Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Loving and Staying in Goma

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Loving and Staying in Goma

Article excerpt

Goma airport, the gateway to one of the largest and most strategic cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's unstable and mineral-rich east, is the city's only connection to distant Kinshasa, the DRC's capital and a place unreachable from Goma by road. Consequently, it's also one of the few places in town where anyone seems to be in charge of things.

Its single-level terminal and lone runway are ringed with barbed wire and U.N. peacekeepers huddled in bunkers and armored vehicles, and the airport road is a rock-strewn thoroughfare bordered with concrete security barriers. Because its single runway streaks through the center of downtown, the perimeter road brims with activity: Bony peasants sell charcoal and bundles of wood; traders hawk off-brand clothing smuggled in through Uganda. Rebels lurk in the nearby hills while mineral traffickers and army officers live side by side in gabled villas overlooking the shores of nearby Lake Kivu.

More than a million people are crammed between an active volcano and a palm-lined equatorial lake, and the city itself mirrors this contrast. It is volatile and changeable; beautiful at times but impossible to control or predict.

Goma has bounded from crisis to crisis over the past twenty dependably disastrous years, whether it's been the arrival of more than one million refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a cholera epidemic in 1996, the destructive blast of the Nyiragongo Volcano in 2002, or more recent battles between Congolese government forces and the Rwandan-supported M23 rebel movement, which was finally defeated in late 2013. It's a city where lots of people have guns-or small rocket launchers, as the case may be-but where governance and public order is something of an ambiguous concept.

When I visited the city on a reporting trip for the Atlantic last spring, it was possible to drive an hour in any direction and cross into the domains of multiple armed groups. On the outskirts of Goma, pickup trucks packed with gun-toting militiamen would zip by, and it would never be entirely obvious who they were or what they were doing. Uniformed officials try to exact bribes at the downtown border crossing with neighboring Rwanda, but it was unclear to me what other purpose the government served beyond harassing its citizens.

The country's distant and corrupt government is viewed with wariness and suspicion. Few Congolese really trust Joseph Kabila, its reclusive and sub-competent president, whose office is nearly a thousand miles from Goma. The Congolese army is one of the region's serial human rights abusers; when I visited Congo in late April, word had recently broken that an army division had gone on a rampage of sexual violence in a town called Minova, not far from Goma. Even the United Nations has pulled most of its personnel out of the city when things have gotten dangerous, as during the M23 rebels' November 2012 offensive and brief takeover of Goma.

The frenzied security around the airport communicates a shared expectation of chaos.

Across the street from the airport, the Institut Technique Industriel de Goma, a Catholic school affiliated with the Salesians of Don Bosco, must convince Congolese in their early teens-promising, uncorrupted, and on the brink of entering a society that's liable to turn them into militants or emigrants or to discourage or frustrate them-that there is some inherent value in living a structured and decent life. Warlords thrive and the honest suffer, but this isn't the world as it actually is, the institute insists: Despite all external evidence, a violent and unjust Congolese reality is merely a distraction from a higher and more ordered one.

The school's walls are sturdy and thick, and its schoolhouses are organized around an overgrown courtyard with a pair of rusting basketball hoops in the middle. Behind it are three warehouse-like buildings, colonial leftovers of a vaguely industrial character where students dissect old washing machines and tool with electrical switchboards, even long after school hours have ended. …

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