Goma airport, the gateway to one of the largest and most strategic cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s unstable and mineral-rich east, is the city’s only connection to distant Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital and a place unreachable from Goma by road. Consequently, it’s also one of the few places in town where anyone seems to be in charge of things.

Its single-level terminal and lone runway are ringed with barbed wire and U.N. peacekeepers huddled in bunkers and armored vehicles, and the airport road is a rock-strewn thoroughfare bordered with concrete security barriers. Because its single runway streaks through the center of downtown, the perimeter road brims with activity: Bony peasants sell charcoal and bundles of wood; traders hawk off-brand clothing smuggled in through Uganda. Rebels lurk in the nearby hills while mineral traffickers and army officers live side by side in gabled villas overlooking the shores of nearby Lake Kivu.

More than a million people are crammed between an active volcano and a palm-lined equatorial lake, and the city itself mirrors this contrast. It is volatile and changeable; beautiful at times but impossible to control or predict.

Goma has bounded from crisis to crisis over the past twenty dependably disastrous years, whether it’s been the arrival of more than one million refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a cholera epidemic in 1996, the destructive blast of the Nyiragongo Volcano in 2002, or more recent battles between Congolese government forces and the Rwandan-supported M23 rebel movement, which was finally defeated in late 2013. It’s a city where lots of people have guns—or small rocket launchers, as the case may be—but where governance and public order is something of an ambiguous concept.

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