Congo's path back from war

In the northeast, a vital road reopened last month, offering a route to aid, trade, and returning refugees.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Nyama Baku returned last July to Dele, in this country's northeast, to find his house burned to the ground, his possessions looted, and his once-fertile fields choked with weeds.

The 30-mile stretch that took him back to his war-ravaged village had become a crumbling road to nowhere.

But Baku, a father of five, and about 300 others in the area were hired to help rebuild it, in hopes that the roadway could lead villagers - and the region - toward a calmer, more prosperous future.

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"The road has created an acceptable climate for people to return to their homes," Baku says, as he pauses from laboring on the sun-baked clay. "We have gained peace by working on the road."

The road linking Bunia, the main city in the wartorn Ituri district, to the port town of Kasenye along the shores of Lake Albert, opened in mid-January after six months of reconstruction.

Although peace in this region is still fragile, the road has become a path toward reversing some of the damage wreaked on the region by ethnic battles. Its reconstruction financed by the US Agency for International Development, the road is allowing villagers to rebuild their homes, aid organizations to deliver food, and traders to reach urban markets.

German Agro Action (GAA), a humanitarian-aid agency, initiated the $3 million project to restore the road by employing people along the route and by distributing 6,000 tons of food and more than 25,000 packets of blankets, plastic sheeting, and five-gallon jerrycans to help families returning to areas along the road.

"This is an experiment in grass-roots pacification," says Marcus Sack, the GAA project coordinator in Ituri. "We have tried to bring the warring communities together and show them they have nothing to gain from fighting by offering them employment and humanitarian aid with no coercion."

Sedrak Pimbo, the village elder in a community 11 miles southeast of Bunia, says he and other villagers returned to the area in November, and are traveling the road by foot to carry produce and charcoal to area markets. "The war is over, and we are beginning a new life," he says.

James Papi, a trader from Ituri, says he buys fish in Kasenye along the banks of Lake Albert and then takes the road to Bunia, where he sells the fish to shopkeepers. "Business is very good right now," says Mr. Papi, sitting atop a mountain of dried fish covered with canvas in the back of an overloaded pickup truck. Papi says he clears a $50 profit for every 450 pounds of fish he sells.

Dominique McAdams, who heads the UN mission in Ituri known as MONUC, says the road repair is "the beginning of the return to normalcy."

Joseph Ngoma, an immigration officer in Kasenye, says that between 200 and 300 refugees return to the town every day, but he warned that insecurity still plagues the area. "How can you have security when there is fighting every two to three days?" he asks.

Rough passage between Bunia and Kasenye is part of the legacy of Mobutu Sese Seko, the country's former dictator. Under his corrupt 32-year rule, infrastructure throughout Congo was neglected. The recent years of war dealt further damage. Although some hostilities continue, the opening of the road is crucial for distributing humanitarian assistance throughout northeast Congo, and aid organizations have delivered 935 tons of food, says Mr. Sack.

Ms. McAdams says road reconstruction will continue another five miles from Kasenye to the village of Tcomia, and the UN is planning to press forward with additional road repairs throughout the district.

The savage five-year conflict in Congo, formerly known as Zaire, has killed up to 4 million people, according to human-rights groups. In the Ituri district, the struggle for control over the region and its riches - gold, oil, and diamonds - has killed 50,000 people since 1999, and has displaced 500,000 of the 4.5 million population, according to UN estimates.

Bunia became a flash point last May when violence erupted between the Hema and Lendu ethnic communities, forcing more than 300,000 to flee from their homes, according to UNICEF.

Three weeks ago, UN troops disembarking a helicopter were shot at five times by an armed militia, according to MONUC spokeswoman Isabel Abric in Bunia.

Last week, a UN boat convoy on Lake Albert, sent to investigate an alleged massacre in the town of Gobu, about 31 miles northeast of Bunia, had to abandon its mission after being fired on by militia.

Even with 300 UN troops patrolling the Bunia-Kasenye road, the surrounding bush along the road remains unsafe, says Bangladeshi Army Major Jamil Rashid, who is part of the nearly 5,000 UN peacekeeping forces in Ituri. "The armed militias still have camps in the area," he says.

Baku finds it difficult to forget the atrocities he has witnessed, and says the situation in Dele and in the rest of his troubled nation remains uneasy.

"There were too many killed to count," Baku said, referring to the clashes in May that transformed his village into pillars of ashes. "We have peace for now, but we have no sense of security."

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