By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 30, 2006
GOMA, Congo, Oct. 29 -- With the border closed, shops shuttered and markets emptied, millions of Congolese, with hopes as vast as their country, headed to polls Sunday to elect a president for the first time in more than 40 years.
Voting was largely peaceful, despite analysts' predictions that it would not be, as the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world patrolled dirt roads and swarms of international and local observers looked on. In the west, where rain drenched the capital, Kinshasa, observers reported a slightly lower turnout than in the first round in July, but participation nonetheless appeared massive.
In the east, for instance, where rural villages have been terrorized by war and militias and, lately, hungry soldiers with guns, some polling stations estimated that 70 to 80 percent of registered voters had cast ballots by Sunday afternoon. In the provincial capital of Goma, where electricity and pavement are scarce, people began lining up at 4 a.m.
Daniel Maheshe, 59, arrived when polls opened at 6 a.m., his orange voter card in hand.
"We need to make this country stand up," said Maheshe, a father of eight, who works as a bricklayer when he can. "This is why I'm here. We are living like beasts. This is an unacceptable life. No jobs, no medications, no schools. This is why I'm here."
Congolese election officials and the people themselves seem to have defied doubts that the vote would ever happen. But it remained to be seen whether the two presidential candidates, their personal armies and the militias still roaming the east, would follow through as well.
The two presidential contenders are men accustomed to leading by force.
President Joseph Kabila's father, Laurent Kabila, toppled the longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in a 1997 coup; Jean-Pierre Bemba is a businessman-turned-rebel leader-turned-vice president in Kabila's transitional government. Fighting among their supporters killed at least 14 in the wake of the July balloting, and small skirmishes have erupted here and there across the country in recent days.
But on Friday, under pressure from the United Nations and border countries such as Rwanda and Uganda that have at various points backed both men, Kabila and Bemba pledged to accept the election results.
Meanwhile, holed up in a mansion in the rolling green mountains near Goma, Laurent Nkunda, a rebel leader charged with war crimes, also appears to be vying for legitimacy. He had ordered his soldiers not to interfere in the voting and, in recent months, had created his own political party, the National Congress for the People's Defense. With his power waning, observers say it remains unclear whether he will be arrested or given a position in government.
The people who lined up to vote Sunday in Goma and other villages could only guess about the future.
"My expectation is for this to go peacefully," said Jacques Nghigabalume, 46, standing in a long line in Goma.
Two wars and persistent fighting among militias since then killed five of his brothers, he said. Soldiers -- he was not sure which ones -- looted his house in the city of Bukavu, and so he was here. "I really can't tell" how things will go, Nghigabalume said. "Because I'm not a politician."
Marie-Jeanne Ndeko, however, said that she could feel things changing in a more permanent way, at least within herself.
For years, she said, she has watched her husband earn one training certificate after another, in tourism, aviation, mechanics and transportation, and as a firefighter, only to remain jobless. He is studying still, having no other option. It has changed her attitude about politicians, a significant thing in a country ruled for three decades by Mobutu's paternalistic cult of personality and kleptocracy.
"Suffering changes your mind," Ndeko said. "This suffering has opened my mind, and I will feel free to go to these people," she said, referring to her newly elected leaders, who for the first time will soon include provincial legislators.
"If they don't abide by what they promise," she said, "I will not choose them next time."