Reporting from somewhere

Kinshasa -- Suffering and triumph on a massive scale. All of it under-reported. And frustration. Frustration that no-one seems to be paying attention. That about sums up my posting to the Congo so far.

I have been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for about a year. Can’t really put your finger on what the country is all about? You’re not alone. DR Congo, as it’s known today, Zaire in the past, has been in turmoil for decades. You’ve probably vaguely heard the names of some of its leaders -- Patrice Lumumba, Mobuto Sese Seko, Laurent Desire Kabila, Joseph Kabila… You may not be able to locate it on a map, but chances are that you have some of it in your home -- the country’s soil is among the richest in the world and minerals it produces end up in smartphones, computers and other electronic devices.

Mace-Grace, 11, recovers in a hospital room on March 2, 2018 in Bunia, after she lost her mother, three siblings and her left hand was cut after an attack on her village in the Ituri region in eastern DR Congo. (AFP / John Wessels)

It is a place of incredible contrasts. Dian Fossey, of Gorillas in the Mist film fame, spent months studying gorillas in eastern Congo before conflict forced her to flee and set up her research efforts in Rwanda.

It is also the place of one of the bloodiest wars in recent decades, with between two and five million killed (the exact toll is in dispute) during the Second Congo War between 1998-2003.

It’s the second largest country in Africa, thickly forested, much of it is difficult to access and it has no strategic value to world powers. Maybe that’s why the misery that festers here goes unnoticed.

I came here because of many of these points. I’m quite new to photography and photojournalism and I thought it would be a good place to test myself, learn, and manage myself emotionally. It’s a great opportunity to come to a place that’s not saturated with coverage, though I often find the responsibility of that quite daunting.


The country is currently once again in political turmoil. President Joseph Kabila’s second term legally ended two years ago, but he has sought to maintain his grip on power. Presidential elections, twice postponed, are now scheduled to take place in December 2018. Against this background, inter-ethnic conflicts that have been simmering for years are bubbling up and new ones are erupting.

Which means that working here often ends up going from tragedy to tragedy. Take the past couple of months.

A camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Kalemie, in the Tanganyika region of eastern DR Congo. March 20, 2018. (AFP / John Wessels)
An Internally Displaced Persons camp in Bunia, in the Ituria region in eastern DR Congo. February 27, 2018. (AFP / John Wessels)



In early March, I went to the region of Ituri, which lies in the country’s restive northeast, a part of it on the shores of Lake Albert, with Uganda on the other side.

The two communities who live here -- the Hema cattle herders and the Lendu farmers -- have long fought over land. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, their fight  became a broader, more brutal battle stoked by Rwanda and Uganda, as part of a wider war that played out inside DR Congo’s borders. Some 50,000 people ended up being killed and many more displaced. Eventually the tensions calmed down and people returned to their homes.

This year the conflict flared up again and the people who lived through the nightmare back then are living through deja vu. This year, Lendu villages were attacked in waves -- first people came with machetes, then fires were set to homes, then cattle and other valuables were stolen from the wreckages.

So people flee at the drop of a rumor. These people have lost fathers, sisters, brothers, mothers, children, in the last conflict. They have scars. So you can understand how they would be jumpy.

Myime - Richards, 32, recovers in a hospital room on March 2, 2018 in Bunia, after he lost his wife, three of his four children and suffered severe lacerations to his head and neck after an attack on his village in the region of Ituria. (AFP / John Wessels)
Bawma Yoame, 56, recovers in a hospital room on March 2, 2018 in Bunia, after an attack on his village in the region of Ituria left him severely wounded with multiple lacerations to his head. Mojetha hid in the bush for two nights before reaching Bunia to find help. (AFP / John Wessels)


I met one lady, who had 11 children. She lost six of them in 2003 and now she’s displaced again with the five who remain alive. It’s just crazy, the psychological trauma that these people are going through.

Another lady whom I met can’t use her right arm -- she was attacked with a machete in 2003. This year she lost her husband and now has to take care of her children alone, with one arm.

