Reporter's Notebook: Life In Congo

Gwen Thompkins, NPR's foreign correspondent, talks about the current violence in Goma, Congo, and what it's like to report from the region and how she plans to spend the Thanksgiving holiday.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Every Thanksgiving there's time in the day usually after the turkey when we start making phone calls. It's time to catch up with friends and families who couldn't join us for the day. So today, our call goes to our friend, Gwen Thompkins. Gwen reports on Africa for National Public Radio news. Most recently, she's been sending us stories from the Democratic Republic of Congo where there's been fighting between the Congolese army and various rebel groups, and Gwen joins us now from Goma in Congo. And Gwen, happy Thanksgiving.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Thank you, Neal. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

CONAN: And how did you celebrate the holiday?

THOMPKINS: Well, I'm not quite sure if I have celebrated the holiday. The day started with, I guess, some ground nuts and some bananas and, but it appears to have ended with a lovely grilled fish. So I'm very grateful for that.

CONAN: The traditional grilled fish.

THOMPKINS: Indeed. No cranberry sauces here though.

CONAN: I'm not sure it would go with the fish. Anyway, Gwen, the situation that you're reporting on there just seems to be awful. The discovery yesterday of mass graves of as many as 2,000 people and it just goes on and on. Tens of thousands of people fled today across the border into Uganda. Can you bring us up-to-date on what's been going on?

THOMPKINS: Well, essentially the rebel army which is the Tutsi rebel army that's led by General Laurent Nkunda, it has already declared a ceasefire - a unilateral ceasefire - with the Congolese army. This rebel force had been moving since August, you know making a push toward Goma. And then at the end of October, it started pushing north, pushing out militia forces above a town called Rutshuru which is a rebel stronghold in eastern Congo. Now, the rebel army said that it is maintaining that ceasefire with the Congolese army but it retains the right to go after Hutu militias who they believe were connected to the 1994 Rwandan genocide who they believe fled over the border from Rwanda into Congo after that genocide and have been regrouping and according to the rebels, terrorizing the Tutsi minority in eastern Congo. That's a very small minority but the rebels' interest in the Tutsi minority is welfare. It's at the center really of their activities here.

CONAN: And Gwen, I have to tell you that, well, we've been worried about you. I understand that the reporting from Congo has been something of an adventure.

THOMPKINS: You know it is an adventure. I mean the story itself is very difficult to keep up with oftentimes because there are so many different front lines and so many different protagonists in this story. It's not just - of course, the main part of the story is the effect that the fighting has had on the civilian population. You know hundreds of thousands of people displaced as you mentioned. You know 10,000 people are believed to have gone over the border into Uganda today and all. But there are so many other protagonists. It's not just one rebel group. It's not just one militia. You know it's several and so keeping up with it, is a little bit like - I don't know - an advanced mathematics. And I wasn't really good at math.

But you know, the first time that I came to eastern Congo was a few weeks ago actually, and the airport was closed in Goma because of the fighting. And the rebels were just outside the city so I decided to fly to Kigali which is the capital of Rwanda, and then hire a taxi to drive me from Kigali to the border with Congo and Goma is just over the border. So this is like a three-hour drive, and so you know you talking with the taxi driver for three hours. And this fellow was Rwandan but he's lived in Congo for many years before returning to Rwanda. And when he deposited me at the border, the last thing he said to me, was you have reached the end of reason and the end of reason is the beginning of Congo.

CONAN: That's a great line. And I understand there was one night in particular in Congo when you had a reason to suspect that he was correct.

THOMPKINS: That's absolutely true. I've thought about that man so many times, I have to say, and especially on that night. Because you know, a few weeks ago, some other reporters and I, we got word that the rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, was going to be at this town called Rutshuru, which is north of Goma. So its a few hours drive, so we went up there and we waited for him. And we waited and waited for hours and he didn't show up. And so then, by phone he invited us to his headquarters in another town called Kichanga which is several hours drive from where we were. And so we thought, OK, yeah. We could do this you know. Sure.

It involves driving through some contested territory, and sure, we might need a United Nations escort for a little bit of the way. But of course, we'll be able to find this town on our own by nightfall. And the truth of the matter is, we gave it our best shot, but we didn't count on the mud. And you know it rains everyday here and this is very sort of lush, heavy forested area. And so we're driving through and the mud is getting deeper and deeper and sure enough, we get stuck. And you get out into this mud and it is knee-deep mud, Neal - knee-deep mud. And it makes the sucking sound when you walk, like (unintelligible) you know like that. And it's so thick that it like, tries to pull off your shoes as you're walking.

