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Voting in the Heart of Darkness

Displaced villagers stand infront of makeshift homes made from plastic sheeting.

Congolese villagers who have fled to camps after rebels occupied their villages are too afraid to go home to vote.

Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. -- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

We were exposed, on an open road in the brilliant sun. Me, a handful of peacekeepers and a truck containing precious cargo -- ballot papers for the Democratic Republic of Congo's first multiparty election in more than 40 years.

We were stuck, waiting. The rolling green hills surrounding us in eastern Congo's Masisi territory were full of rebels opposed to the July 30th election.

A second ballot truck traveling with us had disappeared in the dust behind our convoy. A Jeep full of blue-helmeted peacekeepers went back to search for the missing big-rig with an automatic gun mounted on its roof pointing the way.

The remaining peacekeepers stayed behind with our portion of the convoy, their rifles trained on the hills. I was a little nervous, but for them, this was just another hurdle in a mammoth task already well under way.

Reporter Suzanne Marmion sits on the side of a dirt road, with armed soldier standing behind her.

Reporter Suzanne Marmion sits by the roadside in eastern Congo, while the United Nations convoy she is traveling with waits for a missing ballot truck.

Helicopters, speed boats, trucks like ours, small planes and even dugout canoes, all full of ballot materials, have spent recent weeks traversing Congo's nearly impenetrable jungles, rivers and volcanic ranges. Congo is a nation the size of America east of the Mississippi. But unlike the United States, it has practically no infrastructure. Less than 2 percent of Congo's roads are paved and in most places, there are no roads at all.

The last leg of the ballot papers' epic journey will take place the day before the election, when thousands of Congolese will carry ballot boxes, computers and generators on their heads through miles of jungle and mountain trails to Congo's remote villages.

The operation I've come to observe marks the largest election assistance program the United Nations has ever mounted. It costs roughly $400 million, plus another $1.3 billion to pay for the largest peacekeeping force in the world to control the volatile country. Between 1998 and 2002, after a long, dark history of exploitation, Congo suffered what became known as Africa's First World War. The struggle for power and the country's immense mineral wealth sucked in armies from seven nations.

The war displaced thousands of people and left more than 4 million dead -- and it's not over. Rebels holed up in the hills and forests continue to raid people's farms and drive local villagers away. The ongoing violence and food disruption claim more than 1,000 lives a day, the equivalent of a World Trade Center attack every three days. In the run up to the election, raids have been increasing in some parts of the country and observers fear major strikes before the voting begins.

A Unite Nations jeep is parked along a remote dirt road.

The largest peacekeeping force in the world is helping to safeguard Congo's election.

As I sat by the roadside, I talked to Jean Pierre Ndeze, a local government election official traveling with the convoy. He told me that rebels in the area have been digging in before polling day. "People are losing hope because rebels are taking their election identification cards, which will prevent them from voting," Ndeze said.

Despite the risks, the Congolese people are more than ready for this vote. Local villagers, curious about the convoy parked on the road, quietly surrounded us. I snapped a picture of the kids with my digital camera and showed them their image on the screen. They laughed and pushed each other to see. Ndeze told me that rebels were stealing these children -- boys to fight and girls to use as domestic and sex slaves in their camps.

Rape and terror displacing the rural population is another factor in this election. While reporting in Congo, I visited a makeshift camp behind a church, where 28-year-old Nyira Inzabimana told me how soldiers recently stormed her village of Katwiguru, in the same province as we were parked now. Her 2-month-old baby was in her arms when the men raped her at dawn.

The militia was from the Interhamwe, Hutu soldiers who are hiding in eastern Congo to escape prosecution for their role in the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. "My husband saw what happened, and he was afraid," Inzabimana said. "He couldn't stay in the village." It's common for women to be abandoned in Congo after they've been raped. Inzabimana's husband went to live with his mother, taking all their children except the baby. Now the baby and Inzabimana sleep outside on the ground in the camp. "My husband says he will join me with the children the day I have plastic sheeting to build a small shelter," Inzabimana told me, with little conviction that it would happen.

Two Congolese women watch ballots being unloaded with folded arms.

Sena Bazungu (right), who is 68, hopes the elections mean she can return to her village.

She said she wants to elect a government that can bring the marauding soldiers under control. But in order to vote, she has to cast her ballot in the district where she registered. That would mean returning home and facing her rapists who have occupied her village. One man from the camp tried to go back to Katwiguru the day before. The Interhamwe killed him when he arrived.

Thirty-three candidates are running for the presidency against the incumbent and front-runner Joseph Kabila, and more than 9,000 are vying for the 500 seats in Congo's parliament. Because of the huge logistics involved in collecting and counting the ballots among the 25 million Congolese eligible to vote, the results won't be announced until mid-September.

Another tense hour passed before the missing ballot truck rumbled up the dirt road and our convoy could push on once again. More than 100 bone-shaking miles later, we arrived at the town of Masisi, deep in the heart of eastern Congo.

Congolese election officials unload the ballots in Masisi, in eastern Congo.

An excited crowd had gathered, awaiting the arrival of the ballots. People fell silent as the first truck slowly reversed into their midst and men lined up to unload the cartons of papers, passing them from hand to hand.

Sena Bazungu sat with her arms folded, watching. The 68-year-old told me she'd heard about political candidates offering people free beer and bars of soap to vote for them. "When they come to give us these things," she said, "we're going to take them. But when it comes time to vote, we know which candidates we have in our hearts."

Bazungu said she had registered to vote because she's counting on changes in Congo. Years ago, rebels killed her husband and most of her children and drove her from her village. "Back in my village, I used to have many fields, a sturdy house and cattle," Bazungu told me. "If these elections go well, maybe I can go back home to restart my life."

Suzanne Marmion is an independent journalist based in sub-Saharan Africa reporting for several outlets, including Public Radio International's The World. To listen to Marmion's latest radio reports from Congo visit The World's Web site. For a series of reporters' diaries on the run up to these elections, visit the BBC online.

REACTIONS

San Francisco, USA
For me the problem of referring to the DRC as "the heart of darkness" is not that it is negative terminology, but because it's such an overused cliché that it makes me wonder if international journalists have any imagination left. Is it really necessary to keep bringing up the Conrad novel, which on the other hand I'm sure that half of the journalists that do it haven't even read it?

Philadelphia, PA
What a pity the filmmaker needs to call this "The Heart of Darkness." This only continues to marginalize and dismimss Africa. Why is it not possible to report on Africa without using negative terminology and stereotypes that connote backwardness? The only way to meet Africa on its own terms is to treat it with the same respect we treat other nations--whether or not we agree with their practices or the circumstances in which they must live. The DRC was treated brutally under the Belgians; the US kept a corrupt despot in power for years for so-called national security interests. And now PBS allows us, through negative images, to look down on the Congo's people--people who deserve inordinate credit for facing up to one of the world's great tragedies.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
This was an article, not a film. Our correspondent was clearly celebrating the election and the people's right to vote. We take your point about the title but in this case, of course, the Congo is the country Joseph Conrad was writing about in "The Heart of Darkness," and the Congo has just emerged from one of the most brutal wars imaginable.