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They Always Come in the Night

From the North Kivu capital of Goma, it takes an hour by helicopter to reach Walikale, a town in eastern Congo’s largest and most troubled territory. With less than 2,000 miles of paved roads across the entire Democratic Republic, Walikale, like much of the North Kivu province it dominates, is virtually inaccessible by road, making frequent UN helicopter flights a necessity to resupply both the UN and Congolese troops stationed in the area. The view along the way is a montage of every image of equatorial beauty conceivable, from jagged volcanic tips to the neatly tended hillside farms that stretch for miles before giving way to a rolling, dense, green forest of trees through which an occasional stream or cluster of thatched-roof huts stands out.

Life for most villagers here consists of what profit they can glean from small trade, subsistence farming and the gruelling labour of the mineral mines for which the town is best known. But there is a natural abundance to the land that is evident to everyone; enough so that each conversation I have – with a soldier, with the owner of a small grocery store, with a group of teenage boys on the side of the road – includes both an acknowledgement of Walikale’s vast riches and the price the territory has had to pay for them. That price informs the fierce scepticism behind each of these conversations, every one of which ends in a request for money, not out of the supplicant’s greed or poverty, but out of the sense that I, like so many others, am profiting from their labour. This is a place as awash in natural wealth as it is in armed groups, from Rwandan rebels to domestic cadres, who, along with the Congolese military responsible for defeating them, have wreaked a collective havoc on a population living in what could be an Edenic corner of the earth.

The UN military base perched on Walikale’s highest hill is a sprawling single-storey brick compound rumoured to have been the former home of a Belgian colonist. From there, the few hundred wooden homes and stores, the football field and the town centre seem to have been conjured out of a need to stake human claim to the ground. It is as if the town, when compared to the jungle that surrounds it, was built in defiance of the trees and towering bush that stand ready to reclaim the sprawling acres of cleared land on which it sits.

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