Living in Fear

A year after election, conflict sweeps east Congo

Dec. 24, 2007


MASISI, Congo (AP) _ The war is visible in the graying hair and shrunken arms of hungry children whose parents have fled fighting as many as six times this year alone.

It is etched in the faces of maimed women running from some of the worst sexual violence in the world. And it can be heard daily in the panicked footsteps of countless people searching for safe refuge anywhere _ which is often nowhere.

Five years after the end of an earlier war that drew in half a dozen African armies and ripped apart this giant nation, fighting has broken out again in eastern Congo, threatening regional stability and putting hundreds of thousands of people on the run.

Fueled by the ghosts of Rwanda's genocide, the latest violence has dashed hopes that historic elections last year _ the first in four decades _ could usher in a new era of peace. Instead, renegade soldiers have rebelled and an entire province has disintegrated into rival fiefdoms beyond government control. The number of displaced people has swelled to 800,000, half of whom fled clashes this year.

With Congo's weak army powerless to stop the violence, the terrified people caught in between are finding no place is secure. Many have fled skirmishes, only to flee again from more fighting. Others have returned to fetid displacement camps to find even their cooking pots, food and plastic sheeting have been pillaged _ by equally desperate soldiers tasked with protecting them.

After the latest violence in August in Masisi, Vumiliya Uyiduhaye found the body of her husband lying face down in a field. He had been shot in the back with their baby as he ran from an attack.

"I died that day," the 33-year-old widow says softly, at a hospital where her daughter is recovering from a gunshot wound suffered weeks later in yet another attack. "Who will support my family? Who will protect us now?"

Across the rocky volcanic plains of Mugunga, just west of the provincial capital of Goma, columns of gray smoke from cooking fires rise out of a sea of domed huts. The huts are covered with the only shelter around: clumps of dried banana leaves scavenged from the surrounding bush.

Now home to tens of thousands of Congo's newest displaced, these plains once sheltered a colossal tide of refugees fleeing the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Most of the Rwandans eventually returned, but tens of thousands of ethnic Hutus _ who had slaughtered Tutsis en masse _ stayed on.

Their continued presence has sparked three
rebellions here in just over a decade, including the latest led by former army general Laurent Nkunda. Nobody has been able to eradicate them _ not Congo's military, nor the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping force, nor the experienced army of Rwanda, which has invaded twice.

Today the notorious Hutu militia has morphed into a mix of older Rwandan commanders and younger Congolese Hutus known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, who openly man roadblocks and control territory. Like all other armed groups in Congo, they prey on civilians, battling over fertile land and lucrative tin and gold mines.

Nkunda accuses Congo's army of supplying them with arms. Congo in turn accuses Nkunda of getting support from Rwanda.

Nkunda claims his rebellion is protecting Tutsis from the militias. But rights groups sa
y Tutsis are not being targeted more than others, and that the rebellion is only making anti-Tutsi sentiment worse by leaving mass graves in its wake.

The result: ethnic divides are deepening, and the conf
lict has torn apart the countryside.

The rural roads of north Kivu Province, home to 4.5 million people, wind through lush, emerald hillsides _ and the front lines.

On one stretch, an army roadblock manned by helmeted soldiers marks the last remnant of state authority, which dwindles as the route climbs through empty villages and disappears altogether at the first checkpoint manned by Nkunda's rebels.

Maps drawn by aid workers show how shockingly little the Congo government controls. One, resembling a colored quilt, marks Nkunda's areas in orange, army zones in green, pro-government militia areas in pink and Rwandan rebel areas in white.

At the top of a government-controlled hill in Katale, army Col. Filamo Yav peers through binoculars toward a handful of tents perched on hilltops several miles away. The tents are occupied by Nkunda and his men, who once served alongside Yav on his hill.

One night in August, they shared dinner and beer, and slept.

"They left that night, and attacked us the next day," Yav said, as soldiers patrol trenches dug into black soil.

