The rains start in October in Katanga province, with huge drops that fall as they do only in the tropics, straight and hard, like a hail of ball bearings.
Water pools. And then, restlessly, the runoff begins to move. It slides northward across an immense red savanna, once home to an African king who played two colonial powers off against each other, only to be shot for his cleverness. The water creases into rivulets, which soon merge into small, sluggish creeks. One of these creeks flows past a mine that once supplied the uranium for America's first atom bomb. Another, snaking miles away on a plain of strange, bone-white mud, sluices between the bare, spindly legs of Paul Katoji."Gold," whispers Katoji, holding up a grain of shiny metal on the tip of his thumb.
The skinny prospector stares hungrily at the glinting crumb. He is poor and has a wife and four small children to feed. Like scores of other men, he scratches in the stream for gold, surviving on the mercy of the tributary. The stream, fed now by hungry men's sweat, drains the tailings of an enormous mine closed by war. These dregs hold untold tons of gold along with an estimated 180,000 tons of the strategic metal cobalt. Every day Katoji, clad in patched shorts, sifts his water-wrinkled fingers through a discarded treasure worth more than a billion dollars.
In this way, from this wretched paradox, the Congo River is born.
If rivers can be the biographers of a landscape, gathering not just the silt but the stories of the nations they traverse, then the tale of the Congo River today is one of epic, almost hallucinatory tragedy: For more than two years now, one of the world's mightiest waterways has gushed through the heart of Africa's most dangerous and debilitating war.
Rising from Congo's rich mineral fields, the Congo River curves north into a primordial jungle that now absorbs the racketing gunfire of at least a half-dozen dueling armies. The river's currents, so massive they bulge 5 feet with the tug of a full moon, glide past ruined cities and abandoned villages. Nearly 3,000 miles later, swollen now by some 7,000 miles of tributaries, they reflect the skyscrapers of Kinshasa, a capital city where idled barges crammed with refugees provide a backdrop for water-skiing diplomats and relief workers.
Dip a finger into the river's burbling headwaters; it isn't the distant pounding of the Atlantic surf you feel, but the faint vibrations of war.
Little seen by outsiders, this clash over Africa's vast center has been muffled by the remoteness of the battlefield--a trackless forest bigger than Western Europe. Yet as faraway as it may seem, the war is perhaps the defining conflict in modern Africa, a struggle over power and wealth that heralds a depressing new era of instability for the world's poorest continent.
Diplomats call it "Africa's First World War" because the armies of seven nations, three squabbling rebel groups and a rabble of militias are ensnared in fighting that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The rebels, mostly boys in gum boots, have occupied the eastern half of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa's third-largest nation, with the help of troops from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, who claim to be protecting their flanks from marauding guerrillas. The western and southern half of the million-square-mile country remains in government hands, but only with military support of allies Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
It is a war of rusty barges tricked out with artillery that sink in river skirmishes ignored by the world; the warm currents, watched over by squalling gray parrots or shrieking monkeys, carry away the dead.
It is war where jets scratch the equatorial skies, dropping a lone bomb, like an egg, into a rainforest second in size only to the Amazon. A war where thatched villages and tin-roofed towns fall and are retaken in a scramble for gold, diamonds and timber as much as for political power.
In this festering tropical garden, millions of Congolese hunker in the shadows by armed strangers who come from far-off lands. In Katanga's provincial capital of Lubumbashi, located 150 miles from the Congo River's source, Zimbabwean soldiers relax from lonely guard duty at remote diamond mines. Crew-cut Asian men in cheap shoes hurry past on dirt sidewalks--North Korean military trainers who drill the troops of Congolese President Laurent Kabila in exchange for diamonds or, according to some, uranium.
Far from the towns, out in the immense jungles, ghastly rumors drift through the forest like foul swamp gas--tales of atrocities committed against civilians trapped in the chaos.
"In January in the Kamituga area of South Kivu Province, Mai Mai leader Silvestre Louetcha reportedly executed 32 women who had supported the mwami [traditional ruler] of Kamituga in resisting Mai Mai demands for forced labor," notes a recent U.S. State Department report on human rights in the Congo. "Before killing these women, the Mai Mai reportedly accused them of witchcraft, then cut their breasts off and forced them to eat their own breasts ... There were also reports that Mai Mai units killed persons by crucifying them."
