Everybody in Bunia is waiting: frightened civilians huddling under tarpaulins, United Nations observers in their blue helmets, aid workers on their walkie-talkies, and youthful militia fighters leaning against lampposts with their assault rifles.
They're all waiting to see who arrives first here in the biggest town in northeastern Congo - a crack multinational force of peacekeepers with a mandate to demilitarize the place or the opposing militia fighters said to be regrouping in the hills just a few miles to the southeast.
Bunia is the latest flash point in a multifaceted war in this country, formerly known as Zaire. The town has changed hands twice in the past two weeks in fierce battles between militia of the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. The full extent of the violence has only become apparent this week, with the UN's announcement that 230 bodies have been found since fighting began in early May - including two murdered peacekeepers. Local relief workers say the true death toll is more than 300. No one knows how many people have been killed in the rural areas around Bunia, where the roads are deserted and dangerous.
All this is prompting an outcry from aid agencies and the civilian population demanding tougher international intervention and triggering a debate at the Security Council about what kind of a force should be deployed in Congo.
France has expressed interest and a small team is now in Bunia evaluating the feasibility of deploying. British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament Wednesday that his government is considering the request. US officials at the UN have said greater international attention is needed for Bunia, but have yet to indicate any willingness to send troops.
The current UN observer mission, known as MONUC, has a limited mandate that allows peacekeepers only to protect themselves. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked countries to consider sending what's known as a "Chapter 7" force to Congo - one that can enforce peace by firing back at combatants.
"In order to be effective, any intervention in [northeastern Congo] has to be a Chapter 7 mandate," says Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. "This is not a situation in which you need an observer force, you need a peace- enforcement capability."
Her position is echoed by humanitarian workers helping the 17,000 civilians who seek refuge nightly beside the only two locations the UN controls in Bunia: the airport and the UN compound.
"The deployment of a well-armed force is absolutely essential to ensure the safety of the civilian population," says Marcus Sack as he drives around Bunia evaluating security to determine whether to restart operations of his aid agency, German AgroAction. "The aim should be the total demilitarization of Bunia and the disarmament of the militias."
Gemma Swart of the British aid agency Oxfam says sending a rapid-reaction force is a necessary short-term solution to stop the killings. "The MONUC troops who are here never had the right mandate or the resources to protect civilians," Ms. Swart says. "The militia groups are so polarized that the only way of bringing peace to this particular area is to have a force that is strong enough to enforce it."
Bunia is the lynchpin in the struggle for power and influence in northeastern Congo, where the blood-soaked soil contains gold and, some believe, oil. While ethnic differences help fuel the conflict, the real driving force is political control over the region and its spoils.
Militia of the ethnic Lendu agriculturalists are broadly aligned with the government in Kinshasa. The ethnic Hema pastoralists were reportedly armed by the Ugandan troops who occupied northeastern Congo before withdrawing under the terms of an international peace deal for the country. Their withdrawal earlier this month kicked off the battle for Bunia.
Civilians got caught in the middle. Even the UN compound wasn't safe, with a mortar shell exploding and wounding more than a dozen civilians last week.
Across the street from the UN is a makeshift clinic packed with the wounded. Despite a lull in the fighting following a weekend cease-fire agreement between the Hema and Lendu militias, the injured continue to make their way here at a rate of more than 40 a day, some arriving in wooden wheelbarrows.
A woman named Sezikana sits on a thin mattress on the floor. She stares into the middle distance as she tells her story: The militia killed her son and daughter, and she saw it happen. "I lost everybody. Everybody died." She whispers because of a slash wound by her mouth. "I lost my children, I lost my home. They burned down my house."
Sezikana's suffering is just one reason why her nurse adamantly favors stronger intervention. "If there were an international intervention force here, it could suppress the war," says Augustin Suka Simba. "Leaving things they way they are would be a crime against humanity."