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City in Congo rises from war, lava

Goma, situated among stunning natural beauty, has endured most every human depredation. Now, mansions rise.

December 30, 2007|Paul Salopek | Chicago Tribune

GOMA, CONGO — Mansions are going up in Goma.

This is a surprise. After all, property in Goma, a center of Congo's murderous and only theoretically concluded civil war, suffers from what real estate agents often refer to delicately as certain "negatives."

Goma has been a victim of serial pillaging, occupation by larcenous rebels, and terrorism by the homicidal thugs who carried out the Rwandan genocide. About 40,000 refugees lie bulldozed in mass graves on the city's outskirts -- the nameless dead of 1990's cholera epidemics. Five years ago, lava all but wiped out the downtown.

This last drawback, in particular, might put off most home buyers. But Gomans prefer to see it as an opportunity, or a "reversible negative" in real estate parlance. Annihilation has diversified zoning. Huge houses inspired, it seems, by the Holiday Inn school of architecture have popped up on the raw lava fields that used to be Goma's city center. So have new Internet cafes, nightclubs, and even a Chinese restaurant.

The building style might be called Crudely Terraformed Venus. But for those familiar with Goma's reputation as the ultimate crossroads of the apocalypse, the transformation is breathtaking. It's a monument to the grit and resilience of the Congolese people: always beaten, never losing hope.

"The days of bargain land prices are over," said Albert Prigione, a local developer who is building 20 tidy bungalows on prime Goma property, a rocky lake shore where bodies were dumped during Rwanda's 1994 genocide. He glanced up at the Nyiragongo volcano, Goma's nemesis, still puffing in the distance. "Well, unless there's another eruption."

As the real estate cliche goes, it's all about location. For Goma, the irony is how a place so steeped in heartache can come gift-wrapped in some of the world's most beautiful scenery.

Hunkered in a defensive crouch on the northern shore of Lake Kivu in the Great Rift Valley, the city of 500,000 is ringed by ethereal blue volcanoes. Sunlight pools in valleys that glitter with rain-flecked coffee and banana plantations. Wild birds scatter like confetti through primal forests that shelter the world's last mountain gorillas.

Then there's Mt. Nyiragongo. Every night the 11,000-foot volcano, which still menaces the town, offers a free light show. The bubbling lava lake inside its crater tints the bellies of passing clouds a fiery red. When the lake is plated with moonlight, the sight is otherworldly.

But even if Goma's exotic backyard looks like a cross between a Tarzan comic and Eden, it's a paradise that's haunted, even cursed.

Goma sits on the Congo-Rwanda border. But instead of booming with trade, it has reaped Rwanda's most toxic export, the fugitive genocidaires who masterminded the killing of about 800,000 people. These militias and their allies continue to destabilize Congo. Despite a 2003 peace accord ending the nation's civil war, tens of thousands of people have been displaced by recent fighting in the area.

Things have a habit of ending badly here. The late U.S. gorilla researcher Dian Fossey reportedly was raped by Congolese soldiers not far from town. Some biographers cite this story to explain Fossey's descent into madness; she ended up whipping poachers' testicles with stinging nettles. Today, Congo gorillas are being shot by gangs of insurgents skulking in the forests.

The limpid waters of Lake Kivu, meanwhile, hide the remains of countless victims of Rwanda's genocide. Enough bones have washed up on Goma's postcard beaches to turn some people off the lake's delicacy, the carnivorous tilapia.

Even Goma's traffic circles, ablaze today with tropical flowers, hide secrets. Not so long ago they were planted with survival crops and littered with the devalued currency of collapsed regimes dating back to dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

"Goma didn't become like this overnight," said Prigione, the lava field developer.

"It took a century of pillaging by European powers to set the example," he said. "It will take us generations to break free of that pattern, that history."

In fact, the startling rebirth of the town that just won't die can be pegged directly to the theft of Congo's vast natural wealth.

Gold, diamonds, tin-yielding cassiterite, tropical woods -- the smuggled riches that fueled Congo's civil wars are bankrolling the housing boom in Goma's lava-smothered downtown. Plots in choice locations -- say, near the hospital that treats victims of eastern Congo's mass rape crisis -- have in some cases tripled to $30,000, local merchants say.

"The businessmen who profited during the war now are benefiting from the town's destruction by the volcano," said Mutumayi Kitambeko, a Goma teacher .

The new Goma bustles. Platoons of carpenters toil in its urban lava field. Using shards of glass as chisels, they churn out $600 sofas for the town's nouveau riche. Other workers stamp out bricks made from volcanic dust.

"The rich always get a head start," said Alphonsine Mukandekezi, 40, a grizzled market vendor who started life in Goma as a refugee and then lost her tiny home to the volcano. "But one day, we will have a new house here too."

Mukandekezi and her husband, Alphonse, lived in the charred skeleton of a Toyota Land Cruiser embedded in the lava at a crazy angle. She hung curtains on the vehicle's melted-out windows.

A few blocks away, Francois Lukaya sat in an office on a hill, safely above the reach of lava, and shook his head in wonder at the pluck of his hometown.

A scientist with the Goma Volcano Observatory, Lukaya recalled how many times he'd seen Goma reeling from calamity.

"Two of the Earth's plates are coming apart here," he said, forecasting Goma's future. "Millions of years from now, Goma will be at the bottom of an inland sea."

Then he laughed, as if he didn't believe it for a minute.

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