For 30 years, conflict has plagued the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as rival armed groups fight for control of key mineral resources. The remote region has become off-limits to most foreign journalists – but a young generation of Congolese photographers is emerging to bear witness to not only the atrocities of war, but the population's fierce desire to live.
According to the United Nations, the Democratic Republic of Congo has Africa's highest number of internally displaced people – around 6.3 million.
Particularly hard-hit, the eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri have long been plagued by armed groups, a legacy of regional wars and the fallout of the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994.
The Tutsi-led rebel group M23, allegedly backed by Rwanda, has captured swathes of territory since launching an offensive in late 2021, and driven over a million people from their homes.
The Norwegian Refugee Council has described the country as having one of the world's most neglected humanitarian crises.
Eastern towns like Goma are difficult to access due to lack of infrastructure. Journalists gather information as best they can but often have to rely on civilians' WhatsApp messages and statements from armed groups, difficult to verify.
Other side of paradise
French journalist Maria Malagardis, author of the book Sur la piste des tueurs rwandais, (“On the trail of Rwandan killers”), knows the region well.
“It's a splendid region, which could and should have been a paradise,” she says. “The other side of the mirror is all the more cruel.”
This is partly because the DRC happens to be the world's main source of strategic minerals used in electronics and phones, such as coltan, copper, tin, cobalt and gold.
Despite this natural wealth, the region has slipped out of political control and the mines are plagued by allegations of dire working conditions, child labour and corruption.
Malagardis, who was asked to curate a photographic exhibition on the crisis for the Prix Bayeux war correspondents annual event in October, says that she is torn between drawing people's attention to the humanitarian tragedy and foregrounding the local population's impressive resilience.
The resulting exhibition, “Thirty years of war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: The other side of paradise”, is a nod to a situation made extremely complex by ethnic violence, political manipulation and immense poverty.
Women in the field
Malagardis turned to a group of four Congolese photographers in their 30s who have grown up in the shadow of the conflict.
Originally from Bukavu, Esther Nsapu is one of the young women in the field who came to present her work in France.
Starting out making blogs and radio reports, she began to take photos to illustrate her stories.
She says people are not used to seeing a woman with a camera. She spends a lot of time convincing the local population that she's trying to portray her region and is not out to take advantage.
“I'm taking photos for their own good, not to resell them,” Nsapu tells RFI, adding that many people are superstitious and accuse her of sorcery.
“Sometimes in the villages, in the countryside, people see my camera and they run away,” she says, describing the gulf between the attitudes of people in the capital, Kinshasa, and remote eastern villages.
Her colleague Ley Uwera, also born in 1989, agrees that it's not easy reporting on the ground, as people often try and get money out of the exchange.
With experience, both women have learned to be more confident in approaching their subjects.
Life goes on
They also insist that it's important to not only show the dark side of the situation, but that people still have hope.
As an example, Uwera describes the day she went out to cover the story of a massacre of civilians in Beni, and came across a parade of colourfully dressed bridesmaids sitting astride motorcycles. They were off to celebrate a wedding. Life goes on.
“The citizens of this region still continue to maintain hope, develop resistance strategies. In Goma, the capital of North Kivu, for example, they organise fashion shows because people also want to be beautiful, to seduce each other, to love each other, to get married,” Malagardis adds.
But the reporter is particularly alarmed for the country as it gears up for general elections on 20 December.
The situation has become worse despite the presence of one of the world's largest and costliest United Nations peacekeeping interventions, Monusco.
There are more than 200 armed groups compared to 20 or so back in 2008 – and more insidiously, the number of foreign mercenaries is also rising, Malagardis points out.
“There are more than 400 white mercenaries in eastern Congo. I have seen no Western country condemn it, it's incredible,” she says.
“Elsewhere we talk about the harm done by Wagner's mercenaries… How is it that these Romanians and the French are not denounced? There is a lot of cynicism in the way this crisis is managed.”
Malagardis is also concerned about the manipulation of local news coverage from the region, and cites cases of journalists jailed for their work.
“I think there is enormous pressure on journalists in this region not to talk about it [the mercenaries],” she says.