Such savagery is hauntingly echoed in another report:
"We fell upon them all and killed them without mercy ... [Our leader] ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and children on the palisades in the form of a cross."
Yet this last dispatch was written a century ago, by a European officer massacring Congolese villagers in the service of Belgium's King Leopold II, the most despotic of Africa's colonizers. Far from reverting to ancient tribal violence, Congo's modern combatants are simply updating the bloody colonial quest for rubber and ivory. Back then, as today, such horrors were kept secret. But the Congo remembers. Few countries are as scarred by their history.
"South Africa's turn to democracy may be the biggest success story in Africa since the Cold War," said Jakkie Potgieter, an expert with South Africa's Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. "But the Congo is our biggest failure. You've got this rich, gigantic country in the middle of the continent that's sucking the whole region into disaster. If it drags on much longer, there really is no pulling back. It becomes another Angola."
It wasn't supposed to happen this way.
The fall of Congo strongman Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, after 32 years of fantastically corrupt rule, should have marked a new beginning not only for some 50 million long-suffering Congolese, but for the continent as a whole.
Mobutu, a leopard-skin-capped tyrant created by the CIA as a bulwark against communism in Africa, cannibalized his own country. In the jungles of Congo, then called Zaire, he built lavish European villas and Chinese pagodas, and stocked them with French wines flown in by chartered Concordes.
Yet when Mobutu finally crumpled before the rebel armies of Kabila, Congo's new president, no renaissance followed. Instead, a tempting new power vacuum and the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda led to the spilling of new blood on the richest real estate in Africa.
In the last three years, Rwanda has marched thousands of troops into Congo to root out the murderous Hutu militias responsible for slaughtering 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis. Uganda has done much the same to squash its own Congo-based enemies. Unhappy with Kabila's inability to control his borders, both countries are supporting armed groups inside Congo with the aim of bringing the new president down. In true Congo fashion, the rebels spend most of their time bickering among themselves. There are now rebels who have rebelled against the rebels, and the jungles swarm with men of questionable allegiances and lots of guns.
As for Kabila, a pudgy former guerrilla with a taste for Mao suits and expensive whiskey, he has declared it his "sacred duty" to free Congo's soil of all foreign armies--albeit with the assistance of three foreign armies from sympathetic states. Billboard-size portraits adorning the capital, Kinshasa, show Kabila squinting warily upward, as if searching for the first plane out of his ruined nation.
Amid all the confusion, the killing goes on. And it is growing worse.
A peace accord signed last year is unraveling. The United Nations now says that hundreds of thousands of civilians have died and 1.8 million more are displaced in the region--six times the number of refugees who stampeded out of Kosovo. These figures are guesses. Most humanitarian groups have abandoned the Congo in utter frustration.
"Congo has never really been a true nation," says I. William Zartmann, an analyst at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "Mobutu treated the place like his private property and held it together with payoffs. This war is a test of Congo's viability as a nation."
He noted ruefully how Africa's first continental war, a painful test facing the region in the new millennium, is relegated "pretty much to the bottom of the barrel" of U.S. foreign policy.
"Where else in the world is the future so unresolved, so up for grabs?" Zartmann asked. "Will Congo break up? Will it stay whole? ... It's maddening, but it's also amazing."
Into this troubled, half-made world the Congo River flows, snaking more than 2,900 miles through a sprawling combat zone.
It is an iconic stream, the former portal to central Africa; up to 9 miles wide in places, it is the sixth-longest river in the world. A quarter-million boat passengers once traveled its powerful currents every year. And Africa, like an upended horn of plenty, once spilled a fortune in diamonds, palm oil, coffee, rubber, gold, bush meat, ivory and hardwoods down its silty waters.
Yet if Joseph Conrad could steam up the Congo again as he did in 1890, the author of the brooding classic "Heart of Darkness" would instantly recognize the grim desolation of long-gone colonial times--"an empty stream, a great silence, and impenetrable forest."
Today, with the mighty Congo River cut by war, millions who once depended on this vital waterway are stranded in the continent's vast interior. Only hand-poled dugouts crawl in places along the riverbanks.
And in the immense no man's land of central Congo, the jungle is quietly swallowing whole cities, turning them into modern-day versions of Mayan ruins.
