About the Author: James Liddle serves as a Desk Officer in the U.S. Department of State's Africa Bureau and recently returned from a temporary duty assignment to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, September 23 to October 10, 2009.
The below blog details my trip to northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda to explore the international community’s effort to find a lasting solution to the crisis caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). I am a Desk Officer in the Africa Bureau at the Department of State covering Uganda, where the LRA originated. This trip was part of my annual trip to the region to familiarize myself and meet with staff of the U.S. Embassies, government representatives, non-government organizations, and others I work with from Washington.
September 23 and 24 2009 – Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
My colleagues and I (I was traveling with Nicole from our Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau and Benson, from our Humanitarian Information Unit) arrived in the city after dark, at about 8:00 in the evening. The first impression of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) comes just as you exit the airplane. There’s a certain organic smell, caused mostly, I would guess, by the many open fires around the city. The heat, high humidity and cloudy sky (it rained just after our arrival) gave the air a heavy, smoky feel that is instantly recognizable.
There is a long road from the airport to the city center. The sheer force of humanity is one of the first images that grabs you when you exit the airport. There are no traffic lights or cross-walks. In their place, there is a sort of collective understanding between the mass of pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, buses, lorries and trucks. No one seems to be speeding, yet nothing is overly slow. The crowds move in and out and flow around one another in a sort of organized chaos. Everyone seems calm, everything is normal. We pass by thousands of images; flickering candles over tables selling all types of foods and goods; children and adults moving in and out of buildings and side streets: trucks filled to the brim with humanity, on one the front door is bent and ajar; brief glimpses of a family or group of friends sitting around a table. An entire world passes by in our hour drive to the hotel.
I’m in Kinshasa as part of a three-week fact-finding mission on the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has terrorized the people of northern Uganda and—more recently—DRC, southern Sudan and the CAR for the past several years. We will be traveling to Kinshasa, Goma, Bunia, and Dungu in DRC and Kampala and Gulu in Uganda. Kinshasa, DRC’s capital, is also headquarters for the Mission of the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world. Over the next several days we will meet with UN officials and our colleagues at the Embassy. From here, we will fly across the country to the city of Goma in the eastern DRC. It’s my first time in Kinshasa and I have always dreamed of visiting the capital of this country that has such a rich history marked by tragedy.
We are staying in a hotel in the center of Kinshasa and we’ll head to the Embassy around 8:00 in the morning. The hotel is somewhat typical in that it has a funny feel of out-of-place luxury. It feels a bit isolating and I’ve never grown completely comfortable with being able to buy beer and a good meal in a country where much of the population lives on less than one dollar a day. There are several people waiting outside the front door selling newspapers, maps, shoe shines and other small goods, trying to get the attention of the wealthy visitors inside the hotel.
One of the best aspects of my job has been to have the chance to get to know and meet with many people who have overcome tremendous challenges and returned to serve their countries in some capacity. I’m looking forward to meeting many of these people on this trip.
The Embassy in Kinshasa stands out in comparison to some of our other Embassies in the region, mostly because it is not one of the “New Embassy Compounds” (NECs) that have been built since the attacks on our Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Unfortunately, high walls and tight security checks are a requirement for doing our work in many parts of the world. The NECs are generally large, modern and well-protected whereas the older Embassies tend to be older and less fortified. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the level of security.
We held a meeting at the MONUC headquarters, which are down the street from the Embassy. It was a strange experience because while walking down the street, you suddenly come across rows of barbed wire and a well guarded entrance that makes you feel as though you have entered a war zone, including a fully armed guard post with a soldier in blue beret, with machine gun at the ready.
Our stay in Kinshasa is short since our most important meetings will be in northeastern DRC, where the fight against the LRA is taking place, and in Uganda where the LRA originated. Nevertheless, the briefings and meetings we received were extremely helpful. As a temporary visitor to the capital on this trip, I am deeply cognizant of the burden we place on the small staff at the Embassy. Beyond basic logistical support, our visit required that the Political Section identify and set up meetings with the most appropriate people for us to speak with. I’m glad we’re not staying too long, so the Embassy officers can get on with their work without having to take care of us.
