Thursday, January 24, 2008

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 a half-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.

Today, however, Congolese President Joseph Kabila saluted a triumph of hope over despair with the “great victory” of a peace conference on the troubled eastern Kivu provinces.

After the movement of rebel former Gen. Laurent Nkunda and other groups signed an “act of engagement” for an immediate cease-fire, Mr. Kabila said he was delighted to have secured the prize of a settlement.

“We have won a great victory over the skeptics,” Mr. Kabila said.

Fueled by the ghosts of Rwanda’s genocide, the latest violence has dashed hopes that 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.

Government negotiators and rebel groups signed a deal yesterday to end fighting in the region. But past efforts to end fighting have failed, with Congo’s weak army powerless to stop the violence and 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.

About 45,000 people die each month in Congo, according to a report this week co-sponsored by the aid group International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Congo’s monthly death rate of 2.2 deaths for each 1,000 people — essentially unchanged from the last survey in 2004 — is nearly 60 percent higher than the average for sub-Saharan Africa, according to the study by IRC and Australia’s Burnet Institute, which researches epidemiological disease.

After the latest violence in August in Masisi, Vumiliya Uyiduhaye found the body of her husband lying facedown 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 said softly, at a hospital where her daughter was 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 against the Kinshasa government. The rebels are headed by Mr. Nkunda, a leader of Congolese and other Tutsi forces opposing the Hutu as well.

Nobody has been able to eradicate the armed Hutu — 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.

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

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 Mr. Nkunda’s rebels.

Maps drawn by aid workers show how shockingly little the Congo government controls. One, resembling a colored quilt, marks Mr. 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 few tents perched on hilltops several miles away. The tents are occupied by Mr. Nkunda and his men, who once served alongside Col. 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,” Col. Yav said, as soldiers patrol trenches dug into black soil.

To the 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 United Nations says its mandate is to protect civilians and support the government.

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

“It’s always been incredibly violent, but it’s gotten a lot worse in the last few months,” Susan Sanders of Doctors Without Borders said in Goma. “People are too scared to go home to their fields. People are hungry. People are being killed.”

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