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The fog of war slowly lifts in the Congo

Dec 9, 2014
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Dario Wangeyo Kassuku, who just turned 80, can tell you what happens when 2 million desperate people flee for their lives through your town. 

“The Rwandan refugees, with some militias, they took all the cattle,” he says, transporting himself back to 1997. 

Kassuku owns a large farm in Masisi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, about 50 miles from the border with Rwanda. “I lost 7,000 head of cattle, but for all the farmers, 650,000 head of cattle. They broke the houses, they broke the tea factories, everything was broken” he says. 

Rwanda’s genocide spilled into the country in spectacular fashion in the 1990s.

The Rwandan government invaded Congo after accusing the country of harboring forces that tried to exterminate millions of Tutsis, an ethnic group.  The fragile Congolese state collapsed, and two wars were fought between up to 50 different militias and armed groups and nine African countries over control of the area. The most conservative estimates put the death toll near a million, but others estimates say 6 million. Accounts of mass rape, slavery, massacre and chaos trickled out through the fog of war. 

That fog of war has slowly been lifting.  A highly imperfect peace prevailed in 2002, and an inconsistently followed constitution was passed in 2006.  Dozens of armed groups still occupy the region’s hinterlands, and they can explode back onto the scene in terrifying fashion as they did in 2008 when members of the rebel group National Congress for the Defense of People threatened to take over the Eastern Capital of Goma, or in 2012 when M23 rebel forces actually did. This fall,dozens of people were massacred in the town of Beni by as-yet-unidentified assailants.

But the breaches are becoming more intermittent, and the United Nations forces here, known as MONUSCO, have started taking a more active role in maintaining order. 

Meanwhile, the citizens of Eastern Congo try to rebuild their lives. It’s a difficult, unrelenting task.

“Things began to be a bit better, I think today it’s much easier,” Kassuku says. 

His farm is doing much better these days, and he’s producing cheese and butter. But easier does not mean easy. The infrastructure here is still in shambles.  Few roads are paved, and electricity is only on half the day.

“Sometimes you’ve got no running water,” he says, while noting that it rains year-round. “There’s water everywhere, except in the tap!” he says, and chuckles. 

And yet, despite the country’ many infrastructure problems, there are many signs of progress and recovery.

In a nearby shopping center across from an abandoned grocery store, the hum of a bread slicer is audible over the sounds of traffic and French music.    

“We are in the Boulangerie au Bon Pain,” says Vanessa Jados, Kassuku’s daughter-in-law and owner of the newest, and reportedly only, French bakery in Goma, Eastern Congo’s capital city.

Jados started this bakery not far from the U.N. base here. It’s part of an economic stirring in the region that’s taking advantage of a general decline in violence over the past decade. In Goma that trend has been especially noticeable over the past few years.

“Chocolate tart, strawberry tart, pineapple tart, mille-feuille,” Jados ticks off the glistening pastries in her display case. She brought in a French pastry chef to train local cooks, and has a French intern. They start each day at 5 a.m.

“Why? Because I like good things.  Good croissants, good bread, and here it was a problem because we don’t have it,” she says.  

Jados was one of the lucky ones who were sent away to school as children during the worst of the conflict.  Like many Congolese, she came back.

Mwanza Singoma, who heads the chamber of commerce for the North Kivu province, was among those who left and returned.  “When I asked them the question, ‘Why did you come back?’  The answer you almost always get is: ‘Because it’s home.  It’s home.’”

“I knew the country before the conflict, before there were major problems, I knew the country as peaceful, the way we used to walk around, conduct business, I was like – why can’t this come back again at some point?”

That kind of normalcy is more evident over the past year or two, Singoma says.  Safety is the bare minimum for starting a business –  the business environment is in about as good of shape as the roads. 

“There aren’t roads here, they’re still building them, so you need to find a good spot.  We also need a generator for electricity, and fuel is expensive,” says Jados of her bakery.  “Eh voila,” she says, with a sigh.

The World Bank ranks countries each year by how easy it is to do business in them.  Congo is number 184 – out of 189. That’s because the roads and electricity have issues … but so does the government bureaucracy. 

When her equipment arrived, “people were everywhere bothering us about tax X or tax Y, there’s always something new you have to pay,” Jados says.

It wasn’t clear if all of the taxes were even real, she says.  In some ways the bureaucracy and tax laws bring to mind the plantation economy of 50 years ago, not the postwar emerging economy of today.  

“I’m trying to do something to make conditions better for people,” Jados says, and the government “should be helping.”

Businesses like Jados’ have been successful in lobbying the government to lower some barriers to importing and onerous duties on exporting.  And even though Congo is still near the bottom of that World Bank survey, it’s also one of the top 10 most improved in the world this year. Gross domestic product has tripled since 2007.

“You can’t live in fear,” says Jados.  “I have two small children, you have to be optimistic. There’s so much left to do here.”

Kassuku, the farmer, never had as many cattle as he once did, but he has started planting fruit trees. “Graft orange, graft mango, pineapple, passion fruit for a fresh juice factory,” he says, expressing hope that he can connect with smaller farmers to improve the economy. 

In the interim he hasn’t been idle.  He’s built a health clinic for his neighbors and repaired 45 miles of road.

“Bon,” he says.  “You have to do something.  If we do nothing, then nothing will be done!” 

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