Kafikiri Wabenga, an unemployed farm laborer, sighs when he realizes that the constant assaults on his town of Tubimbi, among the forested hills near the Rwandan and Burundian borders, may have finally ended.
"It was bad. Constant attacks, one rebel group, then another. There were many groups, and often they would change sides, and then more attacks would happen," he says, shaking his head. "Thank God those days are gone."
Indeed, in the wake of a power-sharing agreement signed over the summer and the recent surrender of a major rebel leader, those days are waning. Now teetering on the brink of peace for the first time since 1998, Congo faces a fresh challenge: uniting an alphabet soup of one-time enemies into a single armed force.
In July, the five-year war that has left more than 3 million dead, fought over control of Congo's abundant natural resources, officially ended with the swearing in of an interim government.
Months after the war's end, cease-fires have been struck in the east between tribal Mai Mai fighters, who were supported by the former government, and brigades of the Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma), backed throughout the war by Rwanda, finally bringing a halt to some atrocities on the ground.
The Nov. 15 surrender to Rwandan authorities of Paul Rwarakabije, the leader of Hutu extremists involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide of some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus, has raised hopes even further. Mr. Rwarakabije's Congo-based Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), numbering some 15,000 troops, was backed by the former government against RCD-Goma.
The current government is confident that it can turn these former enemies, with different levels of training and experience, into a united army. But it must navigate the waves of budgetary politics for the first time in years. With the government composed of some 60 ministers and vice ministers, more than 500 deputies, and more than 100 senators, parliament - fixated on discussions over its own salaries - has yet to address the financing of the new army.
"Everybody wants a slice of the new cake before it all goes," says one foreign diplomat in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, who requested anonymity. "They want their peace dividend paid out. This is what they have been fighting for."
One Western military analyst, also based in Kinshasa, says that ex-rebel soldiers are not being given the incentives essential to bring them into the national fold.
"The danger is that with soldiers needing to be fed, they could be used by elements who are not for the peace process, if this is not done in a timely fashion," says the military analyst, who asked not to be named.
Meanwhile, foreign donors are waiting for the government to shape its military policy before plowing money into demobilization and retraining of former combatants. Some, like the Mai Mai, complement their arsenal of AK-47s with bows, arrows, and spears, and believe their supernatural powers can turn bullets to water.
In the meantime, an atmosphere of uneasy suspicion lingers on. Commanders from the newly united army are striking deals with ex-rebels and warlords to secure their loyalty to the new Congolese state.
But gunmen accused of gross human rights violations, including serial rape of women across eastern Congo, will staff the new armed forces. Former enemies will patrol the countryside side by side. And the FDLR are not likely to disappear in an instant, either. Their leader, Rwarakabije, is not implicated in the Rwandan genocide, but FDLR hard-liners are likely to remain in eastern Congo rather than return to Rwanda and face possible tribunals.
On the ground, FDLR troops are increasingly turning on their one-time Mai Mai allies, whose poverty-stricken fighters are slowly joining the ranks of the national army alongside RCD-Goma. The Mai Mai, whose supernatural beliefs guaranteed them nothing but military losses, have been powerless to stop the onslaught.
"The Mai Mai are scared of the FDLR, as those guys are far better armed," says Bulambo Myanyabatende, a primary-school teacher in Yanga, some 10 miles from Tubimbi. He makes a disparaging remark toward a bedraggled group of armed young soldiers who stare vacuously at a Mai Mai commander in tattered fatigues, waving a witch doctor's wand.