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The mayor of Goma has ordered the demolition of buildings along one of the city's main roads, forcing people to rebuild their homes and businesses. (Photo: Erin Conway-Smith)Erin Conway-Smith

With all the multitude of Biblical-proportioned problems in eastern Congo - from war and poverty to refugees and sexual violence - why would anyone want to create new problems by demolishing houses?

Yet that's exactly what the mayor of Goma has been energetically doing. Convinced that his streets needed to be wider and more orderly, he dispatched gangs of thugs to demolish hundreds of houses.

With a population of a million people, Goma is the biggest city in eastern Congo, and the most strategically important, serving as the base for the United Nations peacekeepers here. The city is plagued by poverty, violence, shortages of electricity and water, and even the risk of catastrophic volcanic eruptions - but the city government decided that its priority was the traffic jams on its narrow streets. So it ordered the demolition teams into action.

Metha Bendera, a 63-year-old civil servant, was proud of his $40,000 house on Goma's main street. He rented space in front of his house to five small shopkeepers, using the rent to pay for his children's university tuition.

And then, one day last month, a truck full of dozens of young men arrived at his house, carrying hammers and other equipment. He says they called themselves "rastas" - the nickname of a notorious local gang.

There was no advance warning. "I saw them coming and all they said was, 'We are destroying, we are destroying,'" Mr. Bendera told me.

He rushed to grab his possessions and carry them to safety as the demolition began, but he wasn't able to save everything. Within two days, his home was gone, along with the five shops in front of it, and many other houses on the street.

"I'm in mourning for having lost my house," he told me. "It's like the death of a person. They have wronged me. The land was given to me by the authorities, they authorized me to build here, they gave me a deed to prove it is mine - and they are the same ones who came here to destroy it."

He gestured up and down the street. "The whole street is being demolished," he said.

He denies the official claim that the houses on the street were "disorderly." He says he built his house within six metres of the street, because that's what the authorities told him to do in 1988 when he built. Now the government has announced that every house must be 14 metres from the street.

With his home in ruins, Mr. Bendera is struggling to rebuild his house, further back from the street.

The government has offered no compensation for his loss. "They haven't even come here to apologize for what they did," he says bitterly.