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.
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."
Other monitoring groups, namely Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Doctors Without Borders, are finding similar stories. In an October report on North Kivu, HRW chronicled the story of one rape counselor. She was carrying a woman, a rape victim who had a piece of wood inserted in her vagina, on her back. When the woman died, rebel forces forced the counselor to bury the body.
"When I finished, they said that they would rape me," she told HRW. "I told them, if you want to rape me, let me first pray. There were eight of them. I prayed. When I stopped praying, four refused to rape me, but the other four said that they would not leave without raping me. They raped me, they hit me, for six hours, from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m."
With the risk of more such atrocities growing, the United States-at $500 million in aid one of Congo's largest donors-cannot afford to ignore a brewing conflict in the heart of Africa. During Kabila's White House visit, President Bush urged him to forgo a planned offensive against Nkunda. In North Kivu, Lavand'homme-who sees emergency needs 24/7-doubts the nudge from Washington is enough.
North Kivu is the center of the latest fighting, and the year-long fighting has displaced 370,000. Congo's conflict is complex because multiple armed groups roam the east. Opposing Hutu and Tutsi militias are some of the main ones, and their activities threaten to provoke Rwanda, scene of the 1994 genocide, and other neighbors into a larger regional war. All groups commit rapes, beatings, killings, and other atrocities.
The Congolese Army: The weak state force is not as disciplined or well-trained as some rebel groups. Troops rape women and force civilians to carry their supplies. According to the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, the army committed 40 percent of the human-rights abuses in the second half of 2006.
FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda): A Hutu armed group made up of former Hutu genocide perpetrators, army members, and Rwandan refugees. Kinshasa has forced thousands to leave Congo, leaving a weakened few thousand. But they still attack locals, frighten Tutsi refugees from returning, and irritate Rwanda. In 2005, the UN sanctioned leader Ignace Murwanashyaka for violating an arms embargo.
The forces of Laurent Nkunda: The former psychology student still looks bookish, but he is a career soldier. He is a renegade general whose home is North Kivu, where his forces have caused much of the latest violence. He wants to see the FDLR out of Congo and some 45,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees in Rwandan camps return to their lands.
The Mai-Mai: The loose group of local community militias that align along tribal lines. In the past, some Mai-Mai have fought against Rwandan troops and allied with the FDLR.
Sources: The International Crisis Group/Global Security/BBC