With war all around them, Congolese turn to UN

Clashes, looting displace 250,000 in eastern region

Displaced women and children arrived at a clinic run by the aid organization Merlin to receive medical treatment in the provincial capital of Goma yesterday. Displaced women and children arrived at a clinic run by the aid organization Merlin to receive medical treatment in the provincial capital of Goma yesterday. (Karel Prinsloo/Associated Press)
By Todd Pitman
Associated Press / November 21, 2008
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KANYABAYONGA, Democratic Republic of Congo - His home was looted by government soldiers wildly pillaging this empty hilltop town. His fields are at the mercy of armed militias. And somewhere in the countryside, a rebel army is digging in.

In a tense vacuum between war and peace where little government authority exists, Katembo Mastaki is trying to protect his family the only way he knows how: Tethering a ripped piece of plastic sheeting-turned-tent to the jagged barbed wire surrounding a UN base.

"It's only God who protects us here," the 27-year-old teacher said, huddled in the grass and dirt Wednesday outside a UN base here.

The scene this week represents a snapshot of suffering in a town that has not even been directly involved in Congo's latest fighting.

About 80 miles and a world away from Goma, the regional capital, Kanyabayonga is one of several towns perched on lush, pastoral hills that have been nearly emptied of inhabitants and ruled by extraordinarily unruly government troops since last week.

In this lawless corner of Congo, there are no police. There is no fuel and no electricity. Terraced fields of precious beans and maize are untended. Shops stand empty. Children are not going to school.

Clashes between rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and Congo's frail military have displaced at least 250,000 people since August, a humanitarian catastrophe that has brought life to a standstill - all this in a province that was already struggling to deal with 750,000 other desperate refugees displaced over the last decade.

Nkunda says he is fighting to protect minority Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu rebels who helped perpetrate Rwanda's 1994 genocide. But critics say he is power-hungry and Tutsis are not targeted more than any other of Congo's other 200-plus ethnic groups. They argue, in fact, that his war has only increased resentment against Tutsis.

Earlier this week, rebels began pulling back fighters from several fronts around Kanyabayonga, ostensibly to support UN peace efforts, but clashes persist.

Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said the army, together with progovernment Mai Mai militias and Rwandan Hutu rebels, attacked rebel troops yesterday in Katoro, a small village near Kiwanja, about 45 miles north of Goma. Rebels fended off the attack after two hours, Bisimwa said.

This week, 44 Congolese civil society and rights groups issued a letter pleading for the fighting to stop.

"We are witnessing tragedies on a scale never experienced before in [our] history, in which civilian populations are being summarily executed by bullets or blows from machetes, knives, hoes and spears," the letter said. "With each day that passes, more and more people die."

The groups accused retreating army troops of killing, pillaging, raping and "leaving chaos and total disorder in their wake." They also accused rebels of going door to door in newly seized territories, forcing boys and men aged 14 to 40 to join their ranks.

"We don't know which saint to pray to; we are condemned to death by all this violence and displacement," the letter said.

Though many hoped Congo's 2006 elections would finally bring an end to violence, Congo's east has deteriorated deeper into chaos instead, with rebels expanding their territory and armed, vine-clad, machete-wielding militias still roaming lawless hills.

Mastaki said armed Rwandan Hutu militias have often come to his fields, taking manioc and maize - whatever food they wanted.

The unwieldy army itself is part of the problem. But some troops complain they are not paid enough to survive, and have to loot to get by.

Mastaki recounted how soldiers burst in on his family last week as they were eating dinner in Kanyabayonga, which until then had been spared the brunt of the latest war.

"We heard gunshots and thought the rebels were coming," Mastaki said. "But it was our own army shooting in the air."

Thousands fled into bush or nearby forests, exposed to boiling days, cold nights, and frequent downpours. Mastaki, his wife and three children fled with thousands of others to the hilltop UN base, forming a massive ring around it made of temporary shelters made of bamboo, leaves and plastic sheeting.

While a turbaned Indian peacekeeper looked on from behind a sandbagged post, Mastaki counted what few possessions he had left: the clothes on his back, a thin foam mattress, four iron pots, a pair of plastic bowls and jugs, and a single utensil - a withered iron spoon.

Mastaki said he returned to his home to find it almost empty.

"Soldiers are still looting as we speak," he said Wednesday as a crowd of barefoot children gathered to listen. "Why is the UN here?"

Despite that oft-heard criticism, the mere presence of peacekeepers has given civilians with nowhere else to turn a kind of refuge.

Mastaki put it his way: "At least nobody will shoot us here."

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