Goma, the Scent of Africa

January 1995: "Wanna go!"
When I am home for more than four months, it starts to itch again: "Wanna go, wanna go, wanna go." So beginning of January, I scouted for a new mission as a telecom consultant. Two weeks later, I had a contract with UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to take over the duties of my friend Paul in Goma, North-Eastern Zaire, now DRC, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lana, our first daughter was just a few weeks old. I wanted to spend some more time at home, but as it always goes when you work as a consultant: you wait for months for a job. Once it comes up, and all the paperwork is done, they require you to leave as soon as possible.

Then all of a sudden you find yourself in the car, driving to the airport, and it hits you (well it surely always hits me!): the feeling of "Gee, what did I let myself into again this time? Why am I doing this? Leaving a warm and comfortable home, my wife and a new born baby girl for the unknown, for several months. Onwards to an uncertain period in the middle of nowhere between a few million refugees". But then, as the plane takes off, it is as if I leave all my doubts behind and then I know one thing for sure: "I do it because I am too crazy for a normal desk job."

February 1995: "750,000 refugees and a lovely evening"
I feel caught between 750,000 refugees, mountain gorillas and two active volcanoes.

It is a breathtaking evening in Hotel Karibu, Goma Zaire. The door of my ground floor hotel room is open and gives me a glorious view over a garden with tropical flowers and trees. It rained a bit this afternoon, and with the evening sun playing over the waves of Lake Kivu, just a breath away, the scent of Africa rolls into the room. The scent of the tropical flowers, of the volcanic ground, of the trees. Birds of all kind sing in the trees.
This is Africa. Mmmm it is good to be back! I have been here three weeks now, and it already feels like home to me.

I'm working here as the telecom officer for UNHCR in the province of North Kivu, supervising 9 operators and two technicians. Together, we run the core of the communications network for this relief operation, the outfall of the Rwanda genocide. It is probably the largest relief radio network in the world at this moment. About 750 users communicate with each other, using a set of 9 repeaters covering the refugee camps with romantic names as Kibumba, Katale, Mugunga and Kayindo. Romantic only by name. Not so in reality.
More than 750,000 people live in 4 major camps. Men, women, and children, families often separated during the Rwanda genocide, or during their long journey across the border with Zaire. Providing daily food, water, shelter, sanitation and health care for 750,000 refugees makes it a huge relief operation. Though the emergency nature of the setup is over, still a lot of people put in 18 hours per day, six to seven days per week.

Sunset over the shores of Lake Kivu
Slowly the sun goes down and the day time noises are fading out. The crickets start their monotonous chirping, and the song of the fishermen on the lake echoes onto the shore. From time to time, you can hear a distant ‘bang’. You never know if this is a sound from rioting in town, an attack in the refugee camp or the fishermen on the lake. They found an efficient way of fishing: they throw in grenades and pick up the dead fish. Too bad this also kills everything alive in the water, leaving the waters of Lake Kivu void of any living thing after a couple of years. But often in Africa, people don’t think about tomorrow.

This afternoon, we drove to the northern camp, inspecting the site where the solar panels of one of our repeaters were stolen some time ago. This is a real beautiful country, on the border between Rwanda and Zaire. With the volcanoes rolling in and out of each other,
providing a rich fertile soil on which everything grows as if it were a gift of god. Tropical trees, and flowers of all smells and colours, banana-trees and coffee fields, one after the other. The fruits and vegetables are the best I have ever tasted: Avocado, mango, Japanese prunes, avocado, wild strawberries, passion fruit, pine apple...

This is the country of the movie 'Gorillas in the mist', with both the mountain gorilla wild reserve and the Virunga National park, one of the world's most beautiful wildlife sites. It is also the spot of two active volcanoes. One erupted in 1977, spitting out lava, which rolled down the slopes at a speed of 40 mph, burning everything on its way, killing close to 1000 people and destroying part of the town of Goma. The other volcano is in eruption now. Though not an immediate threat, the fumes above its crater and the red glow it radiates in the night leave little doubt: the deadly forces are building up.
UNHCR volcanologist are constantly monitoring its activity, making up an emergency plan on how to evacuate the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the volcanoes immediate vicinity. The odour of the sulphur, mixed with the scent of the frangipani bushes in the garden of the hotel mingle into a perfume which I have never smelled before, and am pretty sure I will never smell again.

Dario, and 1,000,000 condoms
One of the volcanologists working with us, is Dario. A nervous short fellow from Southern Italy. He speaks funny Italian-like English, at a speed that makes it absolutely impossible to understand him. This annoys him. The more he gets annoyed, the faster the words pour out of his mouth, and the more vivid the gestures that go with it. His written reports seem to be made in the same language.

It is his first mission in this line of business, and he makes it his full time job –and our full time worry- to always get into trouble. The first night he arrived, he drove –ignoring our explicit warnings-, through town in the middle of the night, and got held up at gunpoint by a gang of drunk militia. Well, military, policemen, rebels, we never know. They all look and act alike. They asked for his wallet, and the keys to the car, and he refused. Luckily, by accident, he was sitting on the microphone of his radio, pushing it into transmission. So over the radio, we overheard –albeit slightly muffled- the whole heated discussion he started in Italenglish with the drunk gang, cursing in pure Sicilian.