A recent five-week journey down the war-strangled currents of the Congo River often revealed a stream of drowned hopes. But in important ways the Congo is also a river of the future. New ways of life are being invented today in the heart of Africa. Millions of people, forsaken by the rest of the world, are adapting and surviving, arts at which the Congolese excel.
"Tell Clinton he cannot kill us," declared Katoji, the impoverished gold prospector at the Congo's headwaters.
Like many Congolese, he believes the United States is secretly guiding his forgotten war. He can't comprehend that his misery has no greater design, no purpose. Had not America, he asked, backed the thief Mobutu? And wasn't America now an ally of the invader Rwanda?
Standing in murky waters that begrudged so little of their true wealth, he offered, as a gesture of goodwill, his paltry grain of gold to a stranger.
The double curse of Africa
The exact source of the Congo River arises 100 miles south of Katoji's diggings, atop a seabed a billion years old, now a grassy plain speckled with round African huts.
This ancient sea was a sump; it collected the metals leached by rivers from a primordial continent, concentrating them in its sediments, hardening them into stone. Eons later, the stones, smelted into copper, would make the tribes of Katanga rich--so much so that colonial Belgium and Britain would jockey over their lands. The Katangans' last king, Misiri, was the principal victim of this dispute. He was shot down in 1890 by the Belgians, who couldn't buy him off with cases of gin.
Two more conflicts, far bloodier wars of secession, would be fought in Katanga soon after Congo's 1960 independence.
It is fitting, then, that the Congo River today should have its roots buried deep in Congo's baneful mineral wealth--deposits worth billions in copper, zinc, cobalt, uranium, gold and manganese that have brought little but grief to central Africa.
"This is the double curse of Africa," argues Mabi Mulumba, an economist at the University of Kinshasa. "We aren't just killing ourselves over our extravagant riches--no, that is not enough. We fight over our potential riches as well.
"All of this gold sitting in the ground? What good is it? It is not even being worked and may never be because of our situation. But that doesn't matter. We still fight as if it were in our pockets right now."
The cynicism of the old East-West struggle in Africa, Mulumba said, is being eclipsed by a new brand of madness: a brazen scramble for loot among Africans themselves.
Politics and nationalism still kill in Africa, of course. The recent, murderous border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was about little else. But ideology has been overtaken by lucre in a way unseen since colonial times.
Angola, the classic proxy war between capitalism and communism, has turned into a battle between oil and diamond interests. And the terrible mass amputations that have bloodied Sierra Leone began years ago, in a tug-of-war over lucrative diamond fields.
Yet the Congo war, because of its bizarre roster of combatants and the sheer pile of its booty, remains in a brazen and greedy class by itself.
Hundreds of miles north from the Congo River's fabulously rich source, across the war's invisible front lines, Ugandan officers aiding the rebels even specialize in commodities: one colonel goes for gold, another for coffee, a third for papain--the extract from papayas used in processed foods. Lucrative diamond bourses have sprung up in the capital of rebel-allied Rwanda, a country without of a single diamond mine of its own.
"It reminds me of us," joked a European mining consultant in Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga province and the city closest to where the Congo River is born.
"The Africans are carving up Congo the way the colonialists carved up Africa," he says. "It has less to do with ideology or even military strategy than with spheres of economic influence. We have taught them well."
The consultant sits in a pleasant office that is calm, even peaceful, because business is dead in the mining fields of Katanga. His satellite telephone rarely rings. He whiles the time away sipping coffee at Planet Hollybum, the restaurant where the last die-hard expatriate miners sit immobile at tables, as if conserving their energy for some unknown but unavoidable calamity looming ahead.
And this is the irony haunting the Congo River's headwaters: While opposing armies poke and scrape for gold or diamonds, the gigantic apparatus of Congo's legitimate mining industry sits paralyzed. Rots.
To drive through Katanga province today is to witness first-hand what novelist V.S. Naipaul described as Congo's surreal atmosphere of lost chances, a place where "your life and ambition had already been lived out for you and you were looking at the relics of that life."
Enormous open-pit mines stare idly at the tropical skies. Aging smelters from Belgian times sit rusting on the savannas, puffing away at 10 percent capacity. And children walk obliviously to school through 60 million tons of mining debris that would make any industrialized nation salivate. The tailings brim with the richest concentrations of cobalt--a metal crucial in aircraft manufacture--in the world.
