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Week of 5.15.09

Reporter's Notebook: Challenges in the Congo
By Correspondent Paul Beban

Paul Beban in Congo
Paul Beban in Congo
Everything was in order for our assignment to cover U.N. peacekeeping in Congo. We had an official invitation from the U.N. mission in Congo. We had a letter from PBS. We had informed the American embassy in the Congolese capital Kinshasa of our plans; we'd double-checked our paperwork with the Congolese embassy in New York. Our shots were up to date, our gear was packed. Visas? Check. Press cards? Check.

In early March, producers Jason Maloney and Kira Kay flew into Rwanda—I was set to follow a few days later—and made it to the Congolese border right on schedule. And that's when the problems started. Despite the fact that Jason and Kira had every official document and letter under the sun, the Congolese border guards would not let them in. And they were not letting up. Jason and Kira found themselves up against an impenetrable wall of border bureaucracy that went something like this: "you need this paper before you can be allowed into the country but that paper can only be obtained inside Congo. And in any case, that office is closed." The following day brought more of the same—the Congo Catch-22.

Over and over, in scorching heat—and once, in a torrential tropical downpour—Jason and Kira dragged their luggage and camera gear back and forth from a Rwandan hotel to the border crossing, trying to get through. Back in the U.S., I heard about it all via email, helpless to do much more than hope for the best.

Then Kira made a "Hail Mary" call for help to the American embassy in Kinshasa, which put an officer on a plane from the capital city to Goma (about the equivalent of flying from Denver to New York) to sort it all out. At the same time, top U.N. brass in Congo was putting on the full-court press. The combination did the trick, and finally, three days late, Jason and Kira dragged their bags to the border for the last time, and crossed into Congo.

But it turned out the Congo had one more hurdle for my team. They may have gotten in, but in order to film a single frame of footage they needed to be credentialed by the Ministry of Information—a process that normally takes only a few minutes. But the minister had not only been fired, he'd been arrested! And on the day police carted him off to jail, he'd left the one stamp Jason and Kira needed at home.

Without this stamp, no one in Congo was going to allow them to film. By this point, several border officials were in their corner—the Congolese are actually very helpful when not bound by red tape. But when one especially friendly official escorted them right to the minister's front door, his wife refused to hand over the stamp, furious over her husband's arrest. Stopped at the goal line by an angry wife! Hours and many phone calls later another stamped credential was faxed from the capital.

When I turned up at the border two days later, I was braced for a similar ordeal. After I made it through in about five minutes, all we could do was laugh and get to work.

Truth is you just never know what's going to happen on a trip like this. Congo is a very dangerous and unpredictable place, Eastern Congo in particular. You are constantly looking over your shoulder. Situational awareness is critical.

"Congo is a very dangerous and unpredictable place, Eastern Congo in particular. You are constantly looking over your shoulder."
Perhaps just as critical, as it turns out, is a little luck. During our stay, we heard more than once that foreign journalists had been robbed. One morning, a combination of problems had us running a bit late on our way out of Goma, a city in the heart of the Kivus region, the epicenter of Congo's deadly, seemingly intractable conflict. Only later did we learn that on the very same road that we traveled a few hours later, an SUV carrying another documentary crew was stopped by a band of unidentified armed men, who stole their cash, camera gear and passports, before sending them on their way. If we'd been on time, it would have been us.

Another morning, in the town of Kiwanja, we met a very helpful and friendly missionary who directed us to some locals who could tell us what happened during last fall's fierce fighting. Just a few days later, we learned that the missionary was badly wounded when his car was attacked by a rifle-toting band of robbers. We had used the same road just days earlier, but we had a U.N. escort. Again, it could have been us.

More than a dozen armed groups roam North and South Kivu—an area the size of France that borders on Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. In 1994, as a result of the Rwandan genocide, more than 300,000 refugees poured into Congo through Goma. Today, tens of thousands of Congo's internally displaced people live in sprawling, squalid camps, some of the biggest just a short drive from the city.

One of the many painful ironies here is that Eastern Congo is a place of breathtaking beauty, the lush and rugged Kivus in particular. The forests are home to Congo's legendary lowland and mountain gorillas. The valleys teem with birds, wildflowers and rushing rivers. In the middle of it all sits serene-looking Lake Kivu, ringed by green, rocky hills.

"One of the many painful ironies here is that Eastern Congo is a place of breathtaking beauty."
But the harsh reality is that not long ago, countless bodies of genocide victims bobbed on Lake Kivu's waters. In the mountains and valleys, armed groups have slaughtered scores of gorillas, not to mention people. Goma, once a peaceful small town, is a bloated and burned-over scar of a place. As recently as last fall, rebels and the army clashed within sight of the city center.

Today, the situation is more stable, but that's not saying much. It feels like anything can happen. As the Uruguayan colonel whose detachment oversees one of the main roads into Goma told us: "One of the things you learn here in Congo is that the situation changes rapidly. One day you have huge violence, the other day everything is calm. It is like weather, you have sun and then you immediately have rain and that's it."

That's it, indeed. Looming over it all is the dark sentinel of Mt. Nyiragongo, an active volcano towering more than 11,000 feet into the sky, just outside Goma's northern limits. The last time it erupted, Nyiragongo sent lava all the way through the city to Lake Kivu, burying entire neighborhoods under sharp black rock. The wrath of the volcano is utterly unpredictable, just like the weather. Just like the violence.

It's the kind of thing that makes one wonder whether the forces of man and nature aren't somehow conspiring to burden this place with far more than its fair share of suffering.

More Reporter's Notebooks

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On the Border by Maria Hinojosa

A Trip to Ain Shams, Egypt by Mona Iskander

A Journey to Burkina Faso by Na Eng

Can the U.N. Keep the Peace?

Reporter's Notebook: Challenges in the Congo

Slideshow: On Patrol with the U.N.

Essay: Violence in Congo

Video: Lancaster: U.N. Peacekeeping "Inadequate"

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