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Coming into the DRC, I had no idea what to expect. The week before traveling I bounced between a fear-induced paralysis and Zen-like confidence. I saw stories like the ones below from the Voice of America, Reuters, BBC, and so on. I clung to the Zen feeling and breathed deeply, promising myself I would abort mission if necessary. My team of Zione Themba, Emmanuel Kambalame and Erin Morehouse were eager to go. Women for Women International assured me the situation was secure, and we set off for the Kivus.

My nose was pressed to the airplane window in awe of the stunning views from the airplane.

View from the plane

Rwanda, from Kigali to Cyangugu, is spectacular. Lake Kivu is beautiful.  The domestic flight and immediate luggage pickup means we depart Cyangugu immediately for the border. Bukavu (elevation 5000ft.) is on the Southern end of Lake Kivu. As we leave Rwanda, the sidewalk construction and the tarmac ends and the road into town is dirt. We enter the DRC. Later, the tarmac begins again in Bukavu city. Only the main road is paved.

Lake Kivu

It is hilly, green in places and densely developed with houses and shops. Brick buildings fill in all open space up and down the many hills. This is definitely not a planned city but a growing town where, since 1994, Congolese have come, fleeing from rural, unstable conflict zones.

In Bukavu, the traffic is thick and the streets are lined with people. It is very hard to walk down the street because the sidewalks are broken and rocky and we can’t help to look up at the houses, down to the lake, across at the vendors and businesses. We walk though, trying to avoid the pedestrian, motorcycle and vehicular traffic . This is very compelling people watching.

According to the World Bank, per capita GDP is US$199.  The CIA Factbook  ranks DRC 226 out of 226 countries in the world in GDP per capita, behind Sudan, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Burundi and Liberia. I think Burundi and the DRC are competing for last place though.

Nevertheless, houses or villas near the lake indicate there are some very wealthy folks here. The three story Victorian houses are surprising.Houses I am also surprised by so much new-house construction. The American, oops, I mean the “Congolese dream” is to have a house –a patch of land and a structure where a family can be safe and live together—and so they are building in all open spaces, unrestrained by permits, zoning laws or building standards. It is safe here.

The DRC, rich in minerals and natural resources and home to a long line of corrupt leaders, hosted the “African World War” and a series of conflicts, is rife with perpetual instability and insecurity. And yet, the buildings of Bukavu do not tell the story of Congo’s First and Second wars. In Liberia, where war ended in 2003, at least a third of buildings wear the scars of machine guns and bullet holes. Even in Bosnia, from the airport to Sarajevo and en route to Zeneca, you see the remnants of grenades and mortars and sniper attacks from the war that ended 20 years ago. You also see the endless graves that took over the parks and other open spaces. But here in Bukavu, I do not readily see destruction or the aftermath of protracted war. It is not until you talk to people that you begin to understand the long term impacts of the DRC’s wars and insecurity. There was violent fighting as recently as 2008 and even attacks last week (May 2012 see below (Except for you Mom!) “Blind violence” in the eastern DRC. U.N. military officials report “brutal massacres”). While an estimated 5.3 million people have died since 1998, millions of these deaths were among women and children who died of starvation and disease because they were forced from their villages by rebels and soldiers. They were cut off from food and healthcare or protection from rape, hunger, weather, and natural disasters. Of course there were guns, but machetes, spears and knives were also common weapons of war. These leave horrible scars on humans, but do not mark the architecture and landscape.

We will not conduct our study in all of the nearby sites where Women for Women works because of ongoing insecurity. There are some places you cannot travel through at dawn, dusk, or night because of ambushes. Young thugs (not rebels or soldiers) without jobs but with guns left over from the war opportunistically attack vehicles. Of course this can happen on the streets of Philly late at night or other large American cities too, but we avoid these areas in our own country and move on with our lives.

Stories that freak me out:

Voice of America: Nick Long, May 30, 2012

 UN Condemns Upsurge in ‘Blind Violence’ in Eastern Congo

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo – The United Nations has condemned an upsurge of what it calls “blind violence” in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. U.N. military officials say some of the most brutal massacres in recent memory have been committed by Congolese ethnic militias and Rwandan rebels.

The U.N. Stabilization Mission in the Congo, known as MONUSCO, says it has collected reports of 98 civilians killed and six wounded in 11 villages of North Kivu province between May 9 and May 25.

The mission says the killings were carried out by two Congolese militias – the so-called Mai Mai Rahiya Mutomboki, working with members of the Congolese Defense Force – and by the Rwandan rebel group FDLR.

It says most of the victims, including women and children, were killed with machetes, spears and knives.

 Red Cross reports deteriorating humanitarian situation in eastern DRC

GENEVA, May 25 (Xinhua) — The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Friday reported a rising number of civilian victims, as violence continues in the Kivu region in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The Red Cross has observed continuing clashes near the border in the eastern part of North Kivu, as well as escalating fighting in the Walungu, Shabunda and Kalehe territories of South Kivu, and more recently in the Walikale and Masisi territories of North Kivu, which have caused many casualties and displacement.

For more on the conflict in the Eastern DRC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11108589