An African magnet of misery

Sanders is a Times staff writer.

This might be the unluckiest city in the world, a onetime resort playground for the wealthy doomed by a string of human and natural disasters that recall biblical scourges.

Lobuta Colletta has borne witness to Goma’s decline. First from a comfortable home and now from a cramped shack, the mother of eight has seen mass murder and cholera, volcanic eruptions and civil war.

“This part of the country must be cursed,” she says.

The troubles are back. Rebel fighters threatened to invade Goma late last month, sending thousands of residents fleeing across the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo to neighboring Rwanda. Peace talks with renegade rebel leader Laurent Nkunda led to a cease-fire, though sporadic skirmishes continue and rebels remain less than 10 miles away.


The reprieve has allowed Goma’s 600,000 inhabitants to reclaim some sense of normality. But around here, “normal” is a relative term. Colletta’s husband has lost his government job. Her children are often sent home from school because the family has no money for fees.

When the rebels threatened last month, the family slept on the floor to avoid flying bullets. A couple next door were shot by looting government soldiers, who frequently rob the citizens they are supposed to protect.

“We live like animals,” said Colletta, 44.

In a sign of how bad things are, Goma’s residents now say that life under brutal Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko is seen as the “good old days.”

Then, this eastern Congolese border town was looked at as the Switzerland of Africa, envied for its natural beauty, stability and prosperity. A vast agricultural industry of coffee, tea, potatoes, beans and cheese fed not only Congo, but the entire region. Gold and tin mines pumped the local economy. Tourism flourished thanks to lush parks and a nearby population of several hundred mountain gorillas.

The relative idyll began unraveling with the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, when bodies clogged Lake Kivu and millions of refugees fled here, trampling Congolese farmland, depleting resources and bringing cholera and other epidemics.

Then Goma became a launching pad for two civil wars, one of which escalated into a regional conflict known as Africa’s First World War. The most recent estimates put the war’s death toll at 5 million, mostly due to disease and malnutrition, with many of the fatalities in Goma.


Then the volcano

Finally, when peace seemed around the corner, Mt. Nyiragongo exploded in 2002, engulfing half the town in ash and lava and killing as many as 100 people.

Today farms lie fallow and 1 in 10 people rely on international food aid. Mines still thrive, but three-fourths of the profits line the pockets of rival militias and illicit foreign-owned businesses. Tourism long ago disappeared.

Surviving in Goma, residents say, requires a combination of fatalism and pragmatism, accepting that their future is largely out of their hands but keeping a suitcase packed.

After the 2002 eruption left scores of homes and business buried in lava, new neighborhoods sprung up atop the flows. Looking like something out of “The Flintstones,” streets, sidewalks, frontyards, fences and houses are constructed of brown-gray lava rock. A group of girls recently could be seen jumping rope on the sharp rocks as if on a patch of grass.

“People have learned to cope because they really don’t have a choice,” said Jean Bosco Butsitsi, traditional king of the Bakumu region, which includes Goma.

Yet he also sees a hidden toll.

“Psychologically there has been an impact,” Butsitsi said.

Anger and frustration ride high, as witnessed recently in stoning attacks against United Nations troops and vehicles. Residents blame the U.N. for failing to maintain the peace. Ethnic tensions are also on the rise as people search for someone to blame.

An explosion in rapes is another side effect, Butsitsi said. Thousands of women have been sexually attacked in eastern Congo over the last five years, one of the worst records worldwide. “We’d never had violence against women like that before,” Butsitsi said.

People here blame an international community that has long neglected the regional crisis and Congo’s corrupt politicians.

But there is special scorn for neighboring countries like Rwanda and Uganda, which are accused of plundering the region’s mineral wealth, including coltan, used in cellphones and other electronics

The contrast between Goma and the Rwandan town of Gisenyi, just across the border, is stark.

Picturesque Gisenyi boasts posh tourist hotels, clean streets and a new electricity plant. A few yards away, unemployed youths loiter along Goma’s lava-covered roads, which are congested chiefly with wooden-wheeled carts and aid agencies’ SUVs.

“All the construction and roads you see over there is paid for with our resources,” said Kayisavera Mbake, Goma’s former vice governor, referring to Rwanda’s exploitation of Congo’s coltan and cassiterite, which crosses the border each day in trucks. Experts say Rwanda exports five times as much cassiterite as it claims to mine annually.

‘This state of chaos’

Noting that Rwanda has twice invaded Goma since 1996, Mbake added, “They like to keep us in this state of chaos.”

Butsitsi, who said his grandfather donated the land to establish Goma, offered another reason for the city’s suffering: the wrath of God.

He said government actions over the last 20 years to marginalize his family and curtail his traditional powers were fueling the suffering. “I was put in place by God, and the struggle won’t end until I’m back in my rightful place,” he said.

Local politicians take a more philosophical view.

“This is just something that we are obligated to go through,” said Jean Baumbilia, vice president of Goma’s provincial assembly.

A colleague rejected such interpretations, and warned that frustration in Goma could boil over and explode into ethnic clashes similar to those that culminated in Rwanda in 1994.

“This is not our fate,” said assembly member Jules Hakizumwami. “The time will come when people here will rise up to make a change. If you keep an animal in a cage, it will always turn violent.”