War Zone: Digging into the Reality of Life in The Congo

Finbarr O’Reilly’s new photobook examines existence in one of Africa’s most troubled regions.

Sunday church service in the town of Drodro in eastern Congo’s Ituri province

When the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) declared independence from Belgian rule in 1960, the country’s first prime minister Patrice Lumumba spoke the following words: “We are deeply proud of our struggle, because it was just and noble and indispensable in putting an end to the humiliating bondage forced upon us…” He continued: “Brothers, let us commence together a new struggle, a sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness.”

Lumumba was ousted in a military coup backed by the US and Belgium just seven months later and executed, giving way to three decades of dictatorship and now more than 25 years of ongoing violence in two major inter-African wars, especially in the DRC’s gold-rich eastern provinces. In Congo: A Sublime Struggle, Irish-Canadian photographer Finbarr O’Reilly has borrowed Lumumba’s words for a new book of guided photojournalism exploring the legacy of these conflicts, paying particular attention to security, human rights, and how extractive industries (such as gold mining) continue to affect the area today, more than a century after they first attracted European colonialists to the region.

The DRC’s status as one of the world’s poorest countries is enshrined because of “centuries of exploitation and dispossession,” states the book’s preface. Other tragedies are wholly unpredictable. The eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in May 2021 displaced as many as 650,000 people in the first week, adding to the millions forcibly moved by the Second Congo War. O’Reilly’s task is to find humanity within adversity; to truthfully represent difficult circumstances while allowing space for the population’s resilience and resourcefulness.

Miners at a gold mine carved into a diverted riverbank in Iga Barriere in Congo’s Ituri province, May 2021

In the book’s first section on mining, barefoot workers carve into diverted riverbanks searching for gold, sometimes waist-deep in opaque water. O’Reilly captures the intensity and all-consuming nature of the toil: men, women and children alike strain or look back from claustrophobic tunnels towards his camera, while he also shows moments of welcome respite. A man standing in a trench looks beyond the lens into the distance, puffing calmly on a cigarette, a strikingly similar pose to a recent dispatch by O’Reilly’s of coal miners in Dobropillia, in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The abundance and value of gold, uranium and coal continues to subject workers to Victorian working conditions the world over, regardless of war.

Iga Barriere, Ituri, DRC, May 16, 2021

Each of O’Reilly’s photographs is accompanied by a short text (printed in both English and French) detailing the lives of his subjects, from child survivors of attacks on camps for displaced people to damaged classrooms. One image shows a toppled school blackboard still bearing the marks of a lesson. Another depicts a derelict outdoor swimming pool in an old Belgian mining region. The book’s wider themes include state governance, gender-based violence, justice, and the tentative prospect of peace, humanised through several case study sections which zoom in on Congolese strife.

“The abundance and value of gold, uranium and coal continues to subject workers to Victorian working conditions the world over”

Bunia, Ituri Province. Inmates prepare a single daily meal at the Central Prison, May 2021

One case study details life in the central prison in Bunia, Ituri, where lack of funds leads to starvation and sanitation problems. O’Reilly’s lens falls not just on the people here, but also on the material and symbolic markers which give these photographs added complexity. One photograph from the prison shows stacks of bowls containing what the artist describes as “meagre amounts of bean soup” for each prisoner. An adjacent shot shows a young man bringing a bowl towards his mouth, an act of apparent sustenance undermined by the reality of his incarcerated life.

“A Sublime Struggle’s most intimate moments are zoomed-in profiles of individuals affected by this violence”

O’Reilly began shooting in January 2020, but Covid-19 prompted a shift in approach. His initial Congo in Conversation project became a collaborative one, the final book produced with 12 Congolese photographers on the ground. A Sublime Struggle then took shape when travel resumed in 2021. The book serves as a reminder of photography’s evidential function: the International Criminal Court (ICC), with whom this book is produced, uses photography as part of its outreach programmes, maintaining regular contact with survivors of war crimes committed during the Second Congo War.

  • Copy of Maria, North Kivu, DRC rz
  • Copy of Rebecca, North Kivu, DRC rz
  • Left: Maria, North Kivu, DRC
  • Right: Rebecca, North Kivu, DRC

A Sublime Struggle’s most intimate moments are zoomed-in profiles of individuals affected by this violence. One shows Erick, a civilian who lost his leg during a militia-government shootout. The Trust Fund for Victims project, working under the ICC’s jurisdiction, has provided him with prosthetics and financial support, though the range of O’Reilly’s journalism assures us that he is one of the lucky ones, that his story is one of many.

“There are flickers of hope throughout the book, but it is also necessary, if painful, for the perpetrators of the country’s violence to be given space”

Another snapshot shows Maria and Rebecca from North Kivu Province. Both are rape victims and were subsequently shunned by their husbands and communities. They too have received psychological and modest financial support from the Trust Fund for Victims project as they strive to recover. “Life is better now because I don’t depend on anyone else and I can earn my living,” Maria says. “I just want to survive and build a small house.”

Dorika, North Kivu, DRC

There are flickers of hope throughout the book, but it is also necessary, if painful, for the perpetrators of the country’s violence to be given space in this photographic narrative. O’Reilly describes an encounter in May 2021 with Cecede Ndrundro, a militia leader whose subgroup of the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (a political-religious sect) has been linked to more than 1,500 deaths in the last five years alone.

It is disorienting to think of these individuals as countrymen to the other suffering characters in A Sublime Struggle, but the DRC’s recent history has been largely determined by these competing aggressors. Ndrundro paints an understated but chilling picture of nation and cause. “If the government was strong it could secure the area and bring order,” he says plainly. “But it is not strong and instead it brings disorder.”

Ravi Ghosh is Elephant’s editorial assistant

Congo: A Sublime Struggle by Finbarr O’Reilly is out now (Fondation Carmignac and Reliefs Editions)

Images © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac


Sunday Read

Elephant’s review column dives into a different art book every week