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A PERPLEXING SURVEY OF THE CONGO’S MYRIAD RESISTANCE GROUPS
On my first day embedded with the UN stabilization force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I visited a camp in the city of Goma set up to house rebel combatants who had recently surrendered. The facility was split along ethnic and administrative lines, with only a chain-link fence separating Hutu and Tutsi fighters who, out in the bush, have been spilling each other’s blood by the bucket for decades.
Alongside the scarred and lean young fighters at the camp were dozens of women—“bush wives,” we were told—and their children, all born in the jungle. Most of these women had been taken as sex slaves, who pull double duty as domestic servants forced to cook, mend, and serve as porters for their captors. Already warned by my UN minders that they were concerned about the extent of my coverage, I asked the camp’s public information officer, Sam, how close I could get when snapping photos. “Get your pictures,” he replied. “Just, please, avoid the children.”
Goma is the capital city of the North Kivu province of the DRC and is situated in one of the world’s worst geopolitical neighborhoods. To the southeast, there’s the Rwandan border, which largely consists of mountain jungles through which scores of Hutu militants passed in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, fleeing punishment for their role in the massacre of Tutsis there. Over the course of the next decade, this armed migration directly contributed to the escalation of ethnic and factional tensions in the First and Second Congo Wars, in which an estimated 5 million people were murdered. Meanwhile, to the northeast of Goma, the West Nile region of Uganda has served as a transportation corridor for heavily armed Acholi-speaking fanatics like Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—who were made infamous by Invisible Children’s viral KONY 2012 documentary—to cross the border and drive deep into the DRC, where they’ve engaged in all sorts of ruthless behavior, like herding villagers into churches before burning them down to the ground.
FDLR ex-combatants, bush wives, and their children are processed for intake at a UN transit camp in Goma, North Kivu.
While KONY 2012 got a lot of flack for focusing on a rebel faction that had largely dissipated by the time of its release, ethnic conflicts are still erupting throughout the DRC, albeit of different varieties. These ethnic tensions are in turn exacerbating an already raging fight between local groups to control the illicit mining of cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, and other minerals essential to the manufacturing of everything from smartphones to air bags to jet engines. As a result of these tensions, a slew of foreign and native Hutu and Tutsi militias have renewed hostilities against each other.
My Friends Started a Bus Company in Congo
In August 2010, I traveled to Rwanda with three friends to cover the presidential election. We spent a month there and I headed back to Europe, but my friends—Yassin, Arthur, and Louis-Guillaume—crossed the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo and decided to start their own Congolese bus company, the “Amani Express,”which translates to Peace Expressin English.
The DRC is reportedly the sixth most corrupt country in Africa and its roads are rarely paved, which doesn’t seem like a great recipe for a successful start-up bus company. But that didn’t dissuade my three friends, who settled in Butembo, North-Kivu and have built their company into a profitable one, all the way from the ground up.
I thought this was all pretty impressive, so last time Yassin and Louis-Guillaume were here in Paris, I asked them some questions about their business.
Amani Express’ first passengers
VICE: What prompted you to set up your own company in the Democratic Republic of Congo ?
Yassin: Ignorance, mainly. We didn’t realize all the factors that put off foreign investors from starting businesses in the DRC. Some surveys rank the DRC as the sixth most corrupt country in Africa in order to dissuade people like us from investing money there. We were a little naïve, but that’s ultimately what has brought us so far.
LG: We were completely amazed by the country as soon as we crossed the border. We really wanted to settle in a hostile environment and live an extraordinary adventure.
Did your skin color give you any trouble when trying to fit in?
Yassin: My dad is Somali, so I thought I’d be able to be the link between the Congolese and us, but I quickly realized that, to them, all three of us were white. When we got there, people called us “muzungu,” which means “the white man” or “the rich man.” We thought that the authorities in the region would eventually give us more credit because of the company, but they didn’t. The company still suffers from corruption because of our skin color, but our relationship with the local population has changed; we’re now seen as real members of our neighborhood.
LG: It’s difficult to establish your personality and go beyond skin color at the beginning. Even though the authorities take advantage of it, people tend to put us on a pedestal for some reason. They’re very respectful and admiring toward us. It’s very strange.
Yassin, Arthur and the Amani Express team.
Do you get into much trouble with the local authorities?
LG: [laughs] They’re probably the main source of our problems.
Yassin: They call it “hassle” over there. Mind you, that can mean “a gun to the head,” which is definitely a hassle. On several occasions, soldiers sent by the local chief of immigration—who we know very well now—turned up at our house at dawn. I guess he thought, This was a bad month, I need money, so how about sending a few armed men to put pressure on the expats and extort some money from them?
Things are probably going to get bad in the Congo again soon. After so many years of war and violence, a lot of major media outlets are writing the country off as a failed state. This will damage tourism again. Virunga National Park receives 80 per cent of its funding from the European Union, and that is going to expire in 2012, and the whole Eurozone crisis means the funding might not get renewed. Park rangers, guides, and the communications director at the park are desperate for tourists to keep coming in, and their future is really uncertain.