Stay Safe in DR Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo has had its fair share of bloodshed. Since independence, there have been a series of continuous wars, conflicts, and periods of warfare, with occasional regional violence continuing now. As a consequence, large swaths of the nation should be deemed off-limits to tourists.
The LRA (of child-soldier and ‘Kony’ renown) continues to prowl the woods along the CAR/South Sudan/Uganda border in the northeastern portion of the nation. Although there are a few places near the Ugandan border that are reasonably safe to visit, travel north and east of Kisangani and Bumba is risky.
Since the early 1990s, the North and South Kivu areas have been in a state of constant warfare. With a peace deal signed in 2003, the infamously brutal bloodshed of the First and Second Congo Wars (during which 5 million people perished in combat or as a consequence of disease/famine) came to an end. Low-level warfare, sparked by various warlords/factions, has continued since then, and this area now hosts the world’s biggest UN peacekeeping operation (as of 2012). Hundreds of thousands of people have taken up residence in refugee camps around Goma. In April 2012, a new group known as “M23” emerged, headed by Gen. Ntaganda (who is sought by the International Criminal Court for war crimes) and claimed control of or assaulted several towns in the area, accusing them of murdering people and raping women. Since the conclusion of the war in 2003, this has been the most severe crisis. They vowed to attack Goma in mid-July to defend the Tutsi community there from “abuse,” prompting the UN peacekeeping force to relocate 19,000 troops to safeguard Goma and surrounding refugee camps. It’s unclear how severe the danger of violence in Goma is, according to a BBC report.) The only secure places in North/South Kivu are the Rwandan border towns of Goma and Bukavu, as well as Virunga National Park.
Visitors, on the other hand, face risks that go well beyond wars. After Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is most likely Africa’s least developed nation. The road system is abysmal. The country’s roads are in terrible shape, and driving large distances may take weeks, particularly during the rainy season. Even some of the country’s “major” highways are little more than mud tracks that only 4×4 or 6×6 vehicles can navigate. The DRC has just 2250 kilometers of sealed roads, of which only 1226 kilometers are in “excellent” condition, according to the UN. To put this in context, the road distance east-west throughout the nation in any direction is about 2500 kilometers (for example, Matadi to Lubumbashi is 2700 kilometers by road)! Another contrast is that there are only 35 km of paved roadway per 1 000 000 inhabitants in Zambia (one of the poorest African nations) vs 580 km and 3427 km in Botswana (one of the wealthiest). The main mode of transportation is hitching a ride on an old, overcrowded truck where many paying passengers are permitted to perch atop the goods. This is very hazardous.
Congolese aircraft crash on a depressingly frequent basis, with eight accidents reported in 2007. Despite this, the dangers of flying are comparable to those of traveling by road, barge, or rail. The infamous Hewa Bora airlines has gone out of business, and the establishment of a few other airlines between 2010 and 2012 could enhance air travel safety in the DRC. Stick with the commercial airlines that operate modern planes (mentioned above under “Get around/By plane”). Avoid outdated Soviet aircraft that are often hired to transport cargo and maybe a passenger or two. If you’re still afraid of traveling on a Congolese aircraft but don’t mind paying more, consider flying with a foreign carrier like Kenyan Airways (which flies to Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, and Kisangani) or Ethiopian Airlines (which travels to Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, and Kisangani) (Kinshasha, Lubumbashi). Just be sure you verify the transit visa requirements.
Traveling by river boat or barge is still hazardous, although it is safer than driving. Hundreds of people have died as a consequence of overcrowded barges sinking and aged boats capsizing while traveling down the Congo River. Take a look at the vessel you’ll be aboard before boarding, and if you don’t feel secure, it’s best to wait for the next boat, even if it means waiting several days. Since the Belgians departed, the majority of the country’s rail network has fallen into disrepair, with little maintenance taken out. Several train derailments have occurred, resulting in several fatalities. Trains in the DRC are extremely overcrowded; don’t even consider riding on the roof with the people!
Crime is a major issue in many parts of the nation. Kinshasa had one of the highest murder rates in the world during Mobutu’s last years in power, and travel to Kinshasa was akin to Baghdad during the Iraq War! Kinshasa is a high-crime city, despite the fact that violence has decreased significantly (comparable to Lagos or Abidjan). When in a car, keep everything that might be considered as valuable by a Congolese out of sight, since smash-and-grab violence at junctions is common. Pickpockets abound in bigger cities’ markets. Keep in mind that the DRC is still one of Africa’s poorest nations, with every white person seen as wealthy by the natives. Keep an eye out for pickpockets in public areas. Smaller communities are generally safer than bigger ones while traveling in rural regions. Outside of major cities, hotel rooms often lack sufficient security (for example, weak door locks or ground-level windows that don’t lock or have curtains).
Taking photographs in public is fraught with danger. According to some reports, taking photographs in the DRC requires an official permission. In fact, finding and obtaining them will be difficult, if not impossible. Photographing bridges, roadblocks, border crossings, and government buildings may be seen as a national security threat.
Furthermore, the DRC’s health-care infrastructure and facilities are severely lacking. There are few hospitals or clinics outside of Kinshasa for ill or wounded travelers to visit. You might be over a week away from the closest clinic or hospital if you’re traveling on one of the country’s remote, muddy routes or along the Congo River!
Stay Healthy in DR Congo
To enter the country via plane, you’ll need a yellow fever vaccine (this requirement is often ignored at land entry points – particularly the smaller ones). Some major entrance points, such as Kinshasa’s airport, have health inspectors who verify this before allowing you to enter.
Malaria is prevalent in Congo, albeit somewhat less so in the Kivu area owing to altitude, so bring bug repellent and take measures like sleeping beneath mosquito nets. Malaria is quite common in riverfront regions (such as Kinshasa).
If you need immediate medical help, you should contact your country’s embassy. The embassy physicians are usually eager and capable of assisting. In Kinshasa, there are secure hospitals, such as the private “CMK” (Centre Medical de Kinshasa), which was founded by European physicians (a visit costs about US$20). Centre Hospitalier MONKOLE, in the Mont-Ngafula region, is another private and non-profit hospital with European and Congolese physicians. The Monkole Medical Director is Dr. Léin Tshilolo, a paediatrician educated in Europe and one of Africa’s foremost specialists on sickle-cell anemia.
When you’re outdoors, drink plenty of water. The heat and closeness to the equator may easily cause heatstroke in people who are not used to it after just a few hours outdoors without water. There are numerous well-stocked pharmacies, although costs are many times more than in Europe.