This Op-Doc video shows just one scene from a violent saga that has consumed the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998. Over that time the conflict has left more than five million dead and churned up hundreds of thousands of refugees, a result of the constant battle for control over the country’s abundant supply of precious minerals. The epicenter of the fighting is Goma, one of the largest cities in this central African nation and where this Op-Doc segment was filmed. For more than a decade, Rwandan-backed rebel groups based in Goma have been trying to overthrow Congo’s national government, which is plagued by corruption.
This is not a typical story of good versus evil. Over the years, soldiers on both sides have been known to terrorize local populations, killing and raping with abandon (and impunity), emptying entire villages of their residents with little more than what they can carry on their heads. Precious possessions are left in ruins when villages are attacked. One beleaguered man told me, “When the bombing begins, even children are left behind.”
The events shown in this film took place in the summer of 2012. I followed ordinary Congolese farmers as they fled their besieged villages and undertook the long, dangerous journey along the road from Goma toKanyaruchinya Refugee Camp. Along the way, refugees were caught in the cross-fire during the first major push toward Goma by the rebels, known as M23. After a day’s walk, they made it to the I.D.P. (internally displaced person) camp — a temporary home to more than 60,000 people scattered over harsh lava rock terrain. The respite from violence was short-lived. Less than five months later, M23 rebels defeated the Congolese army (known as F.A.R.D.C., for its French name, Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo) and took Goma, forcing refugees to flee yet again. The M23 (and other rebel factions) have forced an estimated half million people from their homes in the past four years.
I am in Congo now, on F.A.R.D.C. front lines a few miles outside of Goma — witnessing the war firsthand as the Congolese army engages with M23 positions. One year after I recorded the footage shown in this Op-Doc, little has changed for the population — the faces may be different, but the scenes are tragically still the same. The future is highly uncertain. (I am given a rare bit of hope by the new ground force commanding officer, Col. Mamadou Moustafa, who has increased order and discipline among his government troops and is regarded as a hero by some of the population in Goma.)
In the coming weeks, an unprecedented United Nations-sponsored counterinsurgency is expected to send 3,000 soldiers to the front lines in an attempt to eradicate an amassing M23 army. Civilians are bracing for what could be some of the most violent fighting in the region in years.