East Congo's refugee highway

Displaced thousands fill roadside towns; aid groups struggle to cope with lingering conflict.

The 65 miles of road that link this market town to the border city of Goma resemble a backwoods Oregon logging trail, winding bumpily along the slopes of brilliant green hills. Despite the rough appearance, it is one of the most important highways in eastern Congo.

Tens of thousands of internal refugees live along this route, testimony to years of civil war and cross-border ethnic strife in this central African state, formerly Zaire. Aid agencies say internal displacement is the biggest humanitarian crisis in eastern Congo, because of the economic and health problems it's causing.

Of the more than 2 million displaced in Congo, more than half live in the provinces of North and South Kivu. People have fled villages in the face of repeated violent attacks by several armed groups.

Currently, the main perpetrators are the Interahamwe - Hutu extremists who fled here after leading the 1994 genocide of minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in neighboring Rwanda - as well as local militia called Mai-Mai. Rogue elements of the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), fighting to overthrow the Congo government, are also sometimes implicated. Even the troops who helped bring recently assassinated President Laurent Kabila to power were blamed for massacres during their march to the capital, Kinshasa, in 1996 and 1997.

The upshot is a population battered by war and weakened by living away from their homes. "The displaced people's unstable way of life exposes the most vulnerable groups - children and women - to illnesses of malnutrition," says a recent report on North Kivu by a joint aid agency commission. "Violations of human rights are the daily lot of the population during their displacement."

Many of the displaced have fled to the relative safety of Goma, the capital of North Kivu, among them orphans and unaccompanied children. Some 450 attend a school set up by a local group, the National Association of Mothers Helping the Disenfranchised. Like many schools in Africa, this one lacks books and pens. Unlike most, children whose parents were killed by members of one anothers' ethnic groups attend the same class.

Musa Nzabonimpa, a 13-year-old Hutu, wears old-fashioned canvas sneakers at least five sizes too large with gaping holes in the toes. In a voice barely above a whisper, he says, "They killed my mother, they killed my father." "They" were Tutsi soldiers, fighting alongside Mr. Kabila in 1996. Rwanda currently supports the antigovernment RCD.

About 35 miles beyond Goma lies Kirolirwe, where hundreds of huts covered with plastic tarps cling to the hillside. It's a camp for former refugees, Congolese Tutsis, who until last year lived in camps in Rwanda. They started trickling back in July, but are unable to return to their homes due to insecurity. Still, they're happier here, according to returnee chairman Emmanuel Rwamakuba. "Here, we can cultivate," he says. "Soon we will go to our own villages, once there is peace."

No one is predicting when that will come. "The Congo has become a quagmire," says a recent report from the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. "The war today is in a state of tenuous stalemate. None of the actors have the power to achieve a decisive victory; each risk to suffer a decisive defeat."

At first glance, the conflict is a civil war, with the RCD and other rebels trying to overthrow the government. But foreign armies are actively taking sides for a variety of reasons. Angola's intervention kept Mr. Kabila from being overthrown, but it also seeks to cut off supply lines for Angolan UNITA rebels who launch attacks from bases in southwestern Congo. Zimbabwean troops came to Kabila's aid in exchange for a share of profits from southern Congo's vast mineral wealth.

Rwanda says it will continue to support the RCD until the Congolese government can guarantee its security against attacks by the Interahamwe.

Although on paper Rwanda and the RCD control a swath of eastern Congo, they have been unable to rout the Interahamwe and Mai-Mai from significant pockets. As a result, displaced populations tend to concentrate near RCD garrisons like the one on the hill above Kirolirwe. The same goes for the next stop on the road, Kichanga, 55 miles from Goma. An estimated 55,000 people live in groups of several dozen on tiny, rocky plots of land.

Dunia Rwabino has spent more than half of the years since 1994 here instead of his village of Busumba, 15 miles away. While his family is safer, life is not easy. "Our children were expelled from school because they couldn't pay the school fees" of about 55 cents a month, he says. "To change our lives, we need peace.... If the Interahamwe would go, we could go back to our fields and cultivate."

Finally, the road reaches Mweso, until last year deemed too dangerous for aid agencies. Save the Children UK is about to embark on a project to rehabilitate 10 schools, four health centers, and the road, which deteriorates further as it proceeds west. The group also plans to offer direct help to 7,500 people. "A program in Mweso would contribute to helping people live together in the long term, would reinforce the peace and restore the survival mechanisms of vulnerable households," says project manager Salome Ntububa.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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