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BEYOND HORROR

Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo By Anjan Sundaram, Hamish Hamilton, Rs 399

There are several memorable images of children and childhood in Anjan Sundaram’s first book, about his journey to the Congo, where “children… have the bleakest futures”. It opens with the “sickly chicken of a boy, with limbs extending like antennae from his belly” who runs away with the author’s cell phone. Later, as Sundaram travels in a bus in the city of Kinshasa, and as the bus enters a market, “[c]hildren’s wide-eyed faces pressed against my window... ‘Give me money,’ said the shapes of their lips, round as an O... Their desperate small hands stained the glass with wet palmprints”. Sundaram also ventures into the sprawling kingdom of Kinshasa’s juvenile castaways, who live among abandoned cars, garbage and junk, smoke joints, indulge in free sex, and raid supermarkets. He says in an interview: “These children, often under the influence of illegal substances, with no guidance from anyone and no chance of going to school, live by their own rules, with no sense of what is right or wrong.” They become soldiers sometimes.

An article in The Guardian this month on the overwhelming cases of rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo quotes a 22-year-old Congolese soldier as saying, “I’ve raped 53 women. And children of five or six years old... When we arrived here we met a lot of women. We could do whatever we wanted.” The soldier’s statement, chilling in its matter-of-factness, indicates the violence that freedom, clubbed with power and divested of responsibility, engenders. Yet there is an element of boast in the words that is almost childish: it would suggest a speaker who has “no sense of what is right or wrong”. Perhaps this soldier is a graduate from Kinshasa’s underworld of juvenile delinquents described by Sundaram.

The social sickness, which breeds a young man such as this and the sickness that he then gives back to society, would take one back to Mistah Kurtz’s famous last words, “The horror! The horror!” spoken in the context of the Congo of yore, when it suffered the yoke of the Belgian imperialists. The “Congo Free State” which honoured freedom by, among other methods, regularly cutting off the hands of native labourers working for the rubber plantations in the 19th century, has long fallen apart but the inexplicable horror at the heart of the Congo remains intact. In his role as a reporter of facts, Sundaram documents the violence and traces its origin to certain practices within Congolese society as also to the ceaseless exploitation by foreign powers, which continue to mine the country for its natural wealth. His analyses are incisive and worth pondering.

He says that successive dictatorial regimes, one worse than the other, have left the Congolese with a profound distrust of the future. So they “retreated to their families and clans. The society that resulted seemed intellectually stagnant, half emerged from its history and only reluctantly moving forward.” This links up with the comment of the military prosecutor of North Kivu in the Guardian report on the rapes: “There have been a lot of troubles here. The soldiers are traumatised by war and so commit serious acts and crimes.” Placed side by side, the opinions of Sundaram and the military prosecutor point to a vicious cycle of exploitation and backwardness to which the Congolese remain pinned. They become complicit in their own fates, which they are then unable to change.

I doubt whether the Congolese would agree with Sundaram’s analysis — they can always come armed with the accusation that he is, after all, an outsider, even if an empathetic one. For myself, notwithstanding Sundaram’s insistence on reportage, I found a very Conradian quality in his Congo quest: he had left behind a comfortable life and a promising career in America “to see the terrible side of humanity and experience the primal emotions of fear, hunger and pain” in the DRC. This seems to be the declaration of a man who is searching for an authentic existence, examining the “fraudulence... at the centre of any belief”. He appears to have chosen the Congo as his place of study because here the tragedy of the human condition, born of the inner dynamics of freedom, which has the capacity to rapidly change into its opposite, has been playing itself out in its most politicized form for decades.

I felt that the Stringer would have stood better if Sundaram had done away with the constraints of writing non-fiction, which always has to remain tied to facts. The young girl of the junkyard with “brilliant eyes large like leaves”; the mosquito which dies a “delirious death” as it sucks life; the creatures which leap from “trees with outstretched arms” in the hush of the equatorial rain; the Italian nuns with their red tulips who repeat, “Killing is not our charisma”, in the midst of the ravages of war in Bunia; all these are images of intense, absurd beauty with a life beyond the factual. Given the strength of his prose, Sundaram should be less abashed about allowing them, as well as himself, a poetic existence.