Despite moves toward peace, Congo's civil war rages

Over the weekend, two rebel groups met with Congo's government in South Africa.

Agnus Olenga stands shoulder to shoulder with Kindu's other fresh-meat sellers, hawking small piles of goat innards. Wiping her face on her arm when the flow of customers slows, she points to the strangely empty row of stalls across from her.

"That's where the dried-meat sellers used to sit, but since Henriette's death, they are afraid to come here," she says, explaining how her friend was taken early one morning recently and shot by the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD). The soldiers claimed Henriette's dried bush meat could have come only from territory held by the enemy and that she must be working with them.

This is a nation supposedly on the path to peace, but people here could be forgiven for their disbelief. Since Rwanda, one of seven foreign countries involved in this country's complicated four-year civil war, pulled its troops from Kindu a little more than a month ago, conditions have deteriorated.

The July 30 withdrawal agreement was hailed internationally as an important step toward peace in Africa's largest civil war. Over the weekend, Congo's two main rebel groups, the RCD and the Ugandan-backed Movement for Congolese Liberation (MLC), met in South Africa with the Congolese government to negotiate a postwar power-sharing government.

But the reality on the ground is far more complicated. Although the country continues to be effectively divided among the three main parties, this has long ceased being a war between organized rebel factions and the government.

Instead of one big war in eastern Congo there are now dozens. Small bands fight each other or the RCD in increasingly bizarre alliances that shift and divide so rapidly that observers have difficulty tracking them.

Added to this are growing reports, most compellingly from last week's United Nations panel, that foreign armies have not entirely withdrawn from the Congo and may be maintaining a hidden presence that will continue to exploit the country's diamond and mineral wealth.

Here in Kindu, a city of about 250,000 with a strategically important airport, the main fighting is between the RCD and the Mai Mai, bands of traditional warriors who fight naked and believe that bullets cannot harm them. Observers count at least four different Mai Mai factions, each of which is aligned to one of the region's main ethnic groups.

Most of the surrounding villages have been emptied and are now too dangerous to visit. Human rights organizations say at least 40 civilians such as Henriette have been killed on the way to their fields.

The UN and local church groups estimate that more than 12,000 new refugees have flooded into the city from the increasingly unstable villages nearby. The humanitarian situation here is deteriorating, with most unable to reach their fields and too poor to buy the expensive imported food brought in by airplane.

Kabuka Kibi fled to Kindu with his family of nine the day after the Rwandan soldiers left. The Mai Mai burned his village about five miles from here, and told villagers to leave or face death.

Standing on the stoop of the abandoned house he now shares with several other families – more than 30 people to a room sleeping on grass mats – in some ways Mr. Kibi counts his family lucky. Although they escaped with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, they are alive. In one nearby village, his new neighbors report, a pregnant woman was shot dead by the Mai Mai while she was trying to flee a village that was being similarly emptied.

But despite their blessings, life in Kindu is hard. There is no international help here for the newly displaced. Few locals, who are struggling themselves to survive, can provide assistance. Kibi's children, who crowd around their father, hair tinged with red from malnutrition, can't remember when they last ate.

"This is the worst situation I've seen here in 23 years," says Mambe Mukanga, this region's Catholic bishop, who has been trying to convince the World Food Program to begin food distribution here.

Further north, much of the fighting has been tribal, with reports of massacres that have left the UN warning of a potential ethnic cleansing like the one in Rwanda in 1994. Down south, along the borders with Rwanda and Burundi, there are reports of a strange new alliance between Interahamwe (Hutu fundamentalists who fled to Congo after Rwanda's genocide), Congolese Tutsis, and the Mai Mai, allegedly backed by the government of Congo.

The UN has 5,500 troops here, but their mandate is to observe, not keep the peace. Nor does the mission have the power to deal with the internally warring factions. Even if the UN Security Council were to increase the troops' mandate – a move few here think is likely – one humanitarian worker estimates that the Congo would require 150,000 peacekeepers to give it a presence similar to one that brought peace to Sierra Leone over the past two years. Few here believe the international community is willing to commit those types of resources to an African nation, even one as resource-rich as the Congo.

The people in Kindu, displaced and starved by a war, have simple wishes: freedom to work their fields and live in their homes peacefully. But despite pronouncements by international leaders that peace is on its way, few see the signs. "All we want is peace," says Saido Mujunda, a refugee displaced with his family of 18. "Can't anyone help us?"

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