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Congolese troops after capture by Nkunda’s soldiers

Forgotten conflict

Congo | With focus on the Middle East, brutal fighting in Congo is worsening

Issue: "Saving Isaac," Nov. 10, 2007

Warning: graphic material included

War has supposedly ended in Democratic Republic of Congo. Around the sprawling country, the largest in central Africa, people voted in elections last year and armed militias turned in their weapons. But Congo's east refuses to be pacified.

Nowhere is the violence so evident as in the restive province of North Kivu. Intensified clashes between the Congolese army and forces led by a lanky, bespectacled rebel named Laurent Nkunda sent thousands fleeing onto rain-washed dirt roads in late October. The battles began one year ago, but in the last two months alone, humanitarian workers have seen some 176,000 dislocated. That swelled the province's total number of internally displaced refugees to 750,000.

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Even skirmishes can become major clashes in Congo's combustible eastern provinces. The area is still suffering the effects of 1994's Rwandan genocide, when murderous Hutu rebels fled to regroup and conducted cross-border raids. By 1996 an alarmed Rwanda invaded Congo, leading to a new government and a conflict dubbed "Africa's world war" because it drew in several neighbors. By the time it officially ended in 2003, an estimated 4 million had died.

Now the immediate threat in North Kivu is not genocidal Hutus but the renegade General Nkunda, a Tutsi. His rebels claim to protect minority Congolese Tutsis, who are ever vulnerable, but his troops have fanned hatred with slash-and-burn tactics. Often, they go into villages killing and terrorizing Hutus they label as genocide sympathizers. While Congolese President Joseph Kabila traveled to the White House in late October, his frustrated Congolese army fought Nkunda.

Congolese fled in anticipation of fighting, bundling up belongings such as two or three days' food and a family cooking pot. The latest clashes have centered largely in the southern territories of Rutshuru and Masisi, where the provincial capital Goma lies. On the outskirts of Goma, says local United Nations humanitarian director Patrick Lavand'homme, many refugees have set up camp. Goma's hospitals are so overwhelmed with sick and wounded, they have set up tents outside to accommodate their extra patients. For Lavand'homme, who has lived in North Kivu over three years and seen hostilities flare multiple times, the conflict is only building: "At every moment the fighting can resume," he told WORLD. "That's why even if [it has been] relatively quiet over the last week, people are not returning. People know that the government is building up its forces, Nkunda is building up his forces."

Lavand'homme, who directs the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in North Kivu, says the need for food and things like plastic sheeting as protection against seasonal rain is keeping his staff working around the clock. Before, the refugees would go home during lulls in fighting for about two or three months and tend their crops. Recently, they have grown too scared to return. "This whole crisis started in 2006 and it's just going and going and going," Lavand'homme said.

Under a 2003 peace agreement, militia fighters were to join the army, leave their strongholds, and serve elsewhere in the country. But the government could not stanch Nkunda's raids. A concession to allow his troops to join the army but stay in North Kivu only allowed Nkunda's troops to grow stronger. By May 2007, the incorporation-called "mixage"-had collapsed. Nkunda's forces are fighting not only the army, but also their rival Hutu rebel group, called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, and a rag-tag group of local militias called the Mai-Mai (see sidebar). Civilians are fleeing to army and Nkunda strongholds, dodging multiple front lines.

Amidst the labyrinth of armed groups, Congo's army is as frightening as eastern Congo's militias. Weak, poorly paid, and badly trained, soldiers are known to rape women and force villagers to carry their supplies.

For years, all the armed groups have raped women and girls. But the blood-curdling violence goes further. With their genital organs mutilated after or during rape, the women often suffer fistulas, or holes, that lead to incontinence and obstructed childbirth.

Yakin Ertürk, UN special rapporteur on violence against women, visited Congo in July and reported the horrors. "Women are brutally gang raped, often in front of their families and communities," she said. "In numerous cases, male relatives are forced at gunpoint to rape their own daughters, mothers, or sisters. Frequently women are shot or stabbed in their genital organs after they are raped. Women who survived months of enslavement told me that their tormentors had forced them to eat [excrement] or the human flesh of murdered relatives."

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