Stoves vs. Guns

DR Congo, January 22, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Eighteen months ago, the Rusako family fled their village, leaving all their belongings behind as rebel troops advanced. They lost everything. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

Today is going to be a busy day: I'm visiting four separate displacement camps with our environmental teams. But before that, we have to get out of Goma, and that's not proving easy with heavy traffic, crowds of people and truckloads of soldiers everywhere.

Right after leaving the office, we drive past a transport full of boisterous Congolese government troops. They're singing something at the top of their lungs. I make eye contact and smile, which immediately feels like a mistake. At least a dozen gazes turn to mine, and the soldiers start shouting and gesturing. It's a tense moment that seems to last all morning. But when the traffic finally moves, we continue toward the camps and they make their way north to the emerging battlefront.

And that's what it seems like here around Goma: there are the soldiers, and then there is everyone else. I've been around military forces before in places like Uganda and Kosovo, but it feels different here. Uneasy. Unpredictable.

Near to the edge of town, I see a boy of not more than ten pushing a cart laden with cabbages. A soldier is berating him for something. The boy's t-shirt reads "Peace and Reconciliation" on the back; the shirt is torn and dirty, but the words are bold and clear.

Minutes later, we pull through a police checkpoint into our first camp: Buhimba, a place with almost 3,700 households comprising 13,200 people. Then comes Mugunga II, where there are at least 4,600 households and 15,000 people. I talk with courageous camp leaders, civilians who've been through hell but have stepped up to help their neighbors endure. They're Mercy Corps' partners in lifesaving work here, which includes delivering truckloads of fresh drinking water.

I visit plant nurseries that hold the hope of thousands of seedlings, trees that will be planted around the camps and, someday soon, bear fruit and firewood that will be collected by the hands that planted them.

I walk with children, sometimes giving them friendly fist-bumps, drawing out laughter that spreads across the lava-crusted terrain.

The third camp we visit is called Bulengo. It is a beautiful place, really, set among green hillocks that overlook Lake Kivu. There are 5,720 households here right now — at least 25,000 people. The camp stretches a full mile from one side to the other.

We walk around and are soon invited into the tiny thatch-and-tarpaulin hut of 25-year-old Nibizi Rusako and his family: Block 28, Number 19, Bulengo Camp. Nibizi wants to show us the improved cookstove that he and his wife constructed with Mercy Corps' help. They are very proud to show us how it works and quick to mention how much wood it saves (it uses less than half of the wood consumed by traditional cooking methods). It also connects them to the community: since October, more than 4,000 such stoves have been built, vastly reducing the amount of wood that has to be chopped and collected from nearby forests.

While he puts kindling on the fire that will cook their lunch, he tells us his family's story. Eighteen months ago, he, his 20-year-old wife Zaniga and their three children walked more than a day here from their home village of Karuba. They had to flee suddenly, leaving everything behind as rebel troops advanced. The family lost everything, including Nibizi's business as a beer merchant.

Since their arrival here, Zaniga has given birth to another child — a daughter. Two of their children are in a school here at the camp. They are receiving water and firewood regularly from Mercy Corps.

But Nibizi wants to work. Zaniga wants a place where she can grow — or even buy — food for her family. They both want peace. It is what they deserve.

On our way from Bulengo to our next destination, a camp called Mugunga I, we pass by a group of children. One of them is brandishing a handgun that looks frighteningly real. I ask the driver to stop for a picture, which I took and am attaching to this journal entry.

I wondered what the gun meant to the children. I wondered if I should take it. I wondered what good or harm anything I did could do.

And then I considered the question of stoves versus guns. In the chaos of eastern Congo, where fear of the present can easily overwhelm hope for the future, which holds more appeal?