September 25, 26 and 27, 2009 – Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo
Our flight today was not your traditional commercial flight experience since we were flying to Goma on a UN airplane, one of the regularly scheduled flights by MONUC.
The airplane was in relatively good condition and run by a Canadian crew. It was painted all white with a simple UN in black letters on the side. We had a bit of technical trouble with the brakes of the airplane, which made us turnaround and disembark once before takeoff, but soon we were off to Goma. The flight itself was uneventful and we soon found ourselves in the middle of the continent, having flown the entire latitudinal distance of DRC.
We landed on an airstrip that is somewhat infamous, since the last quarter of it was covered by volcanic rock after an eruption several years ago. A large commercial airplane that was cut off from the rest of the airport sits rusting on the far side of the lava field. Goma itself sits on Lake Kivu, one of the “great lakes” of central Africa. The scenery is lush, beautiful, and green. The picturesque lake, the verdant flora and harsh-looking volcanic rock gives the city what I can only describe as an organic, natural feel.
We were picked up by a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) driver and brought to the “American House” near the border with Rwanda, close to the center of Goma. This is a relatively new house that the U.S. government maintains to ensure a presence in eastern Congo and provide a place for the numerous U.S. Government visitors to stay. It sits on the lake and is a beautiful setting to hold meetings. There is a balcony facing the lake where you can sit and do work while the breeze from the lake keeps you cool. The only downside is that the house is directly under the flight path for arriving flights, so the sound of landing airplanes can at times be a bit much. Nevertheless, the setting is beautiful.
We are here for the weekend and over the next few days we will meet with a number of NGOs and UN representatives. Goma is a hub in the region and will be our jumping off point to the cities of Bunia and then Dungu, in LRA-affected territory. Goma itself has not been directly affected by the LRA, but instead has been the epicenter of eastern DRC’s other conflicts, particularly those involving Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP (which recently was integrated into the Congolese army as part of a peace agreement) and the FDLR, whose leadership includes members of the former Rwandan armed forces and others who took part in the 1994 genocide. As a result, for some time the city has been home to a number of humanitarian NGOs as well as a large MONUC base. The city itself was directly threatened in 2008, although today it feels secure and calm. However, high walls and barbed wire are still found throughout the city, including at the entrance to the American House where my colleagues and I are staying.
We must fly through Goma to get to Bunia and Dungu, but we also held several meetings with UN and NGO actors that proved extremely useful in understanding the situation farther north. Although it was a weekend, we had no difficulty scheduling meetings. The people who work here are dedicated and work in difficult, sometimes dangerous situations. I am very impressed by the work they do to help the people of this region. I often found myself wishing I could stay longer and do more to help.
September 28, 2009 – Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo
Today we began our trip north from Goma. Although I’m a bit sad to leave (the location in many ways was idyllic) I’m also looking forward to getting closer to the areas that are the focus of our trip to the region. We flew on an older Russian (Ukrainian?) plane first to Entebbe near Kampala, Uganda, and then after a quick transfer we flew in the same plane on to Bunia. The airplane was clearly older than the plane we had taken to Goma and the instructions were in Russian, but the flight was smooth.
Our arrival in Bunia was different than that of Goma. The city was smaller and the landing strip was controlled by MONUC. There are no paved roads and the overall feel of the place was much more rural. The housing seemed to be a mix of concrete blocks and mud brick. As we approached the town from the landing strip, many of the buildings turned out to be offices of various NGOs and UN Agencies. As the capital of Ituri district, Bunia hosts many NGO and UN offices due to the conflicts that raged here in past years. Though linked with the current instability in the Kivus, these conflicts involved different armed groups and appear to be largely on the wane.
