March 1997, Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo, (Zaire at the time)
On assignment for LIFE, the American news feature magazine, to produce a photo essay on child soldiers I found myself in Goma talking with a Médecins Sans Frontières doctor who told me that many thousands of Hutus of all nationalities were fleeing reprisal killings from Tutsi-led rebels.
According to his information a medical team had been urgently dispatched to Kisangani, the northern Congo commercial capital since the XIX century situated on the banks of the Congo River some 15 hours away by road. I decided to go and investigate.
At the hotel I met Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Briefed on his experience of the previous day it was evident a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions was unfolding on the other side of the river. That night I found a 4x4 with driver. At dawn we took the ferry across the Congo River to Lubunga from where a dirt road snakes through the dense bamboo forest, some of Africa’s thickest jungle, towards Ubundu, their apparent destination where crocodile infested rapids of the Congo River, impossible to cross, awaited them. Torrential rains had made the road a quagmire. Progress painfully slow. Fifteen kilometres in we came across an opening in the forest where an abandoned brick church stood under which a handful of rain-soaked Hutus were sheltering, one of whom, a young female schoolteacher, said that ahead thousands like them were walking as fast as they could fearing Tutsi rebels intent on killing weren’t far behind.
As we ventured deep into the forest the scale of the tragedy revealed itself.
Mothers carrying sick children on their backs, separated from their men folk were everywhere. Grandmothers and old men too weak and diseased to go on, lay down on the ground to die. Malnourished children were everywhere I looked. Men carrying their infants on their shoulders carrying the barest of necessities on their backs ploughed on through the mud in hope of reaching help. I hadn’t seen anything like this in all my years reporting on humanitarian strife.
Some 30 kilometres down this track of human despair the jungle darkness opened to a clearing where a team of white doctors were doing what they could. Their monumental task increasing by the minute.
The stronger of them had set up makeshift camps with whatever they had carried with them. Steely eyed young men appeared in some way to be in command, giving instructions. While most Hutu refugees in Zaire had not been instrumental in the 1994 massacres, relief officials say many of these authoritative young men are veterans of Rwanda's Interahamwe, the Hutu-dominated militia that carried the infamous massacre against Rwanda's Tutsi minority.
As I pushed on further south bodies, some gasping their last breath covered in flies, some reduced to skeletons, lifeless at the side of the track. A truly devastating way to die. Their lives senselessly torn apart.
© Derek Hudson 2021
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