Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Note from North Kivu

We drove north from Goma along the road to Rutshuru, along a ribbon of concrete that wound towards the Ugandan border. To the west loomed a volcano that glowed red as dusk fell, still active and perilous. To the east, a pair of its now-dormant brothers rose many thousands of feet into the air, visible in Rwanda. The landscape was impossibly green and fecund, densely packed semi-tropical forest dappled with mist in its upper reaches. My traveling partner, Andrew Mcconnell, a photo journalist from Northern Ireland, and I, were ranging far in the Congolese province of North Kivu, as stunningly beautiful a place as I have ever set foot in, but which warring political foes have succeeding in turning into a hell for its people.

Refugee camps, crowded and squalid, dot the landscape, as fighting between Congolese government forces (the Forces Armées de la Republic Démocratique du Congo or FARDC) and their allied paramilitary Mayi Mayi supporters (such as the Patriotes Résistents Congolais or PARECO), forces loyal to renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda (who leads the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple, known as the CNDP) and the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a group with its roots in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and comprising mainly of ethnic Hutus from Rwanda itself and Congo, has succeeded in emptying out whole villages whose residents flee the mass rape, forced recruitment of child soldiers and other attendant atrocities that have characterized the conflict.

What I saw, and those whom I interviewed while there, will form the basis of some articles that will be appearing over the next several weeks.

In the meantime, I offer this photo of children at the Magunga 1 camp for internally displaced persons, or les déplaceés, as they are called here, where nearly 20,000 souls live under an intense sun in an expanse of temporary huts constructed of banana leaves and grass, with thin sheets of UNHCR-donated tarpaulin slung across them. I believe that the look on their faces speaks in eloquent commentary of the situation as it stands today in North Kivu, and the necessity of committed journalists to go there and report on what is a largely forgotten though ongoing conflict, one in which many actors from Europe, North America and Africa itself have a long history of involvement in and culpability for.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thursday night reporter's notebook from Kinshasa

A year ago at this time - Valentine’s Day - I was about mid-way through a brief stint living in Bombay, a city of some 20 million souls strung like a dazzling necklace of human heat and light just inland from the Arabian sea. This year, many thousands of miles away and with many thousands of miles and half a dozen countries in between, the sun sinks carnally into the horizon and I am in Kinshasa, another - well, spectacular would be a good word - city along the banks of the Congo River, a river whose banks begin only about two hundred yards away from my new flat.

I arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo almost exactly two weeks ago, and have spent much of that time in the rush of firsts that anyone confronts when moving to a new country, and some that are perhaps more unique to here. Find a suitable place to live, find somewhere to buy food, set up some kind of system of communications with the outside world, get all the official accreditations and papers in order to keep my from being clapped in jail while I practice my trade (not to say that might not happen anyway). On top of all that, there has been polishing my French, picking up some snatches of Lingala (a language I would like to learn with some degree of proficiency) and, tipa tipa, beginning to decipher the political and cultural complexities of this place, of which there are so many. And looking forward, as always, to the many stories to be told and the many voices to be brought to the fore so often ignored.

Tonight, after paying the man who secured my new apartment his (unexpected) commission, a few of us went out to relax at one of the establishments along the Boulevard du 30 Juin. It being Valentine’s Day - and boy does Kinshasa do Valentine’s Day - many parts of the city, from the poorest to the more affluent - are festooned with red heart decorations and red-attired waitresses, as couples snuggle in dark corners or brazenly out in the open to the sounds of zouk and soukous. Scribbling some of my impressions down in my ever-present notebook, a Congolese friend of mine observed “You are always writing!”

Indeed. When I look back over the last year, a very productive one in many respects, that has been the constant. Whether one is talking about Haitian peasants, Kashmiri villagers, residents of West Kingston ghettos, joyous and besieged cariocas or the long-suffering people of Congo, a country as vast as the United States east of the Mississippi River and long beset by destructive outside interventions and visionless, self-interested leaders, the goal has always been the same, and that is to let people speak for themselves and try to make those in a position to ameliorate their circumstances hear their voices. Will this be the year Congo turns the corner? Only time will tell. But come what may I hope to be able give voice to the daily struggles of the people here and to do that struggle, and the dignity that comes with it justice. Ahead stretch visits to the Kivus and the Ituri regions of the country, a long-awaited trip to Angola, a potential detour to South Africa, and much work to be done and much knowledge to be gained.

I’m just getting started.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Bienvenue à Kin La Belle

A few impressions from my first days in Kinshasa.