Unfortunately for him, the robbers were not impressed, and left him behind on the side of the road. They drove off with his car, wallet and all of his luggage – he was moving from one hotel to another as he had not liked the food in the one we had booked him in. So he got stuck without money, passport or underwear for the rest of his stay.

He won’t not stay very long, though. Dario met Esmeralda, an even shorter Philipino girl. She is our ‘reproductive health’ specialist. Her main task is to buy condoms, by the millions, and to distribute them amongst the refugees in the camps. They fell in love, and some weeks ago, Esmeralda got pregnant. Guess Dario was even too much for a couple of millions condoms.. Dario told me yesterday the best thing to do is to quit his job and take her with him back to Sicily. End of mission.

We will sigh of relief when Dario leaves… We have more trouble with him than with the hundreds of thousands of refugees. It seems every day, he comes up with an other horror story. But I have to admit, he is funny.

March 1995: Robbed
It seems as the local militia were robbed of their regular income when Dario leaving -they robbed him several times- and looked for other resources. I was one of them. They broke into my car, and stole a briefcase. A lesson to be learned for the future: leave nothing in the car. Not in Brussels, not in Goma.

The lovelier this countryside is, the more dangerous people make it. The local policemen and Zairean soldiers, who have not been paid for 13 months, are looking for alternative ways to make a living. A malcontent local population sees their country and resources consumed by the refugees. On top of that, the security situation in the camps is considered as 'fragile', as the exiled Rwanda military and militia are rumoured to prepare an invasion into their country again...

April 1995: Bribes at Goma airport
My mission has ended. Alex, another fellow radio amateur will take over my job. His job, in Kigali-Rwanda is taken over by another good friend of mine, Mark. It is a small world. Alain, my boss, came to Goma for the hand-over. As we can’t find a room for him in Goma, he ends up in my room. As we crawl into the double bed at night, in the dark (the electricity is always cut at night), I tell him: ‘you know, this is probably the only job in the world which requires me to sleep with my boss on the first day we meet’. He does not think it was funny.

Goma gives me a goodbye to remember. Goma airport is a mess. Just a few days ago, one of the local commercial cargo planes from ‘Air Zaire’, which we nicknamed ‘Air Peut-Etre’ – ‘Air Maybe’, referring to their frequent breakdowns and regular crashes, had the wooden stubs, blocking its wheels, stolen during the night. A strong wind got the plane moving. The slight slope in the tarmac guided the plane crashing into two others. They are fixing them now.. I am sure they will flying again tomorrow.

We are flying out with a small twin engine plane. We are standing next to it for a few hours, waiting for – I don’t know what. As I watch the car of the UNHCR security officer drive up the airport, I know there is trouble. The guy shakes his head as he tells us the story. The police just arrested one of the passengers of our plane, accusing him of 'trespassing’ as he was going from the checkin area to immigration.

‘Trespassing’.. And this on, what must be the only international airport in the world where children play football on the runway, giving a time-out when a Boeing approaches to land. There is a busy road on one side of the runway, and a village on the other side, so the people often cross the runway to go from one side to the other.
A few months ago, a twin engine plane caught, in the midst of its take-off, a man who had tried to cross the runway right in front of the plane. The pilot had refused to land, in fear of a lynch party revenging the death of the unfortunate jaywalker, and continued to fly to Entebbe near Kampala – Uganda. They found an arm still stuck in the landing gear after landing in Entebbe. As the story goes, the pilot was arrested, accused for smuggling body parts.

After two hours of discussion, we give up and leave our unfortunate passenger behind. The authorities insist he pays US$1,000 for illegal trespassing, and out of principle, the guy refuses to pay what was clearly a bribe.

As we take off and gain height, I look over the town, the lake –showing bright green yellow colours because of it sulphuric underground, and the fuming volcanoes surrounding it. Behind the volcanoes, the valleys are filled with thousands and thousands of blue and white tiny white dots: the refugee camps. Small huts with UNHCR tarpaulins as a roof, for as far as the eye can see.

I think how fortunate I am to have the choices. My choice was to leave at the end of my mission in Goma. I can leave, I can get on a plane, and within a few hours I will be in a comfortable air-conditioned hotel in Nairobi. Tomorrow I will be home, half a world away. But below me, close to 2 million people can not. They do not have a choice. They have to stay there. Who knows for how long? Two months, two years, twenty years? Was it Nietzsche who said ‘Choices are a curse for men’. I think they are a blessing. I feel blessed at that moment. I vow never to forget again how blessed I am.


No, the refugees were not to stay there for 20 years. Not even two years.. Eighteen months later, all of the camps were emptied. Two million people were pushed back into Burundi and Rwanda or driven into the bush like cattle as the troops of the Congolese rebel –later to be president- Kabila moved North and East. Those that did not move fast enough were slaughtered. Thousands and thousands died of starvation, exhaustion, diseases in the jungle. Some of them walked for thousands of miles crossing the entire Congolese jungle from Goma, Bukavu, Uvira to Mbandaka or even Kinshasa. That is the entire Congo from East to West. On foot. Women, children, elderly people. No clothes, no food, no nothing. Humanitarian agencies were scrambling to set up half-way refugee camps along the escape routes trying to shelter those on the move. One thing remained the same, though: They Had No Choice.

Virunga Mountains picture, courtesy of Raffaele Ciriello

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