And in fact, another reporter lost her shoes entirely, you know. And so as I'm walking in this heavily forested area, if not a jungle area, and we're walking in the middle of the night - we've lost the day, we've lost our way, we've lost our car, we have no lights, we're just going by the lights of our non-workable cell phones, and I'm thinking to myself you know maybe I have reached the edge of reason.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with NPR's Gwen Thompkins from Goma in Congo. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. So you're there in the middle of the night, you've lost your car, you've lost all your lights and one reporter's lost, I take it they weren't Jimmy Choo's to begin with. So what did you do?

THOMPKINS: Well, before we actually began our march, we decided, well, it's the middle of the night. We don't really know where we are so we should just sleep in the car for a few hours and then wait until daylight and then try to set out. And so, sure enough, we all piled into the car. There are like eight of us, so it's like a college prank. How many people can, you know, stuff themselves into a car? And we're sitting in there sleeping and then all of a sudden, my colleague, Eddie Sanders who works for the LA Times, out of the blue he says there's somebody out there which is not what you really want to hear in the middle of the night in the forest.

And so, we turned on the headlights and sure enough there are like maybe eight guys standing out in front of the car with guns. And we're thinking friend or foe? We have no idea you know. We step out of the car, we started talking to the fellows. It turns out they're rebel forces. They've been looking for us. They are trying to help us find the rebel leader and they tell us, oh, you're going to have to walk with us for about half an hour and then we'll get you to a vehicle that will take you to the town where the rebel leader is. So we have no choice but to believe these folks and so we set out and start walking and the mud is, as I said, knee-deep, and we're going over a terrain that truly you really don't want to look at anyway because it's just too scary by day. And then all of a sudden, after two hours - this was not a 30-minute walk, this was a two-hour walk.

After two hours, Neal, it was amazing. Like you're at outer darkness, as I said, except for your cell phone which only goes a few feet. And then all of a sudden, we saw this little light in the distance and then we saw another light and then another light came on. And the closer we got, we realized that it was like a band of motorcycles in the middle of nowhere in the dark waiting for us. And my colleague Evelyn Hockstein, a photojournalist, she said you know it's like the Hell's Angels have come to rescue us. So we ended up getting on the backs of these motorbikes with these drivers, and they drove over very difficult terrain for another hour or so. They deposited us with a vehicle which again drove another hour or so. So by daybreak, as the sun was coming out, we were entering this town where the rebel leader was supposed to be. And of course, we get there, and he's not there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: These are the great moments when you call your editor and you have this wonderful story but nothing you can file.

THOMPKINS: Exactly. And the thing is we're all in the car and we're all colleagues and we all get along, but the truth of the matter is we're all competing, too. And so we're still thinking to ourselves, each of us, how am I going to get this story? How am I going to file? How am I going to beat these other guys and all? But we were foiled and at one point one reporter just said, it's like he's taunting us. The rebel leader, he's just taunting us. And then after several hours, he finally does materialize - General Nkunda - and of course, he looks like a million dollars. I mean, he's got his fresh camouflage on, the latest kind of camouflage. It looked like an impressionist painting what he had on and a nice little beret and his walking stick. And we of course, look like we were - we were people who just walked out of the forest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: It was a very strange moment actually. And he said something like, oh, I've heard you've been walking in the forest all night. So sorry about that, and then he just went on with his statement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Gwen, we're glad you made it out, and we're glad you got that story.

THOMPKINS: Thank you. I am, too.

CONAN: And I'm sure the fish was delicious.

THOMPKINS: Yes, the fish was delicious actually. You know everyone says that it's in the reporting and it is true that's why we say it. This is a truly beautiful part of the world. It is stunningly gorgeous in eastern Congo. There are mountains and beautiful, lush forest, as I mentioned, and you can just walk anywhere and all of a sudden you stop and you see the most beautiful trumpet lily plant you've ever seen in your entire life.

CONAN: And a better place to spend Thanksgiving would be hard to imagine. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, calling us from Goma where she spent this Thanksgiving Day. Happy Thanksgiving to you, Gwen. Stay safe. I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR News.

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