- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

KINDU, CONGO Agnus Olenga stands shoulder to shoulder with Kindu's other fresh-meat sellers, hawking small piles of goat innards. Wiping her face on her arm when the flow of customers slows, she points to the strangely empty row of stalls across from her.

"That's where the dried-meat sellers used to sit, but since Henriette's death, they are afraid to come here," she said, explaining how her friend was taken early one morning recently and shot by the Rwanda-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD). The soldiers claimed Henriette's dried bush meat could only have come from territory held by the enemy, so she must have been working with them.

This is a country supposedly on the path to peace, but people here could be forgiven for their disbelief. Since Rwanda one of seven foreign countries involved in the Democratic Republic of Congo's complicated four-year civil war pulled its troops from Kindu a little more than a month ago, conditions have deteriorated.

The July 30 withdrawal agreement was hailed internationally as an important step toward peace in Africa's largest civil war. Last weekend, Congo's two main rebel groups, the RCD and the Uganda-backed Congolese Liberation Movement, met in South Africa with the Congolese government to negotiate a postwar power-sharing government.

But the reality on the ground is far more complicated. Although the country continues to be effectively divided among the three main parties, this has long ceased being a war between organized rebel factions and the government.

Instead of one big war in eastern Congo, there are now dozens of little ones. Small bands fight each other or the RCD in increasingly bizarre alliances that shift and split so quickly that observers have difficulty tracking them.

Added to this are growing reports, most compellingly from last week's U.N. panel, that foreign armies have not entirely withdrawn from the Congo and may be maintaining a hidden presence that will continue to exploit the country's diamond and mineral wealth.

Here in Kindu, a city of about 250,000 people with a strategically important airport, the main fighting is between the RCD and Mai Mai bands of traditional warriors. Observers count at least four different Mai Mai factions, each aligned with one of the region's main ethnic groups.

Most of the surrounding villages have been emptied and are too dangerous to visit. Human rights organizations say at least 40 civilians like Henriette have been killed on the way to their fields.

The United Nations and local church groups estimate that more than 12,000 new refugees have flooded into the city from nearby villages. The humanitarian situation in Kindu is deteriorating, with most residents unable to reach their fields and too poor to buy expensive food brought in by airplane.

Kabuka Kibi fled to Kindu with his family of nine the day after the Rwandan soldiers left. The Mai Mai burned his village about five miles from here, and told villagers to leave or face death.

Standing on the stoop of the abandoned house he shares with several other families, Mr. Kibi counts his family lucky. More than 30 people share each room in the house, and they sleep on grass mats. Although Mr. Kibi's family escaped their village with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, they are alive. In one nearby village, his new neighbors report, a pregnant woman was fatally shot by the Mai Mai while trying to flee a village that was being emptied.

But life in Kindu is hard for newcomers. There is no international help, and few of the city's residents, who are struggling to survive, can provide assistance.

Mr. Kibi's children, who crowd around their father, hair tinged with red from malnutrition, can't remember when they last ate.

"This is the worst situation I've seen here in 23 years," said the Most Rev. Mambe Mukanga, the region's Roman Catholic bishop, who has been trying to convince the World Food Program to begin food distribution here.

Further north, much of the fighting has been tribal, with reports of massacres that prompted the United Nations to warn of "ethnic cleansing" like Rwanda's genocide in 1994.

Down south, along the borders with Rwanda and Burundi, there are reports of a strange new alliance among the Interahamwe (the Hutu militiamen who fled to the Congo after killing hundreds of thousands of Rwanda's ethnic Tutsis), Congolese Tutsis, and Mai Mai, said to be backed by the government of Congo.

The United Nations has 5,500 troops here, but their mandate is to observe, not keep the peace. Nor does the mission have the power to deal with the country's warring factions. Even if the U.N. Security Council were to bolster the troops' mandate a move few here think is likely one humanitarian worker estimates the Congo would require 150,000 peacekeepers to give it a presence similar to one that brought peace to Sierra Leone during the past two years.

Few here believe the international community is willing to commit that level of resources to an African nation, even one as resource-rich as the Congo.

The people in Kindu, displaced and starved by a war, have simple wishes: freedom to work their fields and live in their homes peacefully. But despite assurances by international leaders that peace is on its way, few see the signs.

"All we want is peace," said Saido Mujunda, a refugee displaced with his family of 18. "Can't anyone help us?"

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