — stress,” said someone in the small crowd around the body. He had apparently died of heart seizure.

This is how many Congolese die: if not by the gun, then from conflict-induced illnesses, preventable diseases or hunger in a resource-rich but shattered nation lacking infrastructure.

More than five million people have died, most from lack of access to food or basic health, during a decade of fighting and upheaval in Congo, according to aid agencies. This makes Congo’s enduring conflict the deadliest since World War Two.

I spent two years in Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda from 2002 to 2004, covering the regional war that engulfed much of central Africa. The day I took shelter with Boniface was the first on my latest trip to report again on Congo’s seemingly unending cycle of violence.

Most of the victims perish far from sight, deep in the bush.

This time, death seemed all around.

Driving to the front line early one morning, mist hung over the road and smoke from Nyiragongo volcano darkened the sky.

Marking the first rebel position were the bodies of two government soldiers, a bullet through each of their skulls.

Traveling north later, I reached the hilltop village of Kirumba, where local Mai-Mai militiamen had clashed with government troops fleeing the Tutsi rebel advance.

The army quickly buried their dead, but the Mai-Mai corpses were set on fire by beer-drinking troops.

I found them the next morning, fat still bubbling on one charred corpse, its genitals cut off. Another body had an umbrella stabbed into its face. Soldiers joked and laughed.

Back near Kibati camp, I followed a funeral procession into a sun-dappled banana grove. A tiny purple casket containing the body of eight-month old Alexandrine Kabitsebangumi, who had died from cholera, was being lowered into the dark earth.

The grove was filled with graves. As women sang a haunting hymn, the mourners moved aside, allowing me to photograph.

There’s no joy getting a good picture from a baby’s funeral.

Another victim, another memory, another ghost.

After two weeks, I left Congo, crossing into Rwanda.

As my car climbed the steep hills, providing stunning scenic views back into Congo — that beautiful, terrible place — I passed another procession carrying a body on a bamboo stretcher.

I didn’t stop. I just kept driving.


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Phenomenal. I’ve been following your work from Congo with increasing anticipation, the images have been so powerful.

Posted by Rob Miller | Report as abusive

Phenomenal indeed!Touched my heart and ruined my day! Excellent photojournalism!

Posted by Nir Alon | Report as abusive

Phenominal photo’s – Some excellent work, and bring the situations to life without actually having to be there.

Posted by Elliot Holder | Report as abusive

Sad. very sad

Posted by joe | Report as abusive

When will we stop hurting each other…

When will we hear the wind?

Your photo’s are hauntingly vivid..

Thank You for your work.

My prayer is that the world will show you taking other photos where we all sit with enough food, enough love, and enough respect.

For All my relations,

Posted by Eva | Report as abusive

Wow excellent work! Without brave people like you we would never know the true story.

Posted by Eric | Report as abusive

How sadly ironic…the anti-spam word required to post a comment is: TOAST (!)Excellent and necessary reporting..We are so busy with our own collapse that we neglect Africa, as always: Zimbabwe, D.R.C., Soudan etc., etc… infinitum or so it seems…..
I hope the anti-spam thing is randomly generated; if not, it should be modified.

Thank you,

Posted by Jean Émond | Report as abusive

How on earth do you do this, Finbarr. Please continue to take good care of yourself. I’ve admired your photographs for a long time, there aren’t many photo journalists who are able to capture the stories in a single picture like you do, journalism needs you to continue doing this some more…. thanks.

Posted by Yvonne Koningen | Report as abusive

Your courage (yours and theirs), are incredible and only show what the human spirit is capable of. Finnbarr, you are a Hero in every sense of the word. Your disregard for personal safety in the line of fire and the fact that you bring attention to something we choose to ignore, are Heroic on a grand scale. The fact that Boniface Buhoro, lying along side you with his son, cared enough to reach out to you must be inspirational to you. While I sit here in my cocoon of relative riches and safety, I am ashamed and embarrassed, but at the same time inspired by your actions. Just know you inspire people to want to help.

Posted by Riccardino | Report as abusive

This is sick. What is worse is that most of the world is oblivious, more concerned with Madonna’s marriage, Britney Spears’ stupidity or whatever other stupid idiot making millions from the silly devotions of others because they sing (act…dance…whatever). I wish that we heard more about real heroes than the plastic around at the moment.

