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Hope for a New Era in Congo

I arrived at the Bukavu airport on a United Nations flight from neighboring Burundi. The airstrip is essentially a U.N. air base. Everything's run with mobile equipment. The control tower is on a fully extended hydraulic lift. The offices are in shipping containers. The whole operation looks ready to be packed into cargo planes and moved on to the next crisis zone.

The first Congolese soldier I came across was outside the airport's razor wire perimeter. He had an AK-47 and a monkey. The two of them were demanding bribes to let people like me leave the compound unmolested. He said he really needed to check what's in my bags and pockets. My driver stuffed 500 Congolese francs -- about $1 -- into the soldier's fist and we were free to go.

Just outside the airstrip, soldiers of the FARDC (Forces Armee de Republic Democratic du Congo) -- the new army of the new national government -- are camped in a field. Their camp looks like a refugee settlement. There are no barracks, just disheveled mud and reed shelters the soldiers slap together themselves. Many are deployed with their wives and children. Kids scamper in the dirt. Women kneel next to charcoal fires.

The soldiers have erected a roadblock along the part of the route that passes through their camp. Young men in black uniforms with tripod-mounted machine guns lounge like limp rap stars under a thatched awning.

My driver inches slowly towards the checkpoint. We are barely rolling but my driver's companion tells him to go "Slow, slow." The soldiers look us over disdainfully, pondering whether it's worth the effort of getting up to interrogate us. Eventually, with the flick of his wrist, one of them waves us through.

The airport is less than 20 miles from downtown Bukavu, but the trip takes an hour. The dusty road alternates between being beat-up asphalt and beat-up dirt. At times, the car almost comes to a stop because the surface is so rocky and pitted.

Along the road, long pieces of metal that used to be part of truck chassis are stuck in the ground and used as electrical poles. Kids haul bundles of sugar cane stalks on their heads. Women trudge up the hills carrying sacks of firewood and cassava in cloth pouches. They put the load on their backs, wrap the cloth around their foreheads, lean forward and march. The people along the road all look short, as if they haven't eaten well here for a generation.

Before the city a sign announces, "Bukavu Capital Touristique de Sud-Kivu," and then there are a bunch of crumbling, abandoned brick buildings. No signs of tourists.

This part of the Congo is beautiful. The lush green hills are planted with bananas, cassava and corn. The city of Bukavu is set on steep hills that plunge down to the shores of Lake Kivu. The Belgian colonialists called it the African Riviera. Much of city now consists of dust-covered slums. Shacks of rough timber clapboards topped with rusted metal sheeting are packed haphazardly along Bukavu's hills. In other areas, once-grand houses look out over the lake.

Commenting on the natural beauty, fertile soil and incessant conflict of this region, a Pakistani peacekeeper told me one afternoon, "God has gifted the Congolese too much."

In front of us stretched a hillside green with banana fronds, he shook his head and added, "Beyond their capabilities."

Many people I talked to here believe however that the elections scheduled for July 30 will mark the beginning of a new era for Congo.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.