Goma Is A Wasteland.
It sounded almost too good to be true. Here I was, stuck in quiet Gisenyi, when there was a fun, lively city just across the border! I decided to figure out how to get across.
A single-entry visa to Congo is $30, while a CEPGL, a document only available to foreign residents living in Rwanda, Congo, or Burundi for at least a year, was $10. The CEPGL allows free passage between the three countries for a year. Getting this made more sense, since I thought I would cross over all the time, and because I lived in Gisenyi. I decided to talk to the Immigration Office.
Being a muzungu and working for a well-known organization can have its benefits. I went into Gisenyi’s Immigration Office to talk with the province’s Head of Immigration, a younger, sassy guy who, truth be told, saw my request as an opportunity both to flirt with me and to give him and excuse to call me anytime. It was a friendship of convenience—in the end, he gave me a CEPGL (“but it’s between us,” he whispered) and I didn’t ignore his phone calls, so he could boast that he was friends with Gisenyi’s kazungu (little muzungu). That was okay by me. I was eager to explore Goma, which everyone had pitched to me as the Land of Oz. That is, Oz with a Phase 3-4 UN security rating (i.e. only essential international and national staff allowed).
Goma, I found, was like Oz—not everything it seemed to be. It was a wasteland, a center of insecurity, robbery, intense tension. I often say that UNHCR built Goma, because the camps built there welcomed millions of mainly Hutu refugees, some of whom were genocide planners, others guilty of implementing the genocidal plans, and some of whom were innocent. The international aid that poured in fueled the massive growth of Goma’s economy, and the influx of genocidaires was, at the same time, destabilizing for the city’s security.
What many call “divine justice” then struck, in two waves: the first was cholera; the second was volcanic.
Nyiragongo, the volcano that towers over Gisenyi and Goma (and which, to this day, emits red smoke), erupted on January 17, 2002. The slow-moving lava flow made its way toward both cities, but took an unanticipated turn on its way to Gisenyi, sparing the Rwandan town. Goma was destroyed, its buildings burned to nothing and covered with a layer of thick, volcanic rock. Goma, once a major center, is now a devastated landscape. The town has hardly rebuilt.
Lava fields in Goma
Security is also lacking—my friend Fred, who was abducted and tortured, once said that “if you’re not robbed or raped, you’ll be killed,” when talking about the town. Expatriates must be in their homes by 6 pm. Taxis don’t drive after sundown. I remember thinking that, if I were killed, no one would look for my body. It’s also a town of immense corruption.
After the 1994 war in Rwanda, Laurent Kabila marched (Paul Kagame’s Rwandan army behind him) all the way to Kinshasa, where he replaced Mobutu as Congo’s leader. Laurent Kabila and Paul Kagame were friends, both pro-democracy and pro-reform. But when Laurent Kabila died, he was replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila, a far less benevolent leader.
For reasons that I haven’t totally understood, Joseph Kabila incorporated the Rwandan Interahamwe into the Congolese Army. (My guess is that he felt that incorporating them would limit the security problems they were causing in the Kivu regions.) Of course, this more than irritated the Rwandan government, which still wants these people to be brought to justice. Relations between Congo and Rwanda are strained at best.
Because of this, and because of some rebel fighting led by Congolese Rwandophone Laurent Nkunda, the Congolese of Goma don’t hold a particularly high regard for Rwandans. Which means that, as much as Rwandans extol the virtues of Goma, they can’t travel in ¾ of the city.
This was something I learned over the course of time. Cars with Rwandan license plates don’t travel far beyond the major roundabout in town. (“But we wanted to see the Cathedral!” I once implored to our Rwandan taxi. “No way. Rwandans that go there never come back,” he insisted.) A “policeman” tried to pull over our car so we would pay “taxes.” Our taxi, clearly ruffled, sped away and thereafter avoided the main roads.
I also took a Congolese taxi once, just to see what would happen. He was happy to take us all the way to the destroyed cathedral, deluged in a sea of black rock. We even got out of the car and walked around it. “No one will try anything because everyone knows me,” the driver said. He even drove us past the cathedral, toward the volcano, but I told him to turn back, because I could almost feel the security growing weaker. The driver was also unapologetic in his view of Rwandans and Rwandophones, attributing to them all of Goma’s security problems. There are two sides to every story, but I must admit that I tend to believe the Rwandan account more.
But Goma isn’t all bad, I suppose. There are ethnic restaurants (great choices at Chez Doga, and you can find Lebanese food at the Hotel des Grands Lacs) and nightclubs galore (Ihusi is supposedly the best, but Coco Jambo is also a popular nighttime spot). After I saw Goma, I had no desire to see Kinshasa, and I left with the view that the Belgians had seriously screwed up in Africa. Perhaps that recognition is worth the $30 entry fee.