I feel ill…

Posted by Pierre | Report as abusive

How I agree with Pierre and Riccardo and Yvonne – how brave you are – how deaf is the world, I want to cry but what can we do …but individuals CAN make a difference you are one of them

Posted by Ruth Deans | Report as abusive

[…] most recent post, “Death all around,” by Finnbar O’Reilly, is as powerful as any I’ve seen on the blog since I […]

Posted by Recommendation and lesson « Pete Martin | Report as abusive

My first thoughts were: I’m so lucky living in a damp rented house in Belfast, working 70 hours a week to pay the bills & finish my masters. Thank you God! Then I felt guilty – the pictures were not taken to make me appreciate what I have. I should have done something to help those people save their lives or dignity. Anything. I did nothing.

Posted by marta | Report as abusive

When I saw the photo of the boy and his father, all I could think about is my boy and how good we have it, economy downturn and all. They look so scared and uncertain. The beauty of love is still in their eyes, but what will the three year old remember. Will the strife and fear and anger eventually make him into one of the monsters he fears? Senseless…..

Posted by Tim Roberts | Report as abusive

All I can say is ‘Be the Change you wish to see in the world’ step outside of the comfortable, do a little do a lot. We are all on this one planet. Not everyone has to or can do what Finbarr does but something….just do something…

Posted by Katy Davidson | Report as abusive

This is so stupid. Whatever the UN/EU/US is doing over there is obviously not working.

Posted by William | Report as abusive

Photographers truly are “the eyes of the world”, but those eyes look in the direction they’re paid to. When will we see the inside of a news tycoon’s mansion beside one of those pictures of poverty and suffering? Press earns its living from our emotions. The photographers are artists and sensible human beings, but the machine that selects their messages and earns its wealth from them never rises a finger to change the situation.

Posted by Masonica | Report as abusive

What you have done are very admirable. Not many ppl care and brave enough to go there. You were willing to take the risk to take the pictures that tell the truth. May God’s protection be on you and may His favor be on you. Great work!

Posted by Nat | Report as abusive

[…] Posted by: Finbarr O’Reilly Tags: Reuters Photographers, Democratic Republic of Congo, finbarr o’reilly, photography, violence […]

Posted by Death all around-reuters blogs « Defencedebates’s Weblog | Report as abusive

Reading this, I remember what an internet friend said her mother used to say – paraphrasing, it was roughly “If everyone in the world threw their problems into a pile – when you saw everyone else’s, you’d soon want your own back”.

And it’s true.

I check the daily photo slideshow each day, and have now got to the point where I can look at a photo and instantly recognise a Finbarr photo, because they just stand out from all the others. Composition, lighting, even in the roughest of conditions, they still are award-winning both in subject and technical skills. Maybe these photos, together with the reportage by Reuters journalists, will help focus the world’s attention on the Congo, and progress can be made.

Posted by Helen | Report as abusive

Thanks very much for share your story with us. Your work is phenomenal, wonderful. You find art and beauty in the middle of a sad story. Pictures made with respect for the others. Your work is an inspiration for others photographers, thanks again.

Posted by Mariana Bazo | Report as abusive

News like this makes me wish that I could go to Africa and contribute something to help. Maybe someday. I never have been able to turn my head away from someone that needed a little help.

Posted by Theresa Ellis | Report as abusive

– Who supply the weapons?
– Who control the natural resources of the “democratic” republic of Congo?
– Who trade these resources for money and weapons?

What does the EU/UN/USA/China/Russia do to prevent this from happening?

Posted by JO | Report as abusive

Dear Mr.O’Reilly,Thank your for the sensitive rendition through photography and words of people’s humanity and dignity. These places often to many of us seem exotic and even unreal due to the scope of the tragedy and the unceasing nightmare of death and destruction befalling them.Your marriage of art and sensitivity is extraordinary.Again Thank You Alan Klaw New Mexico USA

Posted by Alan Klaw | Report as abusive

what is the world waiting for? this is a holocaust. these are people, living . breathing, God created . What is the world waiting for, they must be helped now.

Posted by Patricia Bewley | Report as abusive

Finbarr, have you no loved ones? Do you not care for them and worry what your death would do to them? If you die, what great cause will you have sacrificed your life for? Bringing actions pictures to the PCs of Europeans living comfortable lives so that they can bleat online how terrible the situation in Africa is, as they have done for the past 30 years? You have almost died in Congo, Afghanistan, Sudan and who knows elsewhere. Wean yourself off your own testosterone and adrenaline and get yourself a meaningful life. And think about your family and what real good you can do with your life.