Before we arrived, a UN official who we were able to talk to on the phone recommended a hotel close to their offices. During the afternoon we held meetings with some of the NGOs and UN officials in the city. That night we ate outdoors with some of the UN agencies in the region at a local Indian restaurant. It was an exciting experience, having dinner with aid workers in one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world.
Before our dinner, my travel colleagues and I had the chance to sit on the balcony of our hotel and relax a bit. There is something about the sunsets in this region that are hard to capture. Near the equator the sun sets very quickly – it will be 6:00 and feel as though it will be light for hours more and suddenly, thirty minutes later, you realize it has become pitch dark. Nevertheless, the sunsets seem more intense and orange than I have I see anywhere else.
September 29, 30, and October 1, 2009 – Dungu, Democratic Republic of Congo
The next morning we began our trip to the airport expecting another quick flight to Dungu. Instead we found out we would be flying by helicopter, an Mi-17 run by a Bangladeshi contingent, two of whom were doing some pre-flight maintenance when we pulled up on the tarmac. We had to wear headphones over our ears to muffle the sound of the engine and blades. Still it was comfortable enough for me to grab some sleep.
It was fascinating flying over this part of northeastern Congo because it drove home so clearly the point of how remote an area we were about to enter. For as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but what appeared to be old growth rain forest. We flew for almost two hours in the helicopter (the ride was surprisingly smooth) and after the first fifteen minutes, leaving the Bunia area, we hardly passed a road or village. We flew below the clouds for most of the trip and could see rain storms in the distance and the trees below.
At our arrival it was raining and the entire area around the airstrip had turned to mud, which combined with the white tents of the MONUC airbase and World Food Program center, the sand bags and barbed wire, left the feeling that we were at a forward operating base rather than a rural airport.
Dungu itself is not large; the main street is little more than several houses along a dirt street. A UNICEF driver picked us up and drove us to the base where we were sleeping. It took us about thirty minutes to travel 8 kilometers on a dirt road that at times had forest on both sides up to the road. All along the road we passed civilians and FARDC (Congolese military) soldiers armed with AK-47s.
The UNICEF 4x4 took us to a base that held the Moroccan soldiers that make up the bulk of the MONUC forces in the region. Inside the base was a large UNICEF tent that they allowed us to sleep in. It held about 15 beds. Showers were to be by bucket. Food was locally prepared.
The site of the base was stranger than fiction in a way, almost like a movie set. The base was made up of tents in the courtyard of a giant brick European “castle” that clearly was abandoned and had fallen into a state of disrepair.
We heard conflicting stories about this mysterious castle—either a Greek business man had built it over a hundred years ago, or, more romantically although less likely, a Belgian colonial administrator went crazy and stole money intended for a local hydroelectric dam to build himself the bizarre structure.
I shared my tent with several UN workers, mostly from other African countries. They were all extremely welcoming and willing to talk and even help me with getting my bed sheets and water. UNICEF was particularly helpful in this regard. They made sure we had food, a car and whatever else was needed for our trip. This was a clear theme throughout our forty-eight hour stay in Dungu – everyone was welcoming and willing to help and was excited to talk about the work they were doing. We are particularly in the debt of UNICEF for the help they provided us on this trip.
Our meetings with the UN agencies and NGOs in Dungu were the most useful for understanding the challenges posed by the LRA and the complicated political situation in Congo, particularly to the local populations who have endured literally decades of abuse caused by instability and incursions by several rebel groups. Unfortunately for these people, the LRA is only the latest chapter in a long, devastating history.
A word about the dedication of the UN and NGO workers we met : these are some of the most impressive people I have ever met in my entire life. One man we met (who was only 28 years old) had headed an office of over 50 for nearly two years. Others had been there in various roles taking risks to help the people in the region. Each one we met, I feel certain; can be credited with saving lives. I view them as real heroes. Seeing people dedicate their lives to making a difference in the world is deeply humbling.
