DR Congo – Kibumba revisited [repost]

[First posted 13.05.09]

Behind the page – i

Behind the page is going to be an occasional series of stories about the making of pictures, some of the things that were significant in choosing the picture concerned, or maybe some bits about kit. This entry was triggered by re-visiting Goma in March for Tearfund.

In June 1994, I was working for relief and development agency Tearfund as their staff photographer. The genocide in Rwanda had started in the early April, and we’d been watching the horror unfold, feeling powerless to even know where to begin to help. Tearfund had a number of church partner organisations in the region, but there was no clear way of working in the country. The mainly-Tutsi RPF invaded Rwanda from Uganda during May, in an attempt to stop the killing. As they moved south through the country, large numbers of the population fled, partly due to propaganda by the Interahamwe (who’d led the killing) and partly to get away from the fighting. Over a million went into Tanzania, with a similar number crossing the border into what was then Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), at Goma.

Very rapidly, within a day or two, enormous refugee cities sprung up, along the road north from Goma, and to the west, deeper into Zaire. The region is heavily volcanic, and many of the camps were built directly on old lava fields, which made it very difficult to dig pit latrines, and with the huge numbers of people in such a dense space, inevitably disease spread rapidly, with a massive cholera epidemic killing thousands.

I flew into Goma (via nights in Athens and Entebbe) on Tearfund’s first relief plane, which contained blankets and water containers. Goma airport was flooded with flights, aircraft arriving every few minutes with aid for the refugees, and the airstrip was starting to break up with all the heavy traffic.

Over the next three days, I travelled across the town and to the north, trying to make some sense of what was going on. I was only 25, and had never covered a story anything like this one – there were bodies lying along the sides of the road, wrapped in sleeping mats, a constant smell of dying and woodsmoke, and dazed, exhausted people wandering everywhere.

I made very few ‘good’ or even useful pictures over those three days, which was a lesson in itself. I later talked with Mike Goldwater, who founded the agency Network Photographers, about my images from Goma, and he said, ‘it looks like you weren’t enjoying this’. Which I wasn’t. But what he impressed on me was the point that the only reason I was there was to get the picture back, the story told. There was no point me driving some Landrover around, or trying to help sick people – those weren’t my skills. What I could do was tell the story, and that might make a difference if it made people think and respond.

In the end, there was enough strong material for Tearfund to launch an appeal on the back of, and a significant amount of money was raised, and a lot of people across the Great Lakes region were helped. But having a clarity of purpose and understanding of the story was something that I’ve tried to carry with me since – particularly on return visits to the Great Lakes region (this latest was my fifth in fifteen years), and in Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo/Albania, which were all smaller versions of this story.

One of the reasons I was very keen to visit Congo (and especially Goma) this time was to see what had changed, and what the needs are now. I also really wanted to see the area where Kibumba camp had been. We’d been driving back from a church service in a smaller camp (in 1994), and driven past the huge, breathtaking and truly shocking site of Kibumba. I’d stopped and taken maybe ten frames, which gave the image that communicated most clearly from that first visit:

Kibumba camp, Zaire, June 1994 :: Photo copyright Tearfund.

This time, we had one day going north, to Rutshuru, still a volatile area. On the way back, we passed the same spot, only now there were no crowds, just a handful of UN peacekeepers:

Kibumba, March 2009

Kibumba on the road from Rutshuru to Goma, March 2009. Photo Richard Hanson/Tearfund.

The situation is very different on the surface, though there are still a lot of men with guns around. There aren’t the massive camps any more, but the ones that are there are still horrible to live in:

Nzulo, nr Goma

Nzulo IDP camp, near Goma, March 2009. Photo Richard Hanson/Tearfund.

And most of the camp residents are now Congolese, not Rwandan, but are still afraid for their lives and families. The war that’s driven them from their homes is the legacy of the 1994 genocide, as many of the armed groups in Eastern Congo, and in North Kivu in particular, are there as a result of that conflict. Many of the Interahamwe, the mainly-Hutu militia who choreographed the 1994 genocide still live in Eastern Congo, and wield significant power locally. There seems to still be a long way to go before there is stable and meaningful peace for North Kivu.

If you want to know more about the situation in Kibumba at that time, there is a powerful and harrowing SitRep (Situation Report) from Barbara Smith of the IRC on Colombia University’s website. If you want to know some of the background to the Rwandan genocide, Romeo Dallaire’s almost unreadable account of UN peacekeeping in Kigali ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’ or Philip Gourevitch’s ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families’ are both harrowing but essential reads. Another take on the time is Lesley Bilinda’s ‘With What Remains’, the story of a Scottish aid worker’s search for the truth about her Tutsi husband who died during the genocide. I photographed some of her journey, and she’s a personal friend.


richard hanson :: photographer :: sheffield