Diplomats work overtime in Goma
Diplomats are working overtime as they travel to and fro in an attempt to prevent the conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo from escalating into an all-out war.
In the Kenyan capital Nairobi, seven African leaders have reached a fragile agreement on a peace process between government forces and Tutsi rebels.
United Nations envoy to the DRC, former Nigerian president Olesugan Obasanjo, will attempt to mediate between the two parties. In the meantime, the situation of the refugees is as distressing as ever.
Roeland van de Geer, special United Nations envoy for the Great Lakes Region, spends the whole time on the phone while we speed through western Rwanda’s breathtaking bright-green broccoli landscape in the direction of Goma, which lies across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Just after six p.m. our diplomat’s car arrives at the Rwandan-Congolese border. We are too late, since no vehicles are allowed to pass after six o’clock. Mr Van de Geer takes his briefcase and walks across the border..
EU colleagues are waiting for Mr Van de Geer on the Congolese side. We travel to the house of Annet Blok, director of a consultancy firm who has been living in Goma for 14 years. The small Dutch community is waiting on the balcony of her house, with its view of the Kivu Lake. They are craving for news.
Mr Van de Geer brings them up to date about the results of the summit in Nairobi, where seven African leaders agreed to organise peace talks. He also informs them that former Nigerian president Obasanjo will attempt to mediate between the two parties. Mr Van de Geer tells the group that a lot was achieved in Nairobi.
The refugees and the front
The next day we travel to the town of Kibati, which is 10 kilometres to the north of Goma. Here, refugee camps have been set up to house 60,000 people who fled the rebel army of Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda. After passing a guard post manned by troops of the United Nations peacekeeping force MONUC, my motor-taxi driver says:
“The UN is useless. If it gets dangerous they withdraw.”
Suddenly it is deathly quiet. We have arrived at groups of huts that are empty. A hundred metres further there are huts that have been taken over by soldiers. This is the front where the governing army and Mr Nkunda’s rebels are less than 200 metres from each other. We have travelled too far and quickly turn around.
Five minutes later I see a queue of displaced people waiting for pieces of plastic canvas. A woman breastfeeding her child while waiting in line says:
“We had to flee so quickly from Nkunda’s troops that we didn’t have time to take any possessions with us. On the day we left I could hear shots and explosions near our village. I left just on time, but my entire family was killed.”
As I walk into the camp I see a small girl in bare feet walking on sharp volcanic pumice. This is an explosive area in more ways than one. In 2002, the active volcano nearby Goma destroyed half of the town. The women in the camp use the pumice to build wind breaks for the fires on which they cook.
In the open air
Further on a man stands up from the plastic canvas on which he was sitting.
“Two weeks ago I fled from Rumangabo, which is 35 kilometres away. There was an enormous panic when we heard Nkunda’s troops coming. Around 2,000 of us fled into the Virunga national park. I lost sight of my wife and children in the confusion. Only 200 of the 2,000 people in my town have arrived in Kibati. I have no idea what happened to them.”
Before I walk further between the improvised huts, where often more than ten people sleep in a space of two square metres, the man shows me how he lives. He folds the canvas on which he was sitting in two and along with a couple of other people crawls under it. This is their only means of shelter.
There is still hope
Later I meet Roeland van de Geer in Goma, at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The office is encircled by razor-sharp barbed wire. Mr Van de Geer:
“Although we’ve reached agreement on a political level, on the ground there’s a warlike mentality of fighting the conflict to the finish.”
When I visit Mr Van de Geer at his hotel in the evening he is much more positive. He has had intensive contact with President Joseph Kabila who has informed him that he is finally willing to negotiate with Mr Nkunda.
“I think that our work partly consists of refusing to see the challenge as a problem. Instead, we must see the problems as a challenge.”
Harm van Atteveld