The eastern Congo in Africa has been mired in conflict for decades. But in one corner of the city of Goma, men are trying to heal the scars of war by becoming a different type of fighter. Here, it’s jabs and uppercuts that are flying instead of grenades and bullets.
At 6 a.m., even the streets of Goma have a sense of peace about them. Music spills from the storefront churches, and the normally terrifying motorcycle taxis offer a discounted “first customer” fare.
It’s also the time when a group of young men known as the Friendship Club gathers in a concrete notch of an open-air soccer stadium to train. Lacking ropes or a ring, or in some cases sneakers, the men exchange jabs while their trainer and coach Kibomango looks on with a serene smile.
“I feel at ease when I see them practicing,” Kibomango says. “Considering what we passed through, when I see young people practicing like this, it pleases me a lot.”
The 35-year-old coach — born Balezi Bagunda, but everyone calls him by his fighting moniker — is blind in his left eye from a bomb blast. This has to be strange for his opponents, because he boxes southpaw. The eye you see when he comes at you is shriveled, sunken — an old man’s eye, on a powerful body.
“It doesn’t matter having one eye,” he says, “because I’m used to fighting since my youth.”
In fact, Kibomango’s whole childhood was a series of battles: first, as a street boy fighting for food and turf; then as a child soldier in the rebel army that brought the now-rulers of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to power.
Today the young men he coaches are 19 or 20 years old but already veterans — snatched up by militia groups to fight at age 12 or 10. Kibomango teaches them boxing as well as auto mechanics with help from a local nongovernmental organization, the Kivu Assistance and Reintegration Centre. It was started by Congolese peace activists.
One of his students is 19-year-old Kedrique Moke, who boxes under the name Tyson — as in Mike. Moke was just 10 years old when he was conscripted into the Union of Congolese Patriots, a rebel militia notorious for ethnic massacres, torture and rapes. He says he doesn’t remember very much.
“We were given a sort of water which was a spirit water,” he says. “It changes your mind, and whatever thing you do you don’t know it. If we killed we killed, but we were not under control of ourselves.”
It might seem odd that teaching former killers the art of fighting could help them become better citizens or deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. But Kibomango says boxing and fighting are as different as sports and war. Raw brutality doesn’t win matches. You have to pay attention, stay in control — not the way he recalls himself as a child soldier, lost “in space.”
“When I say being in the space, I mean I wasn’t really responsible for myself. I was ready to be sent. Go here, I go. Do this, I do. That’s what I mean being in the space,” he says.
Three years ago, the one-eyed Kibomango became welterweight champion of his province. Apparently he beat his opponent so hard that the man died a few days later. This month, Kibomango and some of his trainees were going to nationals — that is, until November, when a rebel group called M23 took over the city of Goma. The governor fled and took with him the money that the boxers were to use to fly to the championship in Kinshasa.
So now, each night on TV, Kibomango watches other boxers fight his bouts. And instead of dealing with sports agents, he’s dealing with a different kind of local recruiter. The M23 rebels, though officially retreated from the city, still lurk around training sessions in civilian clothes.
“They tell us it’s good there [with the M23],” he says. “They tell us we can be mechanics, boxers, and that we’re going to get salaries.
“Military politics,” Kibomango adds.
Just then, a young boxer, Fabrice Djef, interrupts. “We are sons of Congo,” he says. “We’d die before we fought for M23 against our country.”
But Kibomango says he has already lost two boxers to the M23. And he’s not so quick to label his former trainees as traitors. “Yes, they were recruited. Even me — if it continues like this, because there’s no other way of surviving without being a soldier — I can even go again to the army,” he says.
Even if that means giving up boxing and going back to the fighting life.