February in Eastern Congo—the rainy season. Heat, humidity and mud. The makeshift roads had a bone-shaking familiarity to them. It had been a year since I was last in Eastern Congo.
I’ve been working here for over 10 years now. Congo has a magnetic pull. The spectacular natural beauty coupled with the intense brutality keeps one in a perpetual state of anxiety and awe – how can one be in heaven and hell all at the same time? The people relate terrifying stories of violence and brutality but their resilience and, often, good humor makes them unforgettable. They compel you to tell their story and to return to keep telling their story.
In February 2013, people were still nervous after the rebellion led by the M23 movement a few months before. Although the rebels had officially withdrawn from Goma, the regional capital of North Kivu, they were only a few kilometers out of town. Rumors persisted that many were still in Goma but wearing civilian clothes, ready at any moment to don their uniforms and take up arms again. Lake Kivu was calm, the quiet before the storm.
Away from Goma, on the road heading west hugging the lake, Congolese soldiers were everywhere. They’d been forced to withdraw during the November fighting and had never returned to Goma. They were patrolling the makeshift roads and camped in villages. They were well-armed and seemed relaxed and unhurried.
Working—especially filming—in Eastern Congo is always challenging. The intensely beautiful landscape, verdant and lush, thrives off the intense heat and regular rainstorms. The lack of roads means perpetual dust or mud or both and the journeys are bone shaking. All enemies of the high-tech video cameras and computers we use today in the world of filmmaking. The locations are often inhospitable and the security situation is unpredictable and frequently dangerous.
I first came here in October 2001. As the world’s media rushed to the Pakistan/Afghan border in the hunt for Bin Laden I found myself blocked. I'd made a film about honor killing in Pakistan the previous year, and I was refused a visa. So I looked to other places. The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières told me, "You have to go to Eastern Congo—there's terrible violence against women. Widespread rape, it’s like a virus and no one is reporting it."
I went to a town called Shabunda. It’s just over an hour’s flight from the regional capital of Goma. Only a small twin-engine plane can cope with the improvised runways in the villages and towns, so you fly low. Climbing just high enough to pass over the smoldering Nyirangongo volcano, over the mountains and then seemingly, endless forest. Suddenly, a small fissure opens up in the jungle, a grass airstrip. I spent five days talking to women of all ages, young girls, young women, middle aged and even elderly women. They described what had happened openly because so many women were being raped. Médecins Sans Frontières estimated that 70 percent of the women in Shabunda had been violated at that time. They were forced to make a terrible choice—stay at home and starve, or go to the fields for food and be raped. What I heard over those five days made a profound impression on me. It has brought me back to Eastern Congo ever since.
I was back once more to make several films – one looking at a new ‘conflict free’ pilot project in a tin mine, and another about rape. Both films reflect the current situation in eastern Congo so well. It’s long been identified that control of the vast mineral wealth of the region is a key driver of this conflict; and wherever there are soldiers and armed militias there is rape. This time the rape tragedy led directly to the Congolese army. They’d gone on the rampage and raped over 79 women and girls over a few nights in November last year, 2012 in a market town called Minova. From previous visits I knew where to find the survivors, who bravely retell their ordeal so we can ensure their voices are heard. But this time I wanted to find the men, perpetrators of rape.
It proved to be a convoluted journey—the prison governors who used to grant access to the prison were now with the rebels; the officials didn’t seem to know what was going on. Those they said were imprisoned, arrested on suspicion for raping in Minova, hadn’t even been there. Finally we established that no one had been arrested. We were going to have to find serving soldiers and get them to explain why they raped. When we did hear their stories it was to prove chilling.
Updated on 05/15/13