AFP PHOTO/Phil Moore

By Phil Moore

"M23 has no intention of entering into the city of Goma," Lieutenant-Colonel Vianney Kazarama, the rebels’ spokesman, assured me on November 18.

We were in Kibati, another town in the war-torn Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had crossed the border from Rwanda into government-held territory hours earlier, and then moved north to find the rebel encampment.

Three days later Kazarama was addressing a crowd of thousands in Goma's football stadium. "Goma, bonjour, I am your child, I love you very much, that is why we are here," he told the crowd. 

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Different militia have threatened this strategically key city during more than a decade of brutal guerrilla warfare, but this is the first time Goma had fallen in 14 years.

I realised the day before Kazarama's address that the rebels had arrived. I was driving up the road towards the town's decrepit airport. Just over 100 metres after we passed a lounging group of government soldiers, I saw a dozen rebels come marching over the next rise. I understood that I was caught between the two opposing forces just as gunfire erupted as I sped back through the government lines.

Spokesman of the M23 rebel group Lieutenant-Colonel Vianney Kazarama addresses a crowd at the Volcanoes Stadium in Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on November 21, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Phil Moore

Disinformation is the rule in Congo, and this rebellion is no exception. Phone calls, text messages and tweets attested to the fall of a string of villages on the way to Goma, often prematurely. But verifying anything here requires a lot of leg-work, which in Congo means hours spent crisscrossing conflict zones held by the territory’s many militia groups along bone-shaking, pot-holed roads.

One never knows who will try to block one’s way. In July, a drunken government soldier started shooting as we tried to return from a jaunt behind rebel lines. And just two days ago I was hit and kicked by an angry "Maï-Maï" rebel as I tried to cross a checkpoint to rejoin the retreating government troops.

Timing is everything. I jumped on a plane last Saturday night, arriving in Goma just as M23 was on the march towards the city. By the Sunday night, they were on the outskirts, prompting some 60,000 people to flee a single settlement. Most of them had already been displaced by conflict in previous months.

By Tuesday, the city belonged to M23.

A M23 rebel walks past a United Nations armoured personel carrier in the streets of Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on November 20, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Phil Moore

This, despite assurances from the United Nations that it would never let Goma fall. In May, I heard the UN's force commander tell the residents of Bunagana, a town on the border with Uganda, that he would not let M23 take the town. By July, I could see that the UN and government forces had been replaced by rebels, and that most of the residents had fled to a refugee camp in Uganda.

After a morning of gun-battles between M23 and the army on Tuesday, the conflict shifted sharply. Creeping my way up one of the city's main boulevards, bullets had been zipping overhead as the few residents that remained peered out from their gateways. Two UN armored vehicles rolled down the road. Checking the timestamp on my pictures, eight minutes later, a column of the rebels marched down the street.

I walked up the road towards them. As the gap closed, I held my cameras in the air, unsure of how they would react to journalists taking pictures. I've had many a run-in with aggressive soldiers raising guns and rifle butts once a lens is pointed in their direction.

They weren't shouting me off the road, so I conservatively brought up a camera to my eye. The relief I felt at their nonchalance when I first pressed the shutter was overwhelming. I rushed closer, switching to the body with a shorter lens, and took the first images of M23 in Goma.

They walked down in single file, with others flanking – past impotent UN peacekeepers in armored vehicles – and continued down to the border-post with Rwanda. I was astounded by their focus and discipline. They stared straight ahead, marching with intent.


Having made several frames as they walked past, I ran to the head of their column whilst telephoning the bureau-chief in Kinshasa, Congo's distant capital. "Pierre", I panted, "they're in the city centre and they're on their way to the Rwandan border post". 

The few civilians who remained in the streets cheered, though probably more out of fear of reprisal than jubilation over the capture of their city. Minutes later, I was walking with the rebels to the edge of Lake Kivu, the crowning jewel of North Kivu's natural beauty.

M23 had entered the city from the north, and they were now on its southern edge.

Over the following hours, they secured more and more districts, and the gunfire edged west with the retreating government army. Per usual, the clashes left a trail of civilian casualties. In one hospital alone, 37 people had been injured by stray bullets and shrapnel.

A surrendered police officer stands at the Volcanoes Stadium in Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on November 21, 2012.  M23 rebels called on any remaining policemen and army soldiers to assemble at a stadium to surrender.
AFP PHOTO/Phil Moore

The body of a Congolese Army soldier lies on the ground in front of a tank left by government troops in the Ndosho district of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on November 21, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Phil Moore

Twelve-year-old Kakule Elie, lying in a hospital bed, was missing his left arm. He had been hit by a bullet — nobody knows which side fired it — that required amputation just below his tiny shoulder. He would surely remember the day Goma fell for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, the rebels raced around in trucks, revelling in their victory.

Twelve-year-old amputee Kakule Elie, hit by a stray bullet, lies in a bed in a hospital in Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on November 20, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Phil Moore

An injured M23 rebel lies in a bed at the military hospital in Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on November 21, 2012 after being shot in the thorax during an M23 offensive in Kibumba on November 15, and brought by military doctors
AFP PHOTO/Phil Moore

Seeing the Lt-Col. Kazarama address the assembled crowd in the football stadium the next day, I was reminded of what my job means: witnessing history in the making. But as the rebels celebrated, civilians were mourning the cost of their advance. In the district of Ndosho, at the western edge of the city, an immobilized tank stood on the roadside. In front of the bullet-ridden shops on the roadside lay four bodies, crowds gathering around them.

A man broke into sobs. His name was Lokuli Loleko Prince, and he had just found the body of his father, a military doctor. Lokuli had heard of his father's death the previous evening, and after searching the morgue and hospitals, wondered if he would ever find the corpse. Then he saw the crowd in Ndosho and breaking through to the center, discovered the burnt face of his father’s corpse, lying on the ground.

The following day, I was in the town Sake, 26 kilometres down the road along which the army had fled. Suddenly gunfire and mortar shells shattered the relative peace. The army was fighting back, and the town emptied in minutes. Desperately firing off frames, I retreated when the only rebels in town jumped into a jeep and sped off, apparently pulling back.

The front-lines in Congo are ever-changing. I have seen a lot of displacement in Congo, but never on the scale of the Sake exodus. The road towards Mugunga, a camp for internally displaced persons, was filled by mothers with children, by families with whatever belongings they could snatch as they fled, by boys shepherding their goats. For kilometers they filled the road, weighed down by the necessities of survival without a home.

Tens of thousands of people were on the move. Whilst the displaced had piled up in Mugunga, the bodies had piled up in Sake. Returning there the following day, people fleeing from further south walked past the decomposing corpses of the soldiers who had triggered the exodus. As M23 launch another round of propaganda, and government troops strike fear into local populations, it is hard to see when this cycle of violence and displacement will end.

Thousands of Congolese flee the town of Sake, 26 kilometres west of Goma, following fresh fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo town on November 22, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Phil Moore