Down the road at Mushake, the charred hulk of Yav's truck sits by the road. Rebels with spears and rocket-propelled grenade launchers lean against the dark wooden walls of closed shops.

This month, Congo's army launched an offensive against the rebels, sending rocket fire streaking across the hills. They captured several towns, including Mushake, but lost them again days later in a massive retreat, pillaging homes as they ran.

In a no man's land halfway between army and rebel checkpoints, a businessman named Bonane Mulisya sits by the roadside. Rebels wouldn't let him pass, he says, until the army let a separ
ate convoy of vehicles through their side.

"Elections were supposed to bring democracy," Mulisya says, wondering aloud if he'd spend the night sleeping on the grass, trapped between the two sides. "We thought life might get better. It's getting worse."

To th
e north of Goma, army shellfire booms through a valley shadowed by the towering Mikeno volcano. To the south, peacekeepers guarded by four white U.N. tanks sip tea at a small base with a dozen tents, listening to the distant explosions and rat-tat-tat of automatic weapons.

The 18,000-strong U.N. force is unlikely to intervene unless large population centers are under threat. The U.N. says its mandate is to protect civilians and support the government.

On the road, a handful of people leaving the area walk barefoot with sleeping mats and plastic water containers balanced on their heads.

Such clashes have brought some aid projects to a halt. A U.N. program to resettle thousands of displaced people in the town of Rutshuru was canceled after fighting broke out nearby. In early December, the U.N. had to suspend food distribution to about 300,000 people for a week.

In the nearby village of Kabaya, thousands of families shelter in schools and wooden churches from the pouring rain. Barefoot, in rags, they complain there is not enough to eat.

Their sons say they are afraid to go home because Nkunda's fighters will conscript them. Their farmers say Nkunda's fighters will shoot them. The land is fallow and travel is unsafe, doubling the price of key staples like potatoes and beans.

It shouldn't be this way. In a region that was once the breadbasket of eastern Congo, the U.N. says malnutrition in some places has reached 19 percent _ four percent above the emergency threshold.

"It's always been incredibly violent, but it's gotten a lot worse in the last few months," Susan Sanders of Medecins Sans Frontieres says in Goma. "People are too scared to go home to their fields. People are hungry. People are being killed."

At an emergency feeding center in Rutshuru, the number of children treated has doubled over the last month to more than 700. Cradling emaciated infants, mothers tell how they fled first Rwandan rebels, then Nkunda's fighters.

In Goma, victims of sexual violence _ the worst seen since the height of the last war in 2000 _ arrive every day at a hospital. Armed groups have raped and tortured tens of thousands of women they accused of supporting their rivals, hanging them upside down from trees and ripping apart their reproductive organs with machetes or guns.

In a small ward where rusting beds are crammed side by side, one woman wraps her fingers around the bandaged stump of her left leg, which doctors amputated to save her life after a gunshot wound became infected. Held for two months by Rwandan militias and repeatedly gang-raped, she escaped only after Nkunda's rebels attacked and shot her.

Another woman suffering from severe mental trauma cut off her own thumb after she was gang-raped. Nearby, a weeks-old baby sleeps wrapped in a blanket. Doctors say the unwanted child is beaten daily by its mother, who gave birth after she was raped by Rwandan militias.

Counselor Hortance Tshomba tries to give advice to patients, who are often left infertile and abandoned by shamed husbands.

"I tell them life goes on. You have to go on," Tshomba says, cradling her own baby at her breast. "I tell them not to be afraid. But when I hear their stories, I become afraid. I don't know what's happening to our country."

At the hospital in Masisi, Uyiduhaye _ the mother who lost her husband and baby in August _ looks over the wounds of her 12-year-old daughter.

White gauze is wrapped around the girl's shoulder and back, and she is healing fast. But with good news comes bad: once the girl recovers fully, Uyiduhaye will have to leave the temporary refuge of the medical facility.

Her family has nowhere to go.

"This is the only place we feel safe," she says, staring blankly out of a hospital window.