“They say it’s to buy cigarettes, or to ‘motivate’ them”
On all the roads of North Kivu, there are small roadblocks, most of which are illegal. Take, for example, the highway connecting Bukavu [South Kivu] to Walikale [North Kivu], which I recently traveled. It’s just over 100 kilometres long, but since it’s in very bad condition, you need at least six hours to drive it on a motorcycle. In addition, you need to stop at numerous roadblocks and pay up each time. On just this one road, I counted three roadblocks operated by uniformed men — soldiers from the Congolese army — as well as a dozen or so roadblocks operated by men in civilian clothes. They are either unemployed youths or members of armed groups such as the Maï-Maï.Nobody asks you for your papers at any of these roadblocks, but rather for a sum ranging from 100 to 500 Congolese francs [about 8 to 50 euro cents]. They say it’s to buy cigarettes or to ‘motivate’ them. You can’t avoid the roadblocks. Outside the roads, it’s the jungle, which is impossible to drive through.On this road, you might easily have to pay 4 euros in total to get through all the roadblocks. For people here, it’s an enormous burden. In this area, many people have been displaced due to the armed conflicts and are very poor. It’s really sad to see that they are forced to spend money at the roadblocks.
“The real problem is the weakness of the state”
The photos [above] show a roadblock in the Nyasi area, close to Walikale [North Kivu ]. The young men tending the roadblock say they are “volunteers” They pretend they have done some road maintenance and ask for 200 to 500 Congolese francs [about 16 to 40 euro cents]. Some of these youths used to be part of the Maï Maï armed group but, thanks to pressure from village elders, were convinced to give up their arms. However, they are unemployed, and so, in order to make some money, they have taken to setting up these roadblocks and harassing the local population.This region is the country’s breadbasket. Walikale farmers produce palm oil, cassava, peanuts, and more. But in order to sell this on the markets, they must pay at all the roadblocks. If they don’t pay, they might encounter problems, like being made to do “forced labour” or even get beaten up. Of course, this racket ends up forcing farmers to sell their products at higher prices, which hurts consumers.This is a problem all over the country’s east. The real problem is the weakness of the state. Those who feel that they are in a slight position of strength will do whatever they please. Others suffer but accept, because they know no one will come to their aid.
“They have whips and rocks, and they extort anyone who passes through”
In the south, these roadblocks take several different forms.Sometimes, residents have – slightly – repaired the roadway, and they want anyone passing through to pay for it. Even in the city of Bukavu, this happens frequently.In the Ruzizi plains, I’ve seen underage boys setting up roadblocks. They have whips and rocks and they spend hours basically extorting anyone passing through. They don’t provide any justification. Some people think they belong to militias, but they don’t even have any firearms.Finally, there are the military and police — with them, it’s very frequent. Around the city of Bukavu, in all directions, there are military men who ask for money if you are riding a motorcycle (at least 200 Congolese francs, or 16 euro cents) or in a car (at least 500 Congolese francs, or 40 euro cents). If you aren’t quick to pay, they will ask for your voter ID [Editor’s note: which acts as an identity card], and if you don’t have it, you’re out of luck. If you do have it, they’ll try to find another infraction. To avoid an unnecessary waste of time, you pay 500 Congolese francs, and off you go…