History's Traffic Jam

DR Congo, January 28, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Reuters/Stringer, courtesy www.alertnet.org  </span>
    A Congolese soldier looks at a truck carrying Rwandan soldiers through the town of Rutshuru in Congo's violence-ravaged North Kivu province January 24. Photo: Reuters/Stringer, courtesy www.alertnet.org

This afternoon, on the way back to the office from Mugunga II Camp, our team was caught in massive gridlock almost as soon as we hit Goma's city limits. As we inched forward, everyone in our vehicle wondered what could be causing the snarl.

An accident, maybe? A parade? Or worse, some trouble up ahead?
No, it ended up being CNDP rebels at a local gas station. They were climbing into huge open-bed trucks with their erstwhile enemies, Congolese government soldiers. Literally hundreds of citizens had gathered along the road  — some standing on top of their cars — to watch this event. After all, it was history being made.
This very public mixing of two former adversaries is called "brassage" here in Congo. It's used when militias such as the CNDP integrate into the national army, forming a unified fighting force. The truce that was signed just as I arrived last week — along with the recent arrest of rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda — paved the way for this moment.
And it is, according to everyone from displaced people to regional analysts, a critical step toward a long-awaited peace. So everyone gawked as Congolese government soldiers in their drab olive-green fatigues stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their camouflage-clad CNDP compatriots. I'm sure few ever thought they'd see it happen; most feared a much different outcome once the rebels reached Goma.
But the soldiers seem surprisingly at ease. Some are laughing. They are packed into the truck like cargo — fearsome human cargo bundled with automatic machine guns and rocket launchers.
A local policeman dressed in yellow stops traffic so that the military trucks can pull onto the road from the gas station. The trucks head westward; it looks like they're ready to rumble. Most likely, that rumble will be felt across eastern Congo for the foreseeable future.
I just hope it will lead to peace, because so many in Mugunga II and other camps are depending on it.
Meanwhile, I've heard and read that General Bosco Ntaganda, Nkunda's former CNDP chief of staff and second-in-command, has been spending his days in Goma. In fact, one article stated that he was seen sipping coffee at a local café that overlooks Lake Kivu. This is a guy wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, including conscription of child soldiers.
I was at that particular café on the day in question, on that same balcony. In fact, I am seriously wondering if I might have said "bon soir" to an indicted war criminal.
But that's the state of affairs in and around Goma: rebel generals are relaxing by the lake. Their former subordinates are on their way to fight fearsome insurgents who hide in primeval forests. Most everyone else is convinced that peace is finally at hand.
Still, questions linger: Is the enemy of my enemy my friend, or a means to an end, or an unpredictable companion on the road to peace?