The glorious music - soukous, rumba congolese, ndombolo - that is pumping from everywhere, from buses, cars, and the little roadside bars that are always filled with a populace that most consume more litres of beer per capita during an average year that the Irish. Despite the terrible suffering they endured during the pillages of the 1990s and the brutal street fighting between the forces of President Joseph Kabila and former rebel leader turned senator Jean-Pierre Bemba, the indomitable spirit of the Kinois dances on.

The weather, sultry and steamy in this city of 8 million along the Congo River, it makes the palms droop lazily under alternately moody gray and blazing skies.

A young boy, no more than ten years old, waving an armless stump at me as my car was stuck in traffic. Not much shocks me anymore, but this shoeless child missing a limb at an intersection and begging for money did. There are several thousand abandonné like him in Kinshasa, and tens of thousands more making a living on the very margins of the economy here.

The boisterous, witty, warm spirit of the people. Reminiscent of the Haitians, the Kinois are a very friendly and welcoming lot, who enjoy the moment and the brief transitory pleasures that come from a life lived in a place where tomorrow is never assured and the winds of change blow with an unpredictable force.

Settling into a new apartment now for what promises to be a highly interesting couple of months, likombo esalité.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Things I will miss about Paris

As I prepare to depart for an eight month assignment in Kinshasa this evening, I wanted to take a moment and pause to remember some of the good things about the Paris, the place I am leaving, a place I have often had something of a love-hate relationship with and which has served as my home since March 2007. So, in no particular order, having stepped off the metro and strolled down Avenue Barbès to my flat in Château Rouge for the last time, here are a few of the city’s most redeeming qualities.

Canal Saint-Martin

The lovely waterway that ambles through the 10ème, with its bridges and homeless encampments and trendy restaurants such as L'atmosphère and Chez Prune somehow, in its juxtaposition of elegance and squalor, its impassive gray building facades (sometimes relieved by a dash of color) and its lively summer street life, will always remind me of my time in Paris.

Bassin de la Villette

Just north of the Canal Saint-Martin in the 19ème, this waterside amalgam of restaurants and two movie theaters serves as a nice farewell to Paris before, beyond the Parc de la Villette, it begins its long stagger into suburbs of the neuf trois, as the department of Seine-Saint-Denis is known.

Getting lost in the Abbesses

Emerging from a métro station 100 feet below ground, one could be forgiven for forgetting the proximity to the fleshpots of the Pigalle red light district and Algerian transvestite sex workers plying their trade are only steps away. This area of Montmartre feels in many ways like a mountain village, with narrow, twisting streets climbing up the western side of the hill that form’s the neighborhood’s main geographic feature. The children’s merry-go-round and the wintertime decorations on the Square Jehan-Rictus are quite charming, as is, in more grown-up way, the neighborhood’s penchant for staying up late. As pleasant to stroll through at a meditative 7 in the morning as it is on a busy Friday night.


Pricey but worth every penny, as I have mentioned on this blog before, L'Harmattan bookstore is simply the most impressive repository of books of Africa and Africana in any language that I have yet found. The section on the Democratic Republic of Congo alone that goes on for a dozen shelves, more than many bookstores entire Africa sections A hint of Africa in the 6e arrondissement.

Ave Maria

A delightful, bustling Franco-Latin fusion restaurant tucked away on a remarkably little-visited corner of the busy Oberkampf neighborhood, Specializing in caipirinhas, mojitos and suggestively-named dishes such as the Woman on Top (chicken, in case you were wondering), Ave Maria is a spicy alternative when you tire of steak frites, bœuf bourguignon, carpaccio or, heaven forbid, the ubiquitous sandwich grec.


A particularly exquisite kind of apple brandy from Normandy, I was first introduced to calvados by a Norman neighbor, and then came to appreciate its full majesty on a trip to Bayeux with my friend Claire in September. Marinating in oak barrels housed inside dusty storehouses on obscure country roads, I became a fan of Aux Vergers de Romilly brand of calvados in particular. One of the world’s great digestifs.

Going to the cinema

There is something about going to see a film in the French capital that seems at once more conspiratorial and more of an event than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. Maybe it’s that the custom is to buy tickets substantially before the film starts, or the queues that form outside of a theater in advance of a screening that give it an added feeling of ceremony, but, whatever it is, I very much like the effect.

Pain au chocolat

There is no finer breakfast .


My down-at-the-heels though getting-more-trendy immigrant neighborhood in northeastern Paris has been a warmer and more welcoming place to call home than any other part of the city. I will always remember the twilight skies, alternatively subtle pink and moody gray, that could be seen from between the buildings, the African vendors who clogged the are around the Marché Dejean most days and the little restos where I would buy couscous, poulet yassa and the occasional pizza.

Adieu, for now, Paris.