To the Congo

Children play on abandoned planes at Goma Airport during a rare time when no security forces, or the UN, were stationed there, in this series by Magnum photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown.

  • Words + Photography: Michael Christopher Brown

Abandoned planes are a common sight at airports in Africa. At Goma Airport, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, planes abandoned due to wars and volcanic eruptions over the past two decades have become a playground for street children. Sometimes they sell the parts, which are made into stoves and other items to be sold on the streets of Goma.

One is generally prohibited from photographing this airport; but in mid-December 2012, after the M23 rebel force that occupied Goma left, and before the FARDC (the military of the DRC) returned to the city, a security vacuum meant that nobody was guarding this section of the airport.

Children guided me through the planes, which were later discussed by my Congolese fixer, Horeb:

“In January of 2002, the volcano (Nyiragongo, just outside Goma) exploded and the lava blocked the planes. I helped move this plane after many of my friends and I, living near the airport, lost our homes on the first day of the eruption. On the second day, we saw the lava moving towards the planes; we were just watching it flow, getting closer to them, and decided to move this newer one. At least a hundred people were there, pushing the plane for about 300 metres.”

“A friend of mine, whose house was also destroyed, had a childhood dream to be a pilot. But his parents were too poor and all the schools were expensive, so he could not hold onto that dream. He forgot about it. But, that day, when we needed to move the plane, he told me to help him inside so he might steer it! We all pushed the plane as my friend waved his arm out the window, in the cockpit. We then climbed into the plane and saw the lava flowing down the volcano and into town,” said Horeb.

Over two years have now passed, the war is over (at least temporarily, against M23 – one of many rebel groups) and there is now a high concrete wall blocking the view of the planes from the road. I no longer know if there are children running on the wings, but the two hours I spent there are among my best memories from Congo.

However destroyed the country might sometimes seem, the resilience of its people will ultimately ensure some form of victory.

Michael Christopher Brown is a Magnum photographer who lives in New York City

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