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Ugly scars of war in DR Congo

BY David Loyn
BBC News

The current conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is centred around the eastern town of Goma, but the effects are felt far beyond that.

The way to the village of Mutwanga is a bone-crushing journey, plunging down from a high ridge along a dirt track.

In places, we had to stop the vehicle altogether to rebuild bridges of branches and planks across drainage ditches, where rainwater had tried to reclaim the track for the jungle again.

At the bottom of the valley, the vegetation is thick and giant tropical palms are laced together by an impenetrable thicket of creepers - a jungle out of a dream, flanking the River Nile.

Even up here, half a continent away from its mouth near Cairo, it is a mighty river. As wide as the Thames as it comes into London, but far more intense - deep, muddy, mysterious, cutting its way through the thick tropical forest.

Ugly scars

After travelling up the other side into the foothills of the Ruwenzori range, including Africa's third-highest peak, shrouded in mist above us, the air is thinner and breathing becomes harder as we walk through the village.

This mountain fastness was remote from the front line, even when 11 nations fought in what is now called Africa's Great War in the late 1990s, when three, four or five million people died. Nobody knows how many for sure.

But even if there was no physical fighting here, the war came all the same.

A schoolgirl shows the ugly scar of a bullet hole in her leg after being held for four years by militiamen, who had seized her from her home in the night.

And this year the militia have come back.

One day recently, as two brothers aged eight and 12 were tending a vegetable patch in front of their house, gunmen emerged into the village and took them away as recruits. Their mother told me 20 other boys were taken that morning too.

Although all sides use child soldiers, the kidnappers were probably the Mai-Mai, who portray themselves as a defence force, protecting the community at a time of unrest against the rebel army led by Laurent Nkunda.

They believe their warriors are invested with magical powers that can turn stones into bombs, and protect them from bullets.

Their roots lie among the Mai-Mai rebels who began a campaign to force an end to Belgian rule in the late 1950s.

While filming an interview with an ex-Mai-Mai commander, I heard one of those things you hear very occasionally that you cannot quite believe you heard properly.

"C'etait mon pere qui a mange le premier belge," he said in a matter-of-fact way. "My father was the first to eat a Belgian."

Brutality

Belgian control of the Congo began with the slavery and murder sanctioned by King Leopold in the late 19th Century, as he turned this vast piece of Africa into his personal possession.

One authoritative estimate has put the number killed by Leopold at 10 million.

His troops needed to account for every bullet they were given, so they would cut the hands off those they killed as proof.

And if they lost a bullet or used one to kill an animal to eat, then they would have to cut the hand off a living person - just one of the European practices that so brutalised Africa that by the late 1950s eating Belgians felt justifiable.

And now the Mai Mai are back, recruiting and indoctrinating boys and girls for another jungle war.

My guide was Henri Bura Ladyi, a tireless campaigner for peace, who spends his time trying to keep the community together, mobilising the churches to collect food and blankets and finding shelter for the tens of thousands of displaced people flooding in already as the fighting worsens further south.

The displaced are settling into shop fronts, bus stations, the garden of the town hall, anywhere they can find, and Henri is trying to persuade local businesses not to pay the Mai Mai to protect the area again.

It is a measure of this dysfunctional society that it should turn to the Mai Mai for defence at a time of crisis.

Government forces are weak, corrupt, poorly-paid and led by regional warlords who do not necessarily owe loyalty to President Joseph Kabila, 1,200 miles (2,000km) away in the capital Kinshasa.

Many have not been paid for months.

'Indoctrinated'

In the school in the village of Mutwanga, I listen in to a class where an enthusiastic teacher has a catchphrase in English.

"Time is money" he says, "time is money," bustling along to encourage the boys as they write in this unfamiliar language.

Twenty boys are missing, though, being indoctrinated in a different way in the jungle.

Part of the school day is taken up by the children going out to collect rocks to help for a new building at the school. Remote from central government, they need to help themselves.

That is how conflict causes poverty.

