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A woman's machete-ravaged face testifies to the brutality of Congo's conflict. (JAMES AKENA/James Akena/Reuters)
A woman's machete-ravaged face testifies to the brutality of Congo's conflict. (JAMES AKENA/James Akena/Reuters)

Africa's great riddle

The bleak calculus of Congo's war without end Add to ...

A glimmer of hope was sparked by last year's surprise announcement of an alliance between the government and the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a Rwandan-backed militia whose 6,000 fighters were drawn from the Tutsi population of eastern Congo. Since then, the former rebels have been nominally absorbed into the Congolese army, although most are still dangerously loyal to their own commanders.

The peace agreement weakened the key remaining guerrilla army, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Hutu militia that had been quietly supported by the government as a bulwark against the Tutsi rebels, even though some of its leaders were implicated in the Rwandan genocide. With the FDLR on the run, the fighting is now scattered across a vast remote area, fuelled by lucrative revenue from illegal gold and tin mines. Some of the worst atrocities are committed by Congo's own army, including the former CNDP rebels, who use their newfound legitimacy as national soldiers to justify their crimes.

Will the killing ever stop? The UN force, known by the acronym MONUC, has an annual budget of $1.3-billion (in the last decade, Canada has contributed $237-million) but it sometimes seems to do as much harm as good.

For example, in the past year the UN force has given logistical support to the Congolese army offensive against the FDLR - an offensive that Human Rights Watch says has been "catastrophic," and even experts commissioned by the UN Security Council describe as a failure. "Military operations have not succeeded in neutralizing the FDLR," the UN experts reported, "and have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis."

Political activists in the West, meanwhile, are trying to transform Congo into the new Darfur - a hot-button issue of boycotts and bans. This week actor Ben Affleck returned from his fifth visit to the region since 2007, during which he met former child sex slaves and prisoners convicted of rape, to announce that he and Howard G. Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffet, are launching a foundation to raise money and awareness about the atrocities there.

Activists also have mounted quixotic campaigns against "blood cellphones," because Congo's war zone is the main supplier of coltan, a key material in the manufacture of mobile telephones. But the lack of other sources means there is no such thing as a "conflict-free" phone, and few consumers seem willing to heed the call anyway.



Camps no longer needed?

This is a war with no front line. It surges from village to village, as fighters roam at will and ordinary citizens take the brunt of their attacks.

Fifteen-year-old Tantine Furaha was visiting the village of Hembe when a gunfight between government troops and guerrillas - the second in three days - erupted, and she was hit in the leg. "You can't know when the shots will start," she says, recovering at a hospital in nearby Mweso.

About 15 kilometres from Mweso, along an abysmal potholed trail that serves as the main road, lies the sprawling camp for displaced people at Kitchanga where Mr. Kamanutse took shelter last month. Local authorities are trying to close the camp, saying it's no longer needed, but its 20,000 occupants refuse to leave.

Families continue to arrive - another camp has sprung up a few kilometres away, taking in 4,000 refugees in the past eight months, while several sites farther down the road house another 50,000.

Even though they face food shortages and cholera (118 cases in Kitchanga in January alone), "people don't want to go back home because the fighting is still going on," says Kauta Muhima, president of a committee of leaders at Kitchanga camp. "Some of us tried to go home, but there was fighting at night and they were slaughtered."

Many villagers are terrorized and beaten if they refuse to give money to the soldiers or rebels. Even at refugee camps, they can be abducted and forced to be labourers, carrying the looted spoils for the fighters. "They hardly know who is attacking them," says Rubera Bapfakulera, another camp leader. "Both sides have guns. There are still weapons everywhere and it's hard to know who is attacking."

Why did Mr. Kamanutse risk the journey back to his village? He was reluctant, he says, but couldn't find work or feed his family. So he returned to his village, planted crops and, just when the harvest was approaching, the FDLR appeared and stole everything. The army had issued guns to a "local defence" person in each village - but the rebels simply killed them, he says, and took the weapons. "It's unbelievable that the army gave us guns instead of defending us."

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