Goma, 13 November 2008 - It was spookily quiet as the UN World Food Programme vehicles moved forward. One second we had left the Congolese army behind, the next we were in an empty no-man’s land. To the left rose the perfect volcanic cone of Mount Nyiragongo, as if watching us all.
Then in ones and twos, Laurent Nkunda’s camouflaged rebels emerged from the green-brown bush.
We had crossed the frontline.
Almost daily skirmishes in Kibati – a small town north of Goma - have prevented most humanitarian agencies from entering the combat zones in recent weeks. Even hardened war correspondents have been struck by the level of tension and readiness for battle.
WFP’s mission was the first by a UN agency since the fighting closed in around Rutshuru and Kiwanja almost a week ago. With an armed escort from the UN force MONUC and weighed down by flak jackets and helmets, we had two main objectives – deliver high-energy biscuits to the hospital in Rutshuru, and begin preparations for food distributions in the area as soon as possible.
Life behind the front line seemed strangely normal. Villagers were out and about, selling food on the roadside, mixing with their new rulers. But to a certain extent it is a mirage. Rutshuru district has been a battleground for more than a decade, and people have somehow learned how to get on with their lives wherever possible despite the chaos around them.
Many have not been able to harvest properly in three or four seasons, driven from their fields by armed men.
Malnutrition rates in some parts of Rutshuru are well beyond the emergency threshold. Now once again, they must decide whether to run for their lives or stay where they are. People have taken a battering and need support to get through the day, to eat a varied and nutritious diet, and perhaps make small plans for the future.
After meetings with WFP’s distribution partners, agreement was reached and plans put in place. We will return as soon as a registration is complete, with trucks of food.
But those trucks will have to cross the frontline too. And just an hour after we ourselves crossed back into Goma and the relative safety of the WFP office, fighting resumed in the hills above the city.