The government mining company that once oversaw most of these projects, a giant corporation known by its acronym GECAMINES, is comatose. At its peak, it was the biggest mining operation on the continent and the spine of Congo's economy, generating $2.2. billion in exports a year. Decades of rapacious thievery by dictator Mobutu crippled the industry. In 1988 alone, the kleptomaniac who dubbed himself "the all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake," stole $400 million in mining profits. But the war has sealed its doom.
With investors scared off by the fighting, copper production has collapsed from a 1980s peak of 470,000 tons a year to only 30,000. Cobalt is down from 18,000 tons to a mere 3,000.
The result: an eerie landscape of waiting.
The silent mines wait. The roads, unrolling emptily across the brittle plains and built with millions in World Bank funds, wait. Even the Congo River, its waters so mineralized that they swirl orange, a cocktail of oxides, waits.
And the people--especially the people--wait.
Lubumbashi feels like a city holding its breath. Thousands of people walk miles from the shantytowns to the shops downtown because there is no gasoline for buses. Thousands more, unemployed, stand on sidewalks or sit under the falling blossoms of flame trees.
"We're the Democratic Republic of waiting," says a Congolese smelter owner who laid off 80 percent of his workforce. "I wake up every morning and it is like sleep-walking. We go through the motions, and the world passes us by."
In effect, 50 million Congolese are waiting. But for what?
"For a savior," says Rev. Kasongo Hulumba.
A request for one true God
Two half-finished steeples jut above the trees of Lubumbashi. This is the Kimbanguist Church, one of the few buildings under construction in the only large city close to the source of the Congo River.
"Despite the hardships of war our temple continues to grow," says Hulumba. "This is to say, we feel that if you follow Kimbangu, miracles will abound."
Hulumba sits in a small rectory office furnished with plastic lawn chairs. A wire pokes through the middle of the ceiling, as if from heaven, and descends to Hulumba's intermittently ringing phone. He is the local pastor of Congo's home-grown religion, which worships a flamboyant healer named Simon Kimbangu, who died in prison in 1951.
Kimbangu preached that a black messiah was coming to the Congo. Fired by colonial injustices as much as spiritual redemption, he foretold a day when whites would be expelled by the African paradise that had once belonged to the Congolese. His sermons triggered mass unrest against the Belgians. They first condemned him to death, then commuted his sentence to life imprisonment; the man believed by millions of followers to be the incarnation of the Holy Spirit languished in Lubumbashi's jail for 30 years.
Today, impoverished Kimbanguists pray for peace at the patio where Kimbangu was flogged; removing their shoes, the pilgrims kneel on the concrete, revealing socks worn through at the soles.
Cults of many types have erupted everywhere in wartime Congo. In hard times, imported Christianity has been whittled and shaped to meet local demand; relief from the suffering and uncertainty of a war the world ignores.
"All we request is one true god," explained Hulumba, a friendly man in sandals.
Yet what the Congo has been left with instead is a trinity of gold, diamonds and cobalt. Or Kabila: According to Congo's information minister, a recycled Mobutu crony, the new president is divinely inspired.
The Congo River describes a huge arc northward out of the fading El Dorado that is Katanga. From an airplane, the stream looks like a necklace of quicksilver reflecting the noonday sun. After hundreds of miles, it drops slowly out of the savanna and into thickening woodlands, then into Congo's vast tropical rainforest, which is synonymous here with the war.
Crashing over several sets of milky rapids, the river slides past old slaving outposts and abandoned palm-oil factories to a village called Lokutu. And here, at a wooden chapel, another Congolese sect smolders on. It worships Patrice Lumumba, Congo's martyred liberation leader.
Charming and erratic, Lumumba was one of the heroes of post-colonial Africa. But his nationalist rhetoric and coziness with the Soviets alarmed the Western powers; this impulsiveness cost him dear.
The CIA hoped to poison him in 1960, but Mobutu and other political enemies took care of him first. One day after Lumumba's execution, the delighted CIA station chief in Kinshasa walked to the Congo River and dumped his vial of toxin into the Congo River, a stream of what-might-have-beens.
And so, today, the members of the Lumumba-God church are waiting, like just everyone else in Congo.
This is what they say: When Lumumba comes back to save them, he will walk Christ-like across the unforgiving waters of a river that bears their country's name.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times