Walikale is notorious, even within eastern Congo. The FDLR—the French acronym for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a militia of Hutu extremists with links to the 1994 genocide—have long had their bush headquarters here, well situated to exploit the area's wealth of mineral resources. For over a decade, their forces have preyed with impunity on the local population.
Many miles away, in the refugee camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of eastern Congo, we hear the terrible stories of those who have fled the area and made it to temporary safety. But hearing their stories is not the same as seeing what their lives are like, and what happens when the FDLR invades their homes.
In February 2009, a smoke signal guided the helicopter I was riding to a clearing hacked out of the bush atop a mountain. This was my first trip to the Walikale heartland. Congo and Rwanda had launched a joint military operation to rout the FDLR, and I was dropped into the bush—along with about two dozen sacks of rubber boots—to observe the Rwanda Defense Forces (RDF).
We covered 30 mountainous kilometers that day on treacherous, muddy footpaths. We passed isolated villages. All were filled with raggedy children who stared at me—the first "muzinga" they had ever seen. And all recounted the same terrible tales of abuse, killing and rape at the hands of the FDLR, and the total absence of a security force to protect them.
Donald, 16, had a rare weapon for defending the village, an AK-47. He told me he had stolen it from a drunken FDLR soldier. But it was no use against the superior numbers and overwhelming firepower of the FDLR.
The inhabitants of a neighboring village emerged on a footpath, carrying all their belongings on their heads, fleeing the FDLR. They were loaded down with everything from schoolbooks to sewing machines, foam mattresses and children. Throughout this visit, the only FDLR I encountered were captives of the RDF. The rest kept themselves well concealed in the bush.
I returned to the area eight months later. The United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) had just set up a tiny outpost to receive combatants and refugees who wanted to be repatriated. There were some FDLR soldiers hanging around the village; they lived in the bush, coming out to prey on the population—blatantly, even with MONUC there. A man and a woman were attacked in broad daylight less than 500 meters from the UN post.
Villagers slept in the bush for security and returned to the village during the day to impersonate normal lives. The local head teacher told me how the children would all flee into the bush at the sound of a gunshot, and how he would call them back to the classroom when it was safe by ringing a bell. No matter how difficult the circumstances, people are determined for their lives to go on.
Returning to Goma—a million miles away, it seemed—I visited an IDP camp where I ran into Eleemu and her young family, whom I had first met in February 2009. They were among those who had fled the FDLR. Their village is in a beautiful area—lush, resplendent—a Garden of Eden. But now they were huddled atop lava rocks, under plastic sheeting. Her children were listless and frighteningly skinny, a shadow of the cheerful high-spirited group I had met months earlier.
What I have seen on these trips is only a microcosm of what is going on in eastern Congo as a whole, most of it in remote villages, rarely observed by outsiders. I asked a little 6-year-old girl who had never before seen a "muzinga" if she thought I was the only one in the world, or if there were others. "Oh no," she replied enthusiastically, "I know there are others! They live in the helicopters and airplanes."
Susan Schulman reported from Darfur for the Pulitzer Center in 2009.