Is it safe? I respond in a questioning tone. Safer then hanging out in the border town of Goma, the man answers.
Congo, which accurately is known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been through years of a corrupt government, followed by years of internal and external conflict. Not a good recipe for creating a stable situation. It was hoped the recent elections would bring some stability, but this window of opportunity appears to be closing. Especially in the Kivu Province of the DRC, where Gen. Nkunda operates.
Laurent Nkunda is wanted for human rights abuse by some organizations.
But, as always, things are not so black and white as we wish them to be.
Nkunda is not a self-appointed general, but is a former officer in the DRC army. He once fought with current President Kabila of the DRC against the corrupt Mobutu government.
U.N. officials blame the general for creating a humanitarian crisis; crediting his actions have displaced 230,000 people. The people who support Nkunda say it is the fault of the U.N. for not disarming the Hutu who fled from Rwanda to escape justice after the genocide of 1994.
Yes, I would welcome the opportunity to meet the general.
Early in the morning a CNDP party official (National Congress for the Defense of the People), of which the general belongs to, picks me up at my hotel.
We approach a police checkpoint where they request to see my visa. I show him the visa receipt and watch his eye movement, it is clear to me that he can’t read. Another soldier along the roadside makes a hand motion asking for cigarettes. Satisfied and bewildered that I am just a tourist, the policeman waves us through.
We turn off the main road and begin working our way to the mountain headquarters of the renegade general. We pass villages and green hillsides that remind me of New Zealand, the beauty is breath taking. At some point one of my passengers says; “ we are now in the area controlled by the general.”
Nothing special marks the location, same looking soldiers, same looking villages and villagers and same looking cows.
No one seems to pay much attention to us as we weave our way deeper into the rural countryside.
Eventually we arrive at the farm that poses as the general’s headquarters and discover he is in a nearby village delivering a seminar. A soldier jumps inside our car to direct us to the specific location.
Thirty minutes later we pull into a guarded compound in the village of Kitchanga. After being frisked for weapons we walk into a church and find Gen. Nkunda giving a lecture to a pack house of woman. The theme for the seminar; peace and reconciliation begins with the woman of the village. The pulpit is nothing new for the Tutsi general; he is also a Seventh Day Adventist priest who happens to speak seven languages.
During one of the breaks of the three-hour lecture, the general walks over and shakes my hand saying, “you are most welcome here.” During the session he asks questions that illicit responses from the audience, generally with the same answer, “Ma Ma.”
He opens a bible and reads a verse from Genesis 15 in the Old Testament and asks; are you going to be bitter water or create living water? Towards the end Gen. Nkunda addresses questions from the audience, more like a town hall meeting then a seminar.
With a flurry of heavily armed bodyguards around him, the general finally leaves to tour the village and meet with the local village chief with us in tow. Looking at the armed rocket launchers carried by some of the soldiers I have a passing thought, what am I doing here?
At the village chief’s home, I am invited to sit down for dinner at the table with everyone as an honored guest. In a rare one-on-one moment standing outside, I ask the general what was the purpose of the seminar?
“Peace and reconciliation begins with the woman of the village, with Ma Ma, and we are promoting it here with our leadership,” he says. “We will talk more later at my headquarters; you can ask me what ever you wish.”