Eventually it came time for us to leave Dungu, although I can say I could have stayed a lot longer. For some reason I’m more comfortable outside of the capital, working with people “on the ground.” I want to stay and help them and feel almost bad that I’ve popped in for a couple of days and asked some questions only to leave as quickly as I arrived.
One set of “meetings” deserves special note. We made a point to visit the local hospital, where we heard there were several victims of LRA attacks receiving treatment. There we met a 17 year old boy who had been shot in the side during an attack. In soft-spoken French, he recounted how his village was attacked by long-haired men wearing uniforms speaking a language he didn’t understand. They took an unknown number of children and killed two of his friends. Another boy recounted how he had been attacked while walking along the road by eight men. He was shot in the leg and barely survived. One of the most insidious aspects of the conflict the LRA is waging in this area is the random nature of their targeting of civilians. The local populations must feel almost hunted. It is not an ideological conflict, but a war targeting innocent civilians.
October 2-7, 2009 – Kampala, Uganda
After several days of staying in tents in northeastern Congo, it was a relief to be in Kampala. The hotel is relaxed and we had our first day off of the trip over the weekend. It was a chance to get a bit of the dirt out of our shoes and clean some of our clothes.
We are in Kampala to meet with the Embassy staff, political figures, civil society and the NGO community. The LRA and the ongoing conflict feel very far away. Our meetings focus on the political context to the conflict and we are meeting with a variety of actors in the government and civil society to better understand the complex political situation here.
Additionally, we are in Kampala a mere three weeks after riots that started when the Buganda traditional king was denied access by the government to an area north of Kampala. The ensuing riots left more than twenty killed. Despite the recent tension, though, the city feels calm and business appears to be continuing as usual. After our meetings here we will travel to the north of Uganda to the city of Gulu, where the LRA finds its roots.
October 7-9 – Gulu, Uganda
One of the folks I’m traveling with served in Uganda three years ago and is for the first time seeing Gulu since then. She is amazed by the progress the city has made since the LRA was forced out of the area in 2006. This is my first visit to Gulu and the city appears like any thriving central African city to me. There are several billboards lining the street advertising cell phones, banks, and other businesses. Traffic is relatively light, but there are cars on the streets. Stores, restaurants and bars on each side of the main street appear open for business and several new buildings are being built.
This stands in stark contrast to what I had read about Gulu. Just a few years ago this city was the center of operations against the LRA and was under constant threat. Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps surrounded the city and held tens of thousands. Today the camps are slowly closing down and hold only several thousand remaining people who are in most cases unable to return home despite the peace in the region. It’s fascinating to consider the changes to this city in just a few years and the difference peace and security can make to development.
Of our many meetings during this last phase of the trip we took time to visit one of the remaining IDP camps. Although much smaller than at it’s height, it was still moving to see and meet people who were living in these camps and imagine what they had been through.
Our visit to Gulu was relatively short, only two days, but it was nice to end the trip on a more positive note. The city is moving forward and it is really striking what a difference simple security can make toward development.
October 10-11 – Conclusion and return home
The return trip is a long two flights, nearly twenty-four hours of travel door to door. I’m jet lagged and tired, and slept on and off for nearly two days. It’s disorientating to come back to work after three weeks on the road. I learned a tremendous amount about the struggles of the people in northeastern Congo and the progress in northern Uganda.
If you’d like more information about the Lord’s Resistance Army or the plight of the people of northern Uganda, one book I picked up on my way out called “Aboke Girls” is recommended. The book tells the story of a kidnapping by the LRA of 30 girls from a school in Northern Uganda and the efforts of the Head Mistress to get the girls back. I read this book on the flight home (it’s a quick read at only 160 pages) and it was a good way to reflect on the trip I had taken and all of the work the international community is trying to do to protect the people of the areas affected by the LRA. The book details the horrors these girls and other abductees faced during their ordeal. It is impossible to come from this trip and feel anything but great urgency to continue the work to find a lasting solution to the LRA.