Bad Roads

Hutu rebels' main hunting ground a lawless region

March 05, 1999


RUTSHURU, Congo, March 5 (Reuters) - When the civilian governor of eastern Congo's North Kivu province needed to travel upcountry recently, he donned military garb and went in a dozen-car convoy brimming with soldiers and escorted by a tank.

The main road winding north from Goma through the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo twists through a spectacular terrain of yellow maize fields, velvety green hills, dense forests and towering volcanoes.

But the beauty surrounding the road belies its danger.

Residents say Rwandan Hutu militiamen, who this week hacked to death eight foreign tourists across the border in Uganda, have survived for years hidden in the hills and thick forests of Virunga National Park.

The ``Interahamwe'' militia, which played a key role in the massacres of an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda's 1994 genocide, has been wreaking havoc across the area for months, burning cars and homes and pillaging peasant farmers at whim.

Up to 30 people were killed last week alone when seven vehicles travelling in an 18-car convoy were ambushed in the park at Mayamoto, 110 km (70 miles) north of Goma.

A government delegation that went to inspect the carnage found another three charred lorries near Lilimbi to the east, not far from the Ugandan border.

The steady flow of horror stories -- including beheadings, looting sprees and transport lorries incinerated by rocket-propelled grenades -- has overwhelmed local authorities.

Congolese soldiers, many wearing tennis shoes, T-shirts and ragged uniforms, have not been paid in months and have little incentive to risk their lives against Rwandan insurgents.

Rwandan army troops -- who are well trained, better paid and better equipped than their Congolese counterparts -- have stepped in, patrolling dirt roads in four-wheel-drive vehicles and conducting operations against Rwandan guerrillas.

The violence has displaced tens of thousands of civilians who say they are trapped between the Interahamwe and the Rwandan soldiers who came to flush them out.

``We don't want them (Rwandan soldiers) here because they are foreigners,'' said one displaced farmer living with relatives in Rutshuru. ``But we accept their presence because security has improved since they came.''

The situation is further complicated by the on-going rebellion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in which Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebels took up arms against President Laurent Kabila last August.

Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad have sent troops to fight for Kabila. The rebels control most of the east.

The former Zaire's latest rebellion has fuelled mistrust between civilians and the new rebel authorities, who have done little to improve life in the hills.

But local authorities have done what they can, calling on the people to patrol their own areas nightly with soldiers.

On stretches of road that pass through forests, officials have hacked down nearby trees to make ambushes more difficult.

Rwandan and Congolese troops guard the roads, hopping up from makeshift camps with hand grenades to flag down cars at impromptu roadblocks and ask for cigarettes and spare change.

A taxi driver slowed down and watched cautiously at a safe distance before determining that a small mob of men in military uniforms moving hastily around a blue lorry were friendly troops and not Rwandan rebels.

On both sides of the Goma/Rutshuru road, the volcanic-rock remains of camps that once housed about one million Rwandan refugees have been swallowed by the bush and look like ancient ruins.

The sprawling camps, which also housed perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, were forcibly closed when Rwandan troops crossed the border in 1996 and sparked a rebellion that brought Kabila to power in mid-1997.

``The refugees went back home but we've inherited a war,'' said one Rutshuru resident.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.