Congo | Where Aircraft Graveyards Double as Makeshift Playgrounds


A boy in the Democratic Republic of Congo once told me that he thought the sky was the cause of his misfortune. In 1996 he had run for months through Congo’s rainforest, fleeing from the rebel fighters of Laurent Kabila and Paul Kagame. On his journey this boy saw the unimaginable. Fighters lined up civilians on riverbanks and shot them down. Children died on their mothers’ backs. People succumbed to disease and hunger. The bodies of his family members fell into mass graves dug up by the marauding fighters. ‘The sky was always above me,’ the boy said.

He knew of an aircraft that had crashed in the jungle not far from his home. The metal cabin gaped open, the propeller was twisted and the seats were decayed. He mused about repairing this carcase. The boy wanted to fly in it beyond the sky, to peace.

The graveyards of old aircraft in Congo have become playgrounds. Children steal into them to play in the fuselages, to hang upside down from wheel shafts and walk over the wings. Boys and girls in many places have to imagine aeroplanes from toys in their hands. Congo’s children have an entire, broken country in which to play.

The Rwandan and Congolese fighters from whom the boy fled crushed the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu had governed Congo for 32 years. He had drawn the country to great heights of splendor and joy, mostly by nationalizing an economy built by Belgians during colonial rule. He took over diamond and copper mines, electricity and water companies, hospitals, palm oil plantations, shipyards and railways. The Congolese saw no aberration or risk in such appropriation. They had known their country was endowed with mineral riches. For years before independence their leaders had told them that this wealth should belong to them. Now, for the first time, it did. Congo roared.

Mobutu’s policies produced a brilliant flash in central Africa. For a brief period Congo was a place of dreams. Congolese bought mansions in Europe and fleets of luxury cars. Mobutu flew in croissants from Paris for breakfast. Wealth that had required a generation to build – for mostly Belgian profit, it must be said – was extinguished in a few years. Handed to untrained Congolese managers, the economy was destroyed. Only a memory of that time remains now, along with a deep nostalgia for it.

PHOTO: Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum

The forces of Kabila and Kagame took over a ruined country whose institutions had been wrecked by Mobutu’s dictatorship. Congo had no courts or functioning parliament. The government rapidly crumbled and the country was split by warring factions. Kabila was installed as president (Kagame, Rwanda’s de facto leader at the time, became president of his country in 2000). A United Nations report in 2010 mapped the Rwandan and Congolese forces’ killings and determined that they were so widespread and systematic that they might be acts of genocide. That rebellion against Mobutu sparked what is the world’s worst war today. An estimated five million people have died in it from violence and war-induced hunger and disease.

PHOTO: Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum

In Congo’s shattered landscape are playgrounds that children use as shelter. The poverty is so wrenching that families send out their girls as prostitutes. Parents unable to provide food tell their children to leave. Boys and girls are seized from their homes to fight in rebellions. Kabila’s army was infamous for its child soldiers, and when Congolese saw small boys take over their capital an innocence was lost. In Congo’s playgrounds you find these children, discharged by armies and abandoned by families. They are six, eight, 13 years old. They don’t go to school. They play in old buildings and palaces at night.

PHOTO: Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum

Congo’s children drink spirits, use drugs and have sex. They try to cope with the devastation that surrounds them. Broken aircraft are appropriated for use as homes. They are pillaged of their parts. The aircraft have stalled and have become permanent dwellings; the temporary has become permanent. Built to fly, these aircraft have become trapped in creeping foliage. But play also offers sweet redemption. In the thrill of the moment, hopping, twisting and upside down, these children are undeniably joyful. The happiness is precious. In a vast country dismantled like a toy, there are always unexpected ways to play and to forget, and for a moment to feel that in the belly of a great machine one might be soaring far above this world.

Anjan Sundaram is the author of Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo (Atlantic, £12.99)

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