KIRUMBA, LUBERO TERRITORY, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — It’s still early in the morning, but more than 100 vehicles – large trucks, small motorcycles, mid-sized sedans – are already queued, waiting for the clock to strike their scheduled departure time.
At 7:30 a.m. on the dot, the convoy departs. The line of vehicles is flanked front and rear by military vehicles that provide protection for the drivers and their goods. The convoy moves at a snail’s pace.
The situation is frustrating, but the convoy system has brought a new level of safety and peace of mind to drivers since the system began in May 2016. “This road has always been fraught with all possible ills: killings, robberies and rapes. But thankfully, with the military personnel who accompany our convoy as we travel, the road has seen a decline in crime rates,” says Mumbere Luhavo, a 30-year-old truck driver and regular user of the Butembo-Goma road.
Armed groups have for years committed atrocities against travelers on this and other roads. There have been killings, kidnappings, stolen goods and burned trucks.
The violence on the roads is one aspect of the ongoing insecurity in DRC, where armed groups have operated for years with relative impunity. Those groups have sparred in deadly fashion with each other and with the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, often called the FARDC, to control land, natural resources and even access to endangered species.
The FARDC created the twice-daily convoy along the Butembo-Goma route in partnership with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, says Jules Ngongo, a FARDC second lieutenant and spokesman. The system is dubbed “Sokola I,” meaning “to clean out,” in Lingala, a common language here.
“Following persistent security threats reported on this road section, a convoy system was initiated to protect the lives of the civilians at risk and particularly to keep highway robbers, kidnappers and other criminal gangs at bay,” he says.
The system now covers more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) and has cut down security incidents by an estimated 95 percent, Ngongo says.
“Only about six attacks have been reported so far, while kidnappings and killings had become part of the road users’ daily routine,” he says. “I’m sure road users will agree with me, if I say they’re today travelling undisturbed.”
Travelers agree that they’re safer in general but note that security risks still exist.
Luhavo, the truck driver, says the primary threat is now at night, when criminals stop cars driving on the roads to loot them and commit violence against drivers, he says.
Still, he says, he has a personal understanding of how critical the convoy is.
“I had my vehicle broken into three times as I was on my way to Rutshuru,” he says, referring to one trip he took before the convoy started operating.
In one instance, he says, a woman – a mother – traveling in the truck was killed. In total, he says, five people were wounded. More than $2,000 was taken, he says.
The convoy provides safety, but it also creates huge traffic jams. If a single vehicle breaks down, the entire convoy stops until the problem is fixed.
“There are times when we arrive at our destination two hours late, much to the chagrin of those traveling for business purposes,” he says.
But traveling at all is a luxury these days, at least for some.
“I had given up traveling, as I feared for my personal safety,” says Abiner Kiveho, a regular user of the Kirumba-Goma road. “Everything works well today, and I am not scared anymore to travel.”
Ngongo says the convoy will continue as long as protection is needed for drivers. But drivers hope the real solution is more far-reaching.
“We don’t believe that the convoy system will continue to be our only and best option, as it remains a stopgap measure and not a lasting solution to the scourge,” says Katungu Pendeza, a teacher.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.