Death all around
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.