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Sunday, 20 January, 2002, 18:54 GMT
Goma: A hard place to leave
Goma
The town is now devastated by lava
By the BBC's former correspondent in Rwanda, Chris Simpson

Until recently Goma had the feel of an out-of-season resort.

In colonial times, Belgian tourists and other visitors packed into the hotels on Lake Kivu, the more adventurous ready to trek into the nearby volcanoes or go to see the mountain gorillas in the Virunga national park, which straddles the Congolese-Rwandan border.

Seeking his own lakeside relaxation, Congolese President Mobutu Sese Seko built himself an opulent palace on the outskirts of town.

Goma later became famous for all the wrong reasons.

Infamous

Years of mismanagement and neglect brought a sharp economic decline.

A woman carrying bundles and baby as she flees Goma
People fled Goma with everything they could carry

But it was Goma's proximity to Rwanda which became its curse.

In 1994, hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees poured across the border.

Huge camps were set up and dozens of relief organisations moved in.

The refugee population included many of the organisers of the Rwandan genocide, who later formed a militia army, carrying out deadly cross-border raids from bases in the mountains.

Rwanda predictably hit back, first sponsoring a rebellion led by Laurent Kabila in 1996 and then setting up the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) to try to remove Kabila.

Goma became the rebels' capital.

But the RCD never won much support from the local population.

Rebels and bars

Affable, but supremely incompetent, rebel cadres spent more time in the hotel bars and swish headquarters than close to the fighting, toying with cell-phones, fixing rendezvous and fielding journalists' enquiries.

DR Congo map

The locals denounced them as Rwandan stooges and were not shy about making their feelings known.

Even at the border post, where visas for rebel territory were provided at considerable cost, officials offered caustic commentaries on "the clowns we have in charge".

From 1994 onwards, dozens of foreign journalists visited Goma.

The stories were often bleak: displacement, disease, destruction.

I remember sitting amidst the rubble after an air raid the previous evening, getting eloquent, angry testimonies from survivors. "Why us? Why is it always us?" people asked.

Doctors at the pitifully under-resourced local hospital opened their doors to us, making sure we got the full picture.

Hidden city

But that anger was often tempered by vigorous good humour and a sense of the ridiculous.

Despite the frequent security problems outside town, Goma was an easy place to walk around, but difficult to get lost in, with a huge thoroughfare running through the centre.

Bar-room conversations came easily.

The discos stayed open late. There were always hints of a hidden city, exotic hotel guests conducting secret deals, mysterious planes flying in an out of the airport.

Visitors leaving the hotel ran a gauntlet of tax-drivers, fixers and salesmen.

There were hard-luck stories and requests for hand-outs, but the repartee had no malice.

It was easy to build a good rapport with a favourite taxi-driver. The rates were always negotiable, the gossip was always vintage.

Goma became a difficult place to leave.


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