Although it’s not up there with Somalia, Afghanistan and, more recently, Yemen, Syria and Libya, “don’t go” is the general travel advice dished out for the Congo Democratic Republic. That’s the big ex-Belgian one as opposed to the smaller ex-French one that is merely Congo Republic, no Democratic about it. The little Congo is also referred to as Congo Brazzaville, after its capital city.
Having suffered through the horrors of being a private colony run by the unbelievably grasping King Leopold, the king was forced to hand his private domain over to the Belgian government in 1908. They ran it for just over 50 years until it was disastrously fast-tracked to independence in 1960. The Mobutu years followed, another bout of greed and grasping fully up to the standards of the Belgian king from the previous century. He renamed the country Zaire. Then the Rwanda genocide in 1994 kicked off a Rwandan-backed uprising led by Laurent Kabila and an invasion in pursuit of the genocidaires who had sought refuge in Congo. Eventually Mobutu fled the country in 1997 and died soon after, but Kabila was no sooner in power than his Rwandan and Ugandan backers decided they weren’t so keen on him after all.
This kicked off the Second Congo War, also known as The Great War of Africa. It ran from about 1998 to 2003 and eventually sucked in six other African nations apart from Rwanda and Uganda. Donald Rumsfeld thought he could make the Iraq War self financing and the African nations (some of them not even neighbours) had pretty much the same idea about the war in the Congo. They were clearly a lot smarter than the master of unknowns and knowns because suddenly Rwanda and Uganda became important gold and diamond exporters and there’s a third name for the war — the Coltan War, after that vital ingredient in our mobile phones, a mineral for which Congo is a prime source.
By the time Congo’s Great War had ground, more or less, to a halt Kabila had been assassinated, by one of his own child soldiers and more than five million Congolese had died, mostly through starvation or disease. Apart from massacres, of which there were plenty, the death toll from real honest-to-god war, was not so impressive, civilian collateral damage was the order of the day.
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So here’s a big resource-rich country, which was a basket case before it even became a country and has pretty much stayed that way. It seemed worth a visit even if it was on all the “don’t go” lists. Step one was to get a visa, which the Congo embassy just off Oxford Street in London dispensed with remarkable ease. Then Kenya Airways flew me to Lubumbashi down in the south-east corner of the country. As Elizabethville it was a prime source of the mineral wealth that poured into the Belgian coffers (it was ivory and then rubber that filled the bank accounts for Leopold). Then it was the place where the first elected President Patrice Lumumba was brutally murdered, with more than a little Belgian and American conniving. Followed by its role as the capital of the breakaway Katanga Province in the chaos that followed independence.
Next up on my Congo circuit was Kinshasa, big, chaotic, colourful and with a thoroughly bad reputation. I paid my respects at Kabila’s grandiose mausoleum, checked the assorted discarded colonial era statuary in the national museum, popped across the river to Brazzaville, it’s only three kilometres away and flew on to Kisangani. Under the Belgians Kinshasa was Leopoldville, Kisangani was Stanleyville and if there’s a city that has suffered since independence then this is it. Belgian paratroopers parachuted in here (out of American aircraft) during the Congo chaos and a journalist came up with that immortal line that he was looking for “anyone who had been raped and spoke English”. It was thoroughly trashed by the Rwandans and Ugandans as they ploughed through the country in the 1990s and then trashed again when they started fighting with each other.
Finally I continued on to Goma, right on the border with Rwanda and the only place in the country where I met other tourists. Not many of them, but the lucky pioneers can cavort with the gorillas and climb what’s quite possibly the world’s most amazing active volcano.
Of course, the country was nothing like the basket case of its reputation, nowhere near as difficult to get around as the warnings and, remarkably, things seem to be improving. Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his father after dad was shot, has proved to be a much more adept ruler than his father whose principal claim to fame was that Che Guevera thought he was about the best on offer, if pretty useless. Kabila jnr is the favourite to walk-in the November elections. He may not have produced as much development as people hoped for, but he has, everybody insists, improved security. After years of living in a war zone security is what everybody wants.
Development seems to be down to the Chinese, they’re everywhere, digging up and shipping out anything they can lay their hands on. They’re also, however, building roads and although bloody awful is the only honest description for most roads in Congo it is, again, possible to set out from one town and drive to another. You need a strong Land Cruiser and the trip may be slow and arduous, but at least you can do it. A few years ago the only way to get from anywhere to anywhere was to fly. Railways are also gradually being reopened and the old barge services between Kinshasa and Kisangani are again ploughing up and down the Congo River.
Furthermore the ATMs work, dispensing US dollars, which you can then swap for brick-like stacks of Congolese franc, the biggest note is worth about 50c Australian. So do the phones, your mobile will roam all over the place and if you want to avoid making the phone company back home rich, you can pick up a local SIM card for 50c, including 50c worth of calls. Throw in a good supply of internet cafes and French-Belgian restaurants where the food wouldn’t be sniffed at back home and things didn’t seem so bad at all.
I left the Congo, crossing the border into Rwanda, and flew to London from Kigali, the Rwandan capital. And a few days later opened the paper to discover all those take care warnings weren’t so far fetched. Particularly the one about avoiding every Congolese airline, including Hewa Bora, generally rated as the best of a bad bunch. The flight which ploughed into the jungle just short of the Kisangani runway on Friday 8 July, killing more than 80 of the 118 passengers and crew on board, wasn’t just the same airline and the same flight number as the one I’d taken, it was the same aircraft.