“Rays of light filter through the dirty curtain of a small window, cutting through the cigarette smoke that hangs thick in the air.”

Marco Gualazzini, an Italian photographer, won a Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography in 2013 for his proposal ‘M23 – Kivu: A Region Under Siege.’ Since then, the situation in Democratic Republic of the Congo has changed dramatically, including the disarming of the M23 rebels. Here, he relates some of his experiences from working on the project last October:

“I’m back in Congo. It’s been a year since I was last here. I left suddenly, because they were still talking about bombs and death in Ndosho. But when I got here, the first thing that struck me was the sheer amount of people thronging around the main street of Goma. The bombings were isolated incidents, and peace negotiations had started up again across the tables in Kampala.

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So I went back to my initial plan to seek out the roots of this war that has been bloodying Congo since the time of Leopold II of Belgium. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was driven by the exploitation of rubber and ivory; today, gold and coltan. Control of these resources is at the heart of the conflict.

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I’d been communicating with a Mai Mai contact for several months. The Mai Mai believe in witchcraft, and in the ability of water to wash away the sins of the upstanding warrior, rendering him immortal in battle. The pact we had established was that I would give his two children the opportunity to study in a school run by missionary nuns, and he would find a way to take me to a coltan mine under Mai Mai control.

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He took me to Rubaya, a heap of huts which have grown up around the manganite and coltan mines. In Rubaya, it’s the Nyatura who call the shots. The Nyatura are a Congolese Hutu group which left the CNDP rebels, changed their name to M23, and are now allies of the government armed forces. Kinshasa, the capital, is two thousand kilometers away, and can close its eyes to the violence exercised by the Nyatura, who have the city by the throat. Without their permission, no one enters or leaves.

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A group of soldiers stops us as soon as we arrive in the town. Two white men do not go unnoticed in Rubaya. Our contact asks to speak to the colonel. We are escorted to the Eden hotel and told to wait there. After a couple of hours, a few soldiers come back for us, and accompany us to a place in the centre of town. We climb the steep stairs and come into a little room with a low ceiling. Rays of light filter through the dirty curtain of a small window, cutting through the cigarette smoke that hangs thick in the air. Seated around a table, drinking whisky, we find all the top dogs of the army waiting for us. Colonel Marcel Habarugira, who has the sharp, penetrating eyes of someone who’s seen it all, invites us to take a seat. Our contact is seated beside him. He’s in on this.

The colonel lets us introduce ourselves, and we explain that we’re there to tell of the heroic actions of the Nyatura, of their courage and devotion, and of their efforts to protect the defenseless population of Rubaya from international bandits intent on stealing coltan from the mines. As my interpreter translates, he nods, indulgently it seems. For a moment he almost appears to believe what I’m saying.

When I’ve finished, he pauses for a while to let my words sink in. No-one moves a muscle. Then one of the men seated around the table takes the one next to him by the arm, whispers something in his ear and laughs. Then silence falls once more.

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The colonel begins to speak. He praises our courage, saying that we have run a huge risk to reach Rubaya, but that we no longer have anything to fear because we are under the protection of the Nyatura. Then silence once more, almost as if he wants his words to sink in carefully again.

He twiddles his cane sword, drumming with his fingers on the handle. Then he stares me in the eye and adds “In wartime, brothers help one another. And since you wouldn’t be able to get out of here alive without our help, I’m asking you how you can help us, what you can offer us in exchange for your life, which we’re saving”.

And to think I almost believed him for a moment.

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I think of home, of my girlfriend. It’s her birthday. I think of how I’m going to tell her all this. How I’m going to explain to her the privilege this grant has given me, the chance to see this other world. How I’m going to tell her about the red sunrise of the Masisi, and the smell of the bonfires in the distance mixed with the fragrance of African cedar wood.

This extraordinary land has once again left me breathless.”

Find out more on the Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography website

 

About Marco Gualazzini

Born in Parma in 1976, Marco Gualazzini began his career as a photographer in 2004, with his home town’s local daily, La Gazzetta di Parma. His recent works include reportage photography on microfinance in India, on the media in Laos, and on the discrimination of Christians in Pakistan.

He devised and took part in the creation of a documentary for the Italian national TV network RAI on the caste system in India, which has been selected at IDFA- The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

Marco has been published in national and international titles including Internazionale, Io Donna, L’Espresso, M (Le Monde), Newsweek Japan, Paris Match, The New York Times and Vanity Fair among the others.

He has won several awards including First Prize at the Premio Internazionale Marco Luchetta in 2013 and a Silver Medal at PX3 Prix De La Photographie De Paris also in 2013. Marco has also received a nomination for the The Humanity Photo Awards in 2011 and was a finalist in the CGAP Microfinance Photography Contest in the same year. He was also short listed for the Luis Valtuena International Humanitarian Photography Award in 2011.