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Climbing to Hell

Displaced people from Masisi who were in the Mugunga IDP camp near Goma
Displaced people from Masisi who were in the Mugunga IDP camp near Goma Photo: David Zarembka / AGLI-FPT

Note: I've been receiving regular updates on Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo from David Zarembka, Coordinator of AGLI of the Friends Peace Teams, for the past few weeks. They are insightful, sensitive and heart-breaking. I invited David to write a reflective post about the situation there, and he sent me this, powerful words to consider carefully, and to remember that we are connected via our Quaker brothers and sisters to the situation there. You can also read his excellent post on the history of the conflict in the region or a recent article on the Healing and Rebuilding our Communities Program of AGLI at the Huffington Post. - Lucy

Somewhere, as we climbed from the flatland at Lake Kivu to the mountains of Masisi in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, we crossed the boundary between the government controlled area near the lake and the rebel controlled area of the mountains. The four Quakers—Zawadi Nikuze, coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative’s Healing and Rebuilding Our Community (HROC) program in North Kivu; Theoneste Bizimana, the HROC coordinator for Rwanda; Gladys Kamonya, my wife; and I—were on our way to meet with the local Quaker pastor, Levi Munyemana, who would show us the Quaker projects in Nyamitaba, a small town in the middle of the mountains.

Our first stop in the small half-deserted town was to visit the local rebel official that controlled the region. We were advised to say as little as possible, only polite greetings. We shook hands with the man who said he was the secretary of the rebel movement, a taller, middle-aged, portly man with a big cowboy hat. Most of the discussion was in Kiyarwandan, the language of Rwanda, which I do not understand. It seems that Pastor Levi was describing who we were and why we were visiting. Our programs never have problems with local government/rebel officials because they are always grateful for any activity that might bring peace to their community.

We looked at the small building that housed the Peace Center. The work of the Friends Church was to bring the competing ethnic groups—Tutsi from Rwanda who controlled the rebel group, Hutu from Rwanda, and the local Congolese tribes—together for reconciliation and peaceful  coexistence. We saw the cooperative garden that the women were cultivating—Masisi, well watered and fertile, is the breadbasket for the million or so people in and around the provincial capital of Goma. We heard their desperate cry for peace as they didn’t really care who was “in power” as long as there was no fighting.

This was a community with a Quaker church. Three times the rebels had come to Pastor Levi to ask him to join the rebel movement—his education and organizing skills would obviously be useful for the rebels. The first time he declined, saying he was a Quaker pacifist and couldn’t fight. The second time they came and threatened him and his family if he didn’t join. He still refused, but moved to Goma. Even in the main city under government control, the rebels came a third time to ask him to join their movement. He naturally declined. Such is the life of our fellow Quakers in these areas of conflict.

This journey was in 2008 when there was a lull in the fighting between the government and the rebels. So I didn’t feel afraid or threatened. The scariest part of the trip was the wild ride back as the driver barreled down the winding mountain road where we could see vehicles here and there that had not made a turn and fell down the precipitous mountain slopes of more than 45 degrees to certain death.

It was not long after this that the fighting resumed. Many of the people we visited in Nyamitaba had to flee to the internally displaced persons’ camps on the lava rocks outside of Goma. The rebels also threatened to take the city of Goma. A peace treaty was then implemented and the rebels joined the Congolese army, but they still controlled the mountains of Masisi.

In April of this year, when the former rebels felt that the peace agreement was not being implemented, they revolted again and formed the group called “M23,” which recently captured and held Goma for twelve days before looting and evacuating the city after an agreement was reached for a renewed dialogue with the Congolese government.

The people’s wish for peace was again dashed. Many people have had to flee—without food, shelter, or knowledge of what would come next. And so it has been for the last 16 years in North and South Kivu. These include our Quaker brothers and sisters, but we hear all too little about their trials and tribulations.

About the Author

Since 1998, David Zarembka has been Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He lives with his wife, Gladys Kamonya, in western Kenya. They are members of Lugari Yearly Meeting and Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

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