In a place full of valuable mineral wealth and surrounded by a landscape that should be a tourist paradise, schoolchildren collect rocks when they should be in lessons.

This report will be broadcast on BBC Two's Newsnight on Friday 12 December at 2235 GMT.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 December, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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© BBC


DR Congo rebels insist on bilateral peace talks

Sat Dec 6, 11:04 am ET

GOMA, DR Congo (AFP) Rebels in eastern Congo said on Saturday ahead of a landmark meeting with the government that they do not want peace negotiations to include other armed groups in the region.

The comments signalled a potential stumbling block in negotiations ahead of Monday's meeting in Nairobi, the first direct talks between representatives of the Democratic Republic of Congo government and rebels since new fighting broke out in August.

"We must clearly reaffirm that it involves negotiations between only the government and the CNDP," said Bertrand Bisimwa, spokesman for the National Congress for the Defence of the People rebel group.

On Friday, the government said it intended to meet all armed groups active in the country's east, starting with ex-general Laurent Nkunda 's CNDP, in an effort to end fighting that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

"We're going to receive all the armed groups separately and we will begin with Laurent Nkunda's group Monday in Nairobi," said government spokesman Lambert Mende.

The spokesman for the rebel group led by Nkunda, who claims to be defending the local Tutsi population, said Monday's meeting should set the stage for real negotiations to move ahead.

He said he hoped the government would confirm the role of UN special envoy Olusegun Obasanjo , the former Nigerian president, as mediator.

Obasanjo travelled to the DR Congo twice in recent weeks, meeting with both Nkunda and President Joseph Kabila each time.

The two sides must also come up with a calendar for negotiations covering military, political and economic issues, said Bisimwa.

"We hope that this meeting will bring us closer to peace," he said. "But the road will be long."

The rebel delegation on Monday will be led by the CNDP's Serge Kambasu Ngeze.

Meanwhile on Saturday, exiled Rwandan Hutu rebels based in eastern Congo called for talks with Kigali and Kinshasa after DR Congo and Rwanda agreed to mount a military offensive against them.

A spokesman for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) calling himself Lieutenant Colonel Garambe told AFP: "Resorting to force immediately is hasty, insecurity will not be resolved by insecurity.

"The resolution of the FDLR problem lies in dialogue," he said in a telephone interview.

Congolese Foreign Minister Alexis Thambe Mwamba said Friday after two days of talks with his Rwandan counterpart Rosemary Museminali that a military plan had been agreed to crack down on the FDLR and other Rwandan groups in Congo.

The Rwandan Hutus fled to DR Congo after a Tutsi rebellion took control in neighbouring Rwanda in the wake of the country's 1994 genocide, when some 800,000 mainly Tutsis were killed by Hutu extremists.

According to a diplomatic source in Goma, operations against the FDLR would begin early in the new year and would be jointly led by the UN peacekeeping force known as MONUC and the Congolese army, with "significant" input from the Rwandans.

The Rwandan army would provide logistic, intelligence and other support but "the idea is to avoid the deployment of Rwandan troops on Congolese soil," the source stressed.

Kigali has demanded for years that Kinshasa disarm the Hutus, which Nkunda claims are supported by Congo government forces. Kinshasa for its part accuses Kigali of backing Nkunda's rebellion, which Rwanda denies.

© 2008 AFP


UK expels 5,000 Congo refugees

By Emily Dugan
Sunday, 7 December 2008

Judges have ruled that up to 5,000 asylum-seekers will be sent back to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. All Congolese citizens with a failed asylum claim are preparing to return, following a decision in the Court of Appeal last week.

Innocent Empi, of the Congo Support Project, said: "This is bad, bad news for us. Everyone's frightened. There are people saying they would prefer to kill themselves than go back to Congo. They will be sending them to their death."

The ruling came just days after Human Rights Watch revealed the Kabila government has killed around 500 opponents and tortured more than 1,000. Lawyers had maintained that just by returning, asylum-seekers were at risk. But this evidence and a further appeal were rejected.

 

 
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