Written by Roger Allen
Goma airport is the only one in the world with a lava flow six feet high splitting the runaway in two with commercial airliners stranded outside the terminal building, never to fly again.
It was from the, now extended, grass strip, that Anton Antonowicz and I took off in a battered old single engine plane on-route to see a group of child soldiers who, between them, had killed dozens of men, women and children.
The Russia pilot flew low over Lake Kivu, a steam powered ferry overloaded with locals and cargo chugged its way across the still lake. We landed on a grass strip outside the city of Bukavu where some of the worst atrocities had taken place in the genocide of Rwanda.
Our hosts for the trip where Save the Children, Jesus they had their work cut out.
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As the little plane rumbled to a halt outside a corrugated shed, the main terminal, a huge jolly man pulled open the passenger door.
“Welcome to the lovely city of Bukavu, come. My name is Isaac” We all clambered into a large Toyota Land Cruiser. Rounding the edge of the lake hundreds of people thronged the dock where the steamer was just arriving, it looked mayhem.
“Stop I‘d like to take a picture” I said.
“No, no sir not a good idea,” Isaac said, the driver drove on. “As soon as you get out of the car you get surrounded. Money, Money”
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At the Save The Children shelter young boys milled around, these where the killers we’d come to see. Stories of horror from the mouths of children was totally shocking, some the acts of depravity they had been forced to carry out by the adult soldiers was beyond comprehension.
The only way to do the picture was to get them sat as if it was a traditional school photo.
39 boys, some as young as 8, 134 kills between them. The class of 98.
After the job was done we drove back through the town, it was shattered, open sewers, burnt out buildings, roads with huge trenches filled with water, all beyond repair. Crowds of colourful women wandered around vegetable stalls hunting out something to eat. Sides of meat hung from hooks at the roadside, a man with a fly whisk sat idly waving it at the meat.
From this madness we came to a small piece of heaven. Behind two huge red gates at the end of a rutted track was a small hotel run by a Belgium man who had lived in the Congo for 42 years.
Starting with the hardwood floors to the individual round huts used for sleeping it was a million miles away from the outside world of Bukavu.
In the small bar Anton and I had an ice cold beer, outside a terrace gave a view of heart breaking beauty, Lake Kivu with the sun setting over the water surrounded by lush forest, the noise of monkeys, birds bedding down for the night made it even more magical.
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Our host Isaac preferred to head back into town to “visit a sick friend”. The owner of the hotel joined us briefly for a beer handing us the dinner menu.
“This what we have tonight gentlemen,” he said. He was stick thin a lined face and a shock of grey hair.
Starter, main course and sweet. The first course was a small omelette with cheese. Main was chicken cooked with chickpeas and olives. Sweet was banana’s fried in rum.
A red and white cloth adorned the small table of the veranda, it was a clone of a French bistro. Two types of wine, a white Muscadet and a red Cote du Rhone. We had both, it helped forget where we were.
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The disorder that reined in the surrounding forest and city was forgotten. How this paradise had survived was a mystery? I fell into bed in my small round cottage drifting off to sleep with the sound of the jungle playing outside.
When I woke up the next morning I was sure a radio had been turned on in the room. Confused I stumbled out onto my little balcony overlooking lake, it wasn’t a radio but fishermen in dugout canoes singing in the misty dawn.
While we were away in the south the French Foreign Legion had arrived in what was deemed to be the most dangerous place in Africa the Lendu and Hema tribes were at war. Arriving back in Goma the office asked if we could get to the town of Bunia the epicentre of the fighting.
We found a plane going north to Bunia. The first aircraft to Bukavu had had seats this one had none, Anton and I clambered aboard setting down in among case full of God know what, guns, explosives? Our captain for the hour long flight was a scruffy South African.
“Morning boys, why the fuck do you want to go to shithouse Bukavu? You’d better be quick getting out cos I’m not hanging about, drink in a cool box outside the cockpit,” In-flight service was a do it yourself affair. Shortly after take-off the pilot shouted over his shoulder “Gissa beer out the box mate.”
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Once we’d arrived we found the airfield sealed off, the pair of us walked the 200 yards to a red and white barrier at the approach road, it was manned by two Legionaries.
“Bon jour, parla vous English?” Anton asked in his impeccable French.
“I should fucking think so mate we’re from Liverpool” said one of the lads.
After five minutes chewing the fat they told us it was safe to go into town. The two tribes had fled as soon as the French arrived with two tanks and white men carrying heavy weapons.
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Back in crumbling terminal building we found a man with a van who was willing to take into town. We’d been told to ask for the Save the Children man at the civic centre. An hour later our new host, a man even bigger than the one in Bukavu, delivered us to the Save the Children house, a run-down white villa in its own grounds. Our job now was to report on displaced children following the fighting.
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I wandered around our compound, at the back of the house was an outdoor kitchen, well four big stones with a wood fire burning in the middle.
A woman had peeled potatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes, hanging from a beam was a slaughter goat. Later that night the same woman served up goat stew with sweet potato mash alongside a huge pot of ugali, a porridge made of maize and water. Our host made short work of the ugali, he ignored the sweet potato, nibbled at the goat dish, I watched in amazement as he chomped his way through the white gulp.
The next morning we rode out with the French Legionaries, they took out into the bush showed us the mass graves, burnt villages then back into town. As we drove down the main road the commander of our armoured vehicle cried “HALT”. We came to a shuddering stop.
“What, what is it?” We squawked.
His men fanned out to protect us, we climbed out to see the German officer buying ice cream…. It was a very surreal scene, an Italian flag hung down from a battered wooden stall, a small coffee coloured man scooped out freshly made ice cream.
The same as the hotel in Bukavu I couldn’t work out where they got the supplies from. Later, as I sipped whiskey at the villa, I asked the ugali eating man the question.
“Everything is available here, nobody knows what is the plain boxes that arrive here, it could be guns but also wine and fine food, we are not savages my friend”
Having been driven around the highlights of the war zone I had my doubts.