Posted by Shalolev | Report as abusive

I know that these “trips” are difficult. But Thank You! Thank You! I look for film and photography wherever. I attempt to show film taken by Amnesty for Amnesty and people will not come to see it, or if they do, they will not look. One said, because it would give her bad dreams. I wondered what she thought was happening to these people you have just seen the Congo and regions. That American woman horrifies me that she has the money not to have bad dreams!!! Anger is ever present and I have to, I must control it…

Yesterday, a woman told me that Americans had been trained to “not see anything.” How could I not be certain of that? I still don’t understand how people can deny and learn not to think? But it is essential “too see,” in my world. I am an Anthropologist/ecologist/environmental economist/photographer/writer.

I am female, and a female colleague of my who is Israeli and has lived through much war there said to me when I said I have to go,I cannot not go.”Don’t you know? Who were born in a war zone or family or community or conflict. It is your natural place, conflict is your home.” My “mother” who has never had one minute of conflict except to inflict it asked me or “accused” me yesterday of being just slightly insane and told me not to go back to those kinds of places. I wonder if she has thought about why I am in the field so much and do the jobs I have done. So, I know what you saw, I know what you lived through. And, no the death of a child is never easy to witness or to film. Take care of yourself. Today, I think that the pain should be filmed in America, just like James Agee and others did in the Great Depression.

Posted by Liz Goset | Report as abusive

Incredible. Moving. Courageous.
One question though, why do you do continue to do it day after day?

Posted by Di | Report as abusive

What a terrible world that we live in! As human being we often choose many wrong ways in the name of what ever it was but once it’s getting worse we could not stop and start to fill body bags. Those such tragedies caused of “decisions without the benefit of intellect” couldn’t suffer me more than the people of Congo.

Posted by Yoshua Ponggawa | Report as abusive

In this time of high unemployment and overpopulation, I do think it is essential to start cutting out immigration. Both legal and illegal immigration should be eliminated entirely.

Posted by Don McAninch | Report as abusive

I have read an immense amount of stories on the Congolese people. The things the soldiers do to these people are horrific. I almost cried while reading a story on how a 16 year old’s first sexual encounter was from a soldier that raped her in front of both her mother and brothers while in the bathroom. Sometimes people in the United States think they have it bad but in comparison to the people in DRC our problems seem quite miniscule. Im thankful everyday that i dont have to live in the same situation they do. I just wanted to applaud you for your work i just want to help those people. The pictures you took are beautiful.

Posted by Betsy Holmes | Report as abusive

Fantastic photos covering such a terrible tragedy. Really is.

Posted by KT | Report as abusive

[…] live video Q&A, go to the Reuters Photographer blog on Jan. 14. In the meantime, check out “Death all around,” his multimedia report from a Congolese refugee camp, dispatches from Chad and Afghanistan, […]

Posted by Ogen-Blik · Finbarr from the field | Report as abusive

Africa, My Africa! One day it shall heal.I the meantime lets also see happy pictures.

Posted by ogar | Report as abusive

Your pictures are so amazing and unique it catches my eyes everytime I look at them, they are really speaking thousands words, but I hope the message behind your pictures and the shout for help of those people would be heard by this world that’s falling in a deep sleep.

Posted by maya | Report as abusive

A very touching story unfortunately it is increasingly common now these days, it’s amazing that people like yourself risk your lives to capture these images to share them with the world and increase awareness of issues that need to be tackled, but the governments constantly keep their heads in the sand. Thank you for your us see through your eyes what is happening in the real world

Posted by Alan B | Report as abusive

Dear Mr,O1Reilly,
Thanks for your excellent coverages of an African nation,Congo and her people.
Still, i am wondering how you succeeded to mingle with them and got their photos.
Now, time has come to appreciate you and your words of these unfortunate people!s suffering.
All good works,acts of journalism will win either one day or in later years.
You have created the door for social causes,ills of somebody!s fault.
Please keep it up.
With best wishes.,

Posted by krishnamurthi ramachandran | Report as abusive

Very sad that is happening in the world. We find ourselves so safe in the UK and forget how terrible some peoples lives are.

Posted by wedding photographer chelmsford | Report as abusive

It is sad, very sad … war is evil …

Posted by StopSmokerMen | Report as abusive

This sort of thing makes me cry…

Posted by wills and probate | Report as abusive

These images are shocking. We humans really are violent animals!

Posted by Studio1 | Report as abusive

So sad what the world is coming to

Posted by wedding | Report as abusive