The Hotel Ishango was a lonely place in 1998. Laurent Kabila’s government, only a few months old, was starting to crumble and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was once again engulfed in civil war. By the time I arrived in Goma, the country had effectively been divided in two: the eastern half controlled by a myriad rebel groups and the western portion by the regime in Kinshasa. The latter was supported by the armies of several neighbouring countries, while the rebels – in central Africa’s worst kept secret – had the backing of Rwanda and Uganda. Needless to say, Goma, headquarters of the Congolese Rally for Democracy rebel group, had fallen off the tourist map.
As a result, the Ishango had undergone what might be termed a ‘restructuring’. The genial General Manager now also waited tables and tended the bar, while the receptionist, Kennedy, doubled as concierge and housekeeper. When not changing sheets or handing out keys – and out of earshot of the GM – Kennedy liked to reminisce about the ‘better days’ under Mobutu Sese Seko.
A week after I checked in, we were joined by a team from US magazine, Newsweek, and a South African cameraman working for Swedish TV. Their presence bolstered occupancy levels, bringing to five the total number of guests. Kennedy and his boss were almost reduced to tears by thoughts how our custom would boost the monthly turnover figures. Primus beer sales would also soar.
My ’98 visit lasted two weeks and included a trip to a town called Kalemie on the banks of Lake Tanganyika. We’d flown in on a decrepit Ukrainian-registered Antanov to be shown a recently discovered mass grave. The rebels claimed it was the work of the infamous Interahamwe militia, complicit in the murder of around 800 thousand people in Rwanda four years prior. Truth, however, had been one of the conflict’s casualties and, in the madness of a war fought on multiple fronts, we would likely be the last to know who was killing whom in that god-forsaken corner of the country.
I kept a lookout for the Ishango when a Carte Blanche assignment took me back to Goma last week. The provincial capital of North Kivu had changed significantly in the intervening years. Despite years of virtually constant instability and conflict, most recently during the occupation by M23 rebels, there was an air of prosperity about the place. Clearly, the town was benefitting from the inflow of foreign currency that was a welcome by-product of the massive UN peacekeeping presence. It was still poor – desperately so in parts – but it was better. Sadly, though, the Ishango proved elusive: it had either closed or faded into obscurity.
The UN mission – Monusco by its acronym – is imperfect. Established in 1999 to keep a peace that never really existed, it has been hamstrung by bureaucratic indifference, an unnecessarily top-heavy structure and the ill-discipline and criminality of some of its personnel. But, most recently, it has become the only hope of salvation for millions of civilians at the mercy of local and foreign rebels running rampant in the east of the country. Their arms and supplies are bought with profits derived from the black market sale of minerals, timber and charcoal. Their ideologies are fuelled by a perverse concoction of ethnicity, language and religion. And their contempt for local villagers is revealed in regular orgies of violence and depravity.
But, in 2013 the UN did something it had been urged to do ever since its scandalous obliviousness during the Rwandan genocide two decades earlier: it decided to enforce peace where none existed to keep. It established a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), mandated to use lethal force to rid the DRC of foreign rebel armies, and turned it loose on the infamous M23.
The rebels were routed in a decisive military offensive that was led by a battalion of South African Defence Force soldiers, and supported by the now legendary Rooivalk combat support helicopter. Unconfirmed reports from the battlefield also hinted at a significant contribution by South African Special Forces.
And, with the M23 now a fast-fading memory, the operation has turned its sights on a treacherous rebel group running amok in the almost impenetrable forests about 400km north of Goma. Known as the ADF, they have earned a reputation as determined and relentless fighters, fuelling their violence on a toxic misappropriation of Islam. But, as with M23, they’re being pursued by a conventional military increasingly well-versed in jungle warfare. Once defeated, due attention will be paid to the groups that remain.
And, when the time comes for the FIB to leave, I wonder if Kennedy – perhaps, by then, a manager at a shiny new hotel with more than five guests – will be among the throngs waving them off at the airport.