As American and other foreign forces try to secure a safe area for starving refugees in Zaire, a number of local militias may complicate their task.
Besides facing armed Hutu extremists from Rwanda and a force of Tutsi rebels from Zaire, the multinational force will likely encounter a third force - an ethnic Bahunde group of armed mystics known as the Mai Mai.
This group, according to fleeing refugees, has pinned down the Hutu extremists - perpetrators of the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda - whose prospects of escape are diminishing.
The standoff has raised fears that close to 1 million Hutu refugees under the extremists' control will starve, or more will be killed as refugees try to escape and militias battle one another.
Like some other mystical African guerrilla movements, the Mai Mai believe they possess magic powers that turn enemy bullets to water - Mai Mai is Swahili for water. The militia has roots in Zaire's independence struggle of 1960.
The Zairean provinces of North and South Kivu have for years been plagued by a complex web of ethnic struggles.
But those struggles have been obscured until now by the even-more vicious strife in Rwanda that has spilled over into Zaire.
Two weeks ago, a group of mainly Tutsi rebels, calling itself the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo Zaire, captured the regional capital of Goma, near the huge camps of largely Hutu refugees who fled Rwanda three years ago.
The rebels enjoy strong backing from the new Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government, which came to power in 1994 by defeating the Hutu regime that massacred up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The estimated 1 million Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire, afraid to return to Rwanda for fear of justice or Tutsi revenge, have been forced to flee the rebel advance and remain under the control of the Hutu extremists - remnants of the former Rwanda army and Hutu militia known as Interahamwe.
The extremists in the refugee camps had hoped to use the exiled Hutu population to mount guerrilla attacks into Rwanda.
But the victory of the "Banyamulenge" rebels - mainly Zairean-born Tutsis - has effectively destroyed these plans, forcing hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee camps along the border and mass at Mugunga, immediately to the west of Goma.
Up to 800,000 refugees are thought to be isolated in the Mugunga camp. Their condition remains unclear due to continued fighting near the camps that surround Goma. Elements of the Rwandan army are still engaging in sporadic artillery duels in Goma. For the past two days, unidentified civilian aircraft have overflown the town and the camp, drawing wild fire from Tutsi rebel antiaircraft guns.
Yesterday several open boats full of displaced Zairean civilians arrived in Goma's port from the towns of Sake and Minova, on the western shore of Lake Kivu.
The occupants were mostly Goma residents who had fled the town during the fighting which preceded its fall on Nov. 1. They reported that Sake was calm and free of disease, although many thousands of native Zaireans remained trapped there with no food.
Galugale Lupanzula, a returning Goma schoolteacher, said that Sake and Minova were held by members of the Mai Mai militia.
Previously implicated in several massacres of Zairean born Tutsis, the Mai Mai have now turned against the Rwandan Hutu exiles encroaching on their territory. The Zaireans returning yesterday said there was no sign of an alliance between the Mai Mai and the mainly Tutsi force now holding Goma and Bukavu.
Cherubala Lwablia, an agriculturalist stranded in Sake by the fighting, said yesterday that the Mai Mai were blocking the road leading west from Mugunga, while the Rwandan Hutus have machine-gunned up to 70 Zairean civilians who were attempting to take the road back to Goma.
Several returnees said that a large number of Hutu refugees had been allowed to pass to the town of Masisi further to the West, but the Mai Mai would not allow any fighters to pass unless they surrendered their weapons.
In a further humiliation for Zaire's crumbling central government, the Goma boat people reported that the Mai Mai also disarmed Zairean government troops as they fled through Sake two weeks ago.
Previously armed with a few rifles, homemade nail guns, and spears, the Mai Mai are now equipped with assault rifles and machine guns. They are also believed to have captured a quantity of heavy weapons they are as yet unable to use.
The latest information from the area west of Mugunga could have great significance for the proposed international intervention force - including United States troops - now being formed for eastern Zaire.
The troops' official role will be to set up "humanitarian corridors" to guarantee safe passage for the refugees and persuade them to return home to Rwanda.
The first American military contingent arrived Thursday in the region to begin securing the airport for the arrival of up to 5,000 US troops and other forces.
However, the cornered Hutu extremists are unlikely to relish the prospect of being disarmed and returned to the mercies of the Rwandan government.
It is difficult to see how the Hutu extremists, completely isolated from the other players in the conflict, can be persuaded to cooperate without further bloodshed.