Despite the ongoing political tensions between Rwanda and the DRC, trade along the borders of the two neighbors is booming.
The exchange of both legal and illegal goods across the Rwanda-DR Congo border has continued despite ongoing political tensions between the two neighbors. The DR Congo government has accused Rwanda of supporting the rogue military group M23.
President Kabila’s government in Kinshasa accuses President Paul Kagame’s regime in Kigali of supporting a rogue military outfit, the M23 to destabilize peace especially in Goma, a border town in Eastern DRC.
The East African Business Week visited Gisenyi; Rwanda’s town bordering DRC’s Goma located some four hours’ drive from the capital Kigali.
It’s here that reports have alleged that several Rwandan civilians who have attempted to cross into DRC for business have allegedly been arrested and tortured.
“You can’t go in there but if you insist, then be ready to die or to be tortured by the authorities in Congo,” said Safina Mukankusi, a cross border petty trader.
According to locals here, anyone with links to Rwanda in form of passport looks or language is a target for the Congolese authorities.
The irony is, Gisenyi town located on the Rwandan side of the border is full of Congolese civilians loaded with all sorts of merchandise which they then carry to the DRC side of the border where locals here say life is very terrible with extreme levels of poverty.
Men and women from the DRC flock the Rwanda side riding on tricycles on which several civilians pack their goods bought from Rwandan markets.
It’s also here that massive petty smuggling takes place.
“There are so many ‘fat’ women around here,” said a Rwandan customs official.
The official explains that most of the women are not fat in actual sense but simply stuffed with several garments in which they then hide commodities such as alcohol and sell them on the Rwandan side at a profit.
“Some make more than 20 trips per day often smuggling a single commodity per journey…but these are poor people who are looking for a meal from their petty deals,” the official revealed.
From the sale of smuggled goods, poor Congolese locals then buy food and other merchandise from the Rwandan side which they take back home to again sell for a fee.
With the current instability however, there’s a new development.
“Most of the Congo-men are coming to sleep here at night and go back home during day for fear of attacks,” said Fidel, a resident of Gisenyi.
He says most of them sleep on the streets while others have rented some cheap houses in which they spend the night often in groups.
Looking at the people here, it’s quite hard to imagine that their country is home to some of the World’s most valuable minerals like gold and diamonds.
Bribes and other corrupt dealings (on the DRC side) are the quickest ways to get a service done according to traders from the Rwandan side.
“Once they know you have money, they will detain you until you part with some money to secure your release, it’s mostly those that don’t have who are tortured,” explained Laurent Makubu who claims he has ever been detained but bribed the Congolese police with $15 to secure his freedom.
While the Congolese who cross to the Rwandan side report no harassment, it remains a mystery why their Rwandan counterparts are the target of mistreatment on the other side.
Now as a result, most Rwandan traders say they have resorted to using Congolese middlemen to get goods from the DRC side but at a much higher cost as the middlemen charge for their service.
Suspicion hangs in the air around this borderline. While the situation remains visibly normal on the Rwanda side, a Rwandan or Ugandan passports draw immediate suspicions on the DRC side.
This reporter decides he wants to live another day and stops just a step away from crossing over to the DRC side.
While petty trade here booms, it’s clear the unwanted hindrances created by the current standoff are taking their toll on the trading communities here.