Scott Baldauf encounters reverence, hostility – and detention – in his journey into the war-racked southern African nation.
After a week in the villages of eastern Congo, I think I know what it must be like to be Madonna.
Let me explain.
I haven't adopted a child amid controversy and haven't recently adopted an esoteric faith. I haven't recorded albums, altered fashion tastes, or demonstrated the sort of talent that people pay money to see. But I know what it is to set off a frisson of excitement in every town I pass through.
I have even become known to strangers by a single name: "mzungu." The word, in Swahili, means "white guy," but let's not quibble over details. I'm huge in eastern Congo.
I have just returned from a reporting trip covering a guerrilla insurgency between an ethnic Tutsi militia and the Congolese government. To provide balance, the trip required driving into the zone controlled by the Tutsi rebel general, Laurent Nkunda, as well as spending time inside government territory around the city of Goma itself. Passing across battle lines always contains elements of risk, something all of us reporters accepted before taking the trip, but something we would experience in full before the odyssey ended.
Driving through the government checkpoint was simple: There wasn't anybody there. Nobody quizzed us about who we were and where we were going. Next came the UN peacekeepers, who waved. About 100 yards later, we met the Nkunda rebels. We descended from our cars, shook hands, and introduced ourselves. One of the men I shook hands with, I later discovered, was an accused war criminal, Gen. Ntaganda Bosco. "I'm just visiting," he told me. "Me, too," I replied.
The front lines of the stubborn war divide the town of Sake in half. While the government side of the city is busy, thriving with commercial activity, the Nkunda side is a ghost town. The only civilians are women and young children, carrying belongings on their head toward temporary relief camps, away from the front lines.