Alphonsime Mojetha, 54, recovers in a hospital room on March 2, 2018 in Bunia, after an attack on her village where she lost her two children, and received severe lacerations to the back of her head, arms and hands from a machete attack. Mojetha hid in the bush for two nights before reaching Bunia to find help. (AFP / John Wessels)

Having lived through such horror in the past, people are not taking any chances. At the first whisper of a rumor of attacks, people pick up and flee. One night when I was in Tchomia, a rumor spread that the town was under attack. You had a ton of people on the road, all in search of the safety of a churh of the open waters of Lake Albert.

It was a surreal scene at times. This pitch black small village on the shore of a lake, with groups of people walking slowly and quietly through the streets, trying to find somewhere safe. Every now and again, the people would be lit up by the lights of a motorbike going past -- people going by with bags on their heads, children carrying bundles.

I went to the shore at 5:00 am and there were hundreds of boats on the lake. They all got into pirogues and paddled out to safety. At first light, they paddled back in.

Internally displaced Congolese return to the shore line of Lake Albert after spending the night out in the lake for safety on March 5, 2018 in Tchomia. (AFP / John Wessels)

It was the first time that I covered a flight from violence as it was happening. Usually we arrive once the camps for the displaced are already established. But this time, I was able to get there to really see it happening in front of me. On a mass scale. The camp in Bunia doubled in size in the five days that I was there. I watched people building shelters, waiting to have a roof over their heads. It was much bigger than I thought it was going to be.

Internally displaced Congolese push a boat in Tchomia out onto Lake Albert, in a bid to cross into Uganda on the other side. March 5, 2018. (AFP / John Wessels)

A few weeks later, I went to the town of Kalemie in the province of Tanganyika. Kalemie is some 1,200 kilometers south of Ituri, on the shore of another lake, Lake Tanganyika, with Tanzania on the other side. Here, another ethnic conflict has been playing out for decades, dating to even before DR Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960.


Here, the Pygmies, from the ethnic Twa group,  and Bantus, from the ethnic Luba group, have been in often violent conflict for decades. Land-owning Bantus are accused of exploiting the hunter-gatherer Pygmies, giving them meager wages or paying them with alcohol and cigarettes for agricultural labor. Bantus, for their part, have endured horrendous attacks that have seen entire villages burnt, pregnant women disemboweled and people killed with arrows.

Here the situation was different. Displaced people have been in camps for over a year. The scale is huge, around, 67,000 people in the town of Kalemie alone.

Young Congolese are seen on a hilltop look out over a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) on March 20, 2018 in Kalemie, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (AFP / John Wessels)

When I saw the scale of the camps and the number of people displaced, I had a huge sense of frustration. You wonder why no-one pays attention. Did you know that over 500,000 people have been displaced in the Tanganyika region in eastern DR Congo? Why don’t we know? Is it not big enough, not important enough? Or is it because it is a narrative that everyone is so used to hearing tht the idea of conflict in the DRC becomes normalized and overlooked?

A young Congolese girl stands inside a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) on March 20, 2018 in Kalemie, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (AFP / John Wessels)
A Congolese man carries a sack inside a makeshift camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP's) and returnees on March 21, 2018 in Kabutunga, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (AFP / John Wessels)


Whenever I’m at a place like that, I am thinking -- how can I cover this so people take notice? What emotion can I bring out with my pictures? What can I do to make someone actually look at a picture and inform themselves about the situation? How can I make this not look the same as everything else?


I think I got it right with Martha. She is a spectacular person. She got beans and seeds from a food distribution center outside a camp and she was planting them, trying to rebuild her life in a town that was burnt to the ground. She was so powerful.

Martha, who has been displaced with her husband and five children for six months, plants seeds in a makeshift camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP's) and returnees on March 21, 2018 in the village of Kabutunga, in the Tanganyika region in Democratic Republic of the Congo. (AFP / John Wessels)

It’s frustrating because you spend a lot of time getting to these places, speaking with people and spending time trying to share their stories and then no-one pays attention really. Or maybe they do and we just don’t know.

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

Internally displaced Congolese children sleep in a boat on the shore line of Lake Albert on March 05, 2018 in Tchomia. (AFP / John Wessels)


John Wessels