Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Heart of Darkness

Stanley's travels, 1876-77

Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Butcher has done what few Europeans would dare do: retraced the footsteps of his predecessor Stanley up the Congo River. He's lived to tell about it in Blood River: A Journey ot Africa's Broken Heart, which goes on sale June 7, 2007.

The journey began on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. The town of Kalemie was once a fully functioning, international port well-connected to the outside world. It was in Kalemie that the myth of The African Queen was born during the First World War, when the Royal Navy delivered two attack boats by railway to surprise German warships on the lake. The Belgians even based seaplanes here.

But today, Kalemie is a remote, cholera-ridden ruin. Georges Mbuyu, leader of a local pygmy rights group, agreed to act as a guide for my overland journey, helped by Benoit Bangana, an aid worker from Care International, who, crucially, had access to two functioning motorbikes. There was a large contingent of United Nations peace keepers in Kalemie but they came and went by air and never ventured far into the bush.

"We will have to take everything that we need with us because out there, there is nothing,'' Benoit said with a flick of his head towards the forest as we made final preparations for the trip.

Within a few miles of Kalemie, we found why the UN does not venture here. It has a strict security policy of only going down tracks passable by jeeps and the road simply disappeared, made impassable by potholes and choked by jungle. "We must go as quickly as we can to avoid the rebels,'' Georges had warned before heading off down a narrow track snaking through the undergrowth.

Government troops from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, gave up on northern Katanga more than 10 years ago and the area now swarms with rebel militia, referred to commonly as the mai-mai.

He reminds us that the civil war (though that includes the spillover war from places like Rwanda and Burundi) kills 1,200 people a day in the Democratic Republic of Congo (some estimates of the cumulative death toll in recent years exceed 4 million people). The chaos reverberates far beyond the region:

Violence has plunged the vast country – from one side to the other is the distance from London to Moscow - back into the Dark Ages, with almost no functioning roads, electricity, medical supplies or transport links. Not only does cross-border smuggling partly fund the genocide in the Darfur region of neighbouring Sudan, there are worries about its connection to the war on terror.

Congolese uranium mines – source of the fissile material used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks of 1945 – are once again being mined. But with state control all but collapsed in the Congo, the final destination of the uranium is worryingly unclear. North Korean agents tried to acquire Congolese uranium in the 1990s and there are worries it might now have become a target of al-Qa’eda.

One might be forgiven for not knowing any of this, as it's remained almost completely below the world's threshold of attention (probably due to the lack of live TV coverage from the area -- after all, there are no Western-style hotels there in which to live off the network expense account).

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