Although the FDLR has been pushed back from the main road, the fighting is "possibly more dangerous than before, because there are no front lines," says Stefano Argenziano, who helps to run a hospital and health clinics at Mweso for Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders). "There are several front lines, and they're blurred. Those who go home are exposing themselves to huge risks. It would be very dangerous to say that things have improved."
More than half of the refugees in eastern Congo have been displaced two or three times in recent years, according to MSF estimates. "They have to move so much," says Marie-Christine Siemerink, the agency's co-ordinator at Kitchanga. "It's almost a second way of life for them, almost normal. But it's so destructive and unhealthy."
The humanitarian agencies themselves are often targets - nearly 180 armed attacks were recorded last year. In one notorious incident, the army fired on thousands of civilians gathered at vaccination stations run by MSF, which complained later that it had been used as "bait" for the ambush.
Last week, the agency protested again when soldiers burst into a hospital and dragged away four patients being given emergency care.
Soldiers have to eat
At Kitchanga, the road near the camps is filled with soldiers, including some who fought for the CNDP until the peace agreement. Because of rampant corruption in the government and the army, they often go unpaid for months - encouraging them to pillage from civilians.
If they don't have enough to eat, what do you expect? If they haven't eaten for days, and if they find something to eat, they will take it without asking - at least they won't die. Philip Gafishi, CNDP chairman
"This country is so rich in resources, yet it can't even pay the civil servants and the army," says Philip Gafishi, chairman of the CNDP, which is now a political party. "If they don't have enough to eat, what do you expect? If they haven't eaten for days, and if they find something to eat, they will take it without asking - at least they won't die."
Bosco Ntaganda, the former CNDP military commander, is an accused war criminal with a gruesome record. Known as The Terminator, he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, accused of massacring civilians and recruiting child soldiers. Peacekeepers are not allowed to co-operate with him, yet he now appears to hold a senior rank - deputy commander, Mr. Gafishi believes - in the Congolese military, which collaborates with the UN in military operations.
He is far from alone. This month, another former rebel commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Innocent Zimurinda, was the subject of a formal protest letter by no fewer than 51 human-rights and civil society organizations. They accused him of being responsible for a reign of terror that included massacres, executions, rapes, recruitment of children, forced labour, forced evictions, illegal taxation and arbitrary arrests.
Peacekeepers are said to have supplied his forces with food, fuel and logistical support as recently as January, despite a UN policy against doing so for any military units implicated in human-rights abuses.
Last April, in three days alone, Lt.-Col. Zimurinda's soldiers deliberately killed at least 129 refugees after he had ordered them to take no prisoners. According to the protest letter, 50 refugees were beaten to death with wooden clubs, while 40 women and children kept as sex slaves were gang-raped and mutilated.
Stephen Lewis, the former UN ambassador on AIDS in Africa, says the UN had been warned that Congo's offensive against the FDLR last year would be "a catastrophe for women," but the Security Council made a ruthless calculation that Congo's women would be "collateral damage." The offensive, he says, was "an unending carnage of rape."
Allegations like these make the Canadians who serve in the UN peacekeeping force uncomfortable. They are locked in a dilemma: fully aware of the reported atrocities but required to work hand-in-hand with the army to have any hope of defeating the rebels.
Stephen Tremblay, a 44-year-old colonel from Baie-Comeau, Que., commanded an armoured regiment in Valcartier until he agreed to command Operation Crocodile, the 12-member Canadian contingent with MONUC.
After just eight months here, he is one of the highest-ranking officers in the force, serving as chief of operations, which puts him at the centre of military campaigns - and leaves him with the tough job of trying to maintain a distance from the accused war criminals.Report Typo/Error