Eastern Congo; it’s Africa’s own Africa and the Kivu capitals of Goma and Bukavu its dual-beating heart. Those who know, well they know; alas for those who don’t, it’s hard to explain. Two messy, shaken and tragic cities beautiful as jewels hugging either end of a great crystalline mountain lake; but they would have to be rubies for the blood that bubbles through them and often down the Ruzizi river and onward. Belgian Art Deco architecture crumbling under the weight of a war that never ends – new hotels shining crowded full of Blue Helmets; old ones with cut-crystal glass and cutlery emblazoned with crests that still insinuate colony except the patrons are now fat African politicians and thin rebel warlords with hard eyes under cowboy hats; protected by their child soldiers. Above the city of Goma Mt. Nyrangongo sits in silent supervision, le grandpere glowing orange as a constant threat to again fill the city’s streets with its molten glowing rivers, for he has made no covenant with the people. The Virunga jungles, emptied of animals after 20 years of guerilla armies ate everything – including often the pygmies. Coltan and gold and wood and the tiny jungle elephants; all sold to the highest bidder during Africa’s world war.
Rape as a weapon, war as a never-ending way of life, pillage as a pastime – sorrow and bitterness and sadness.
I have known Congo. For two years during that civil war (1998-2003), on three separate occasions, I worked in the Kivus of eastern Congo. Goma and Bukavu. A war that has never ended long after it officially “ended”. I was with a large NGO, and we were doing the stuff large NGOs did – running supplementary feeding centers, distributing food and non-food (hygiene kits), building schools in places of relative safety. Goat rotation schemes, condom distributions. The therapeutic feeding centers were the worst – sixty or seventy starving children crammed into a “hospital” wing. Silence, because severely malnourished children do not even have the energy to cry. Nowhere to go, after we discharged them – husbands dead, themselves displaced and knowing we would see them again in that terrible revolving door of hunger; for ours was the only safe space. Writing reports, hosting journalists and “Fellows” from the think tanks as we raised awareness in Europe and America on what was happening in a war nobody cared about – another transient white face fighting alongside our Congolese colleagues until we left, leaving them to fight on.
This year the Nobel committee has chosen Denis Mukwege for that most coveted prize; a prize everybody wants but nobody wants to do what it takes to earn, except for those off years when the committee in Oslo goes crazy and awards it to a polished politician with a quick smile and a partisan agenda, but I digress. Because not this year. This year it’s a fighter – a street fighter from the violent east of Congo who decided to work the long hours and take the risk to address the effects of a terrible injustice that cried out for an answer.
It is not easy for Congolese who wish to be counted. Let me tell you a story. One evening in Goma, after work, I was driving back over the hardened lava home with my car full of staff who needed a ride. There, at the central roundabout was a Rwandan military truck with a half dozen soldiers pulling a Congolese woman onto the back. Much to the chagrin of the Congolese staff, I stopped the car and got out, signaling for the rebels to release the girl. After an exchange of glares, the woman was thrown out of the back and reunited with her family and we drove on; just another day in Congo. Had I been Congolese, it would have been my last for I would have been shot.
Dr. Mukwege almost was. In 2012, after criticizing Joseph Kabila for the perpetuation of the violence, a group of thugs broke into his house in Bukavu, holding his family hostage. For whatever reason – which I’m sure he does not even know – he was not killed. Exiled for a brief time, he returned to work; the news of this greatest of prizes found him in surgery.
Mukwege is one of those unsung heroes who embodies the persistence and sacrifice of those who deserve the prize. I left Congo in 2003, never to return. After me came waves and waves and yet more waves of foreigners; fighting the mayhem for a season, reveling in Africa’s Africa, taking a story to our families and memories we treasure in our hearts – all the while Mukwege stayed on. It was his fight, after all. And through his tenacity, Dr. Mukwege has earned his place in the pantheon of peace.