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africa's great riddle

A woman's machete-ravaged face testifies to the brutality of Congo's conflict.JAMES AKENA

In a decade of war, Biringiro Kamanutse has tried to go home four times - only to flee for his life each time. A few weeks ago, rebels attacked his village, killing and looting, even taking his clothes and cooking pans. Mr. Kamanutse and his family took shelter in a nearby village, but it too was attacked, so they trudged two days through the bush to reach a camp at Kitchanga, where up to 20,000 refugees are crowded in tiny huts of sticks and straw.

While still in the bush, he heard politicians on the radio talking about peace and progress. "They say we can go home - it's safe, it's quiet," he says. "But it has no connection to reality."

For millions of Congolese, the brutality that plagues their daily lives is all too real - even if almost everyone else would just as soon forget about a conflict so devastating that some call it  "Africa's  world war." With a death toll surpassing that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, it is one of the bloodiest and longest-running struggles anywhere. Nobody knows how many people have died since the latest fighting erupted, but estimates range as high as 5 million, including those who have died from the illness and hunger it has caused. As well, hundreds of thousands of women, many of them still girls, have been raped; soldiers on all sides use sexual violence like a weapon.

The United Nations' largest active peacekeeping force - 20,000 soldiers from dozens of countries - has failed to halt the atrocities. In fact, there are those who argue that the peacekeepers sometimes make things worse.

A year ago, hope for peace soared when the government of President Joseph Kabila signed a pact with a key rebel group. Yet the lush green hills and forests of this starkly beautiful land are still in turmoil - caught up in an endless scramble for the vast mineral wealth that in little more than a decade has attracted invaders from seven nearby countries.

Despite the continued fighting, the government is trying to shut the refugee camps scattered across Congo's eastern provinces, where 1.4 million are homeless, including 900,000 displaced in the past year alone. But most people are too fearful to go home - with good reason.

Human Rights Watch has reported that at least 1,400 civilians, including many women and children, were killed in "horrendous abuses" by both government and rebel forces. In some cases, the attackers "slit their throats like chickens" or gang-raped them so viciously that they bled to death from their injuries. Those who survive are often abducted as forced labour.

And now there are fears that the situation will get worse. Not only is President Kabila trying to close the refugee camps, but June 30 will mark the  50th anniversary of Congo's independence - an occasion he wants to observe with the UN's blue helmets, if not gone, packing their bags.

Violence and corruption

In popular legend, Congo is known best as the fictional Heart of Darkness - even though Joseph Conrad invented the term to describe those who exploit it, not for the country itself. Stretching almost 2,000 kilometres from the Atlantic coast inland to the Rwanda border, the Democratic Republic of Congo is as big as Western Europe and famed for its incredible resources, forests and minerals ranging from diamonds and gold to copper and tin.

Yet more than any other African nation, Congo has a history dominated by a combination of violence and corruption. For more than a century, it has known little beyond bloodshed and kleptocracy, from the nineteenth-century reign of Belgium's King Leopold II - the cousin of Queen Victoria who ran the place as a private fiefdom, working an estimated 10 million Congolese to death as he plundered its rubber trade - to the equally murderous Mobutu Sese Seko, the eccentric dictator who seized power five years after independence, held it for more than 30 years and in the process renamed the country Zaire.

The current conflict began a dozen years ago, in the aftermath of the genocide that killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda and ended with waves of refugees, including many génocidaires, fleeing into eastern Congo. Rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda soon took control of much of the region, while militia groups and tribal gangs brawled for its mineral wealth under the guise of protecting the people. Today Congo is a broken state, torn apart by foreign invaders and internal looters.

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."

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.

"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.

Canada's Crocodile

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.

However he insists that he has no direct dealings with Mr. Bosco, and isn't sure what role The Terminator now plays in the army. "I don't really know where he sits, but he's not in the immediate chain of command that MONUC deals with - I can guarantee that. He's not directly involved in the operations."

While the Canadians are a small fraction of the overall UN force, Canada's contribution over the years has been substantial. It currently spends $33-million a year to support the peacekeeping force, as part of its UN dues, and it has contributed 440 military personnel to the mission.

Col. Tremblay agonizes over the risks to civilians. "Protection of the population is our centre of gravity. That's our primary concern, that's why we're here. But it's often difficult. We're trying to be in as many places as possible, but with the size of this country, it's impossible to be everywhere."

The FDLR rebels, he argues, are far more murderous than the army. "They want to hit the population and create as many atrocities as possible, to attract international attention. They try to create panic. That's their modus operandi, to attack the innocent and attract attention."

To protect civilians, his latest idea is to distribute cheap cellphones to remote villages, allowing residents to call the peacekeepers if they see approaching rebels. "Then we can immediately send a patrol and we can prevent the village from being looted," he says.

But he confirms that Congolese soldiers, too, are often guilty of looting houses and forcing children to work for them. "They don't really have any training. Being with us - that's the training they get. If they're not paid and fed, they use what they have around them to survive."

In many ways, the battle here is the anti-Afghanistan.

"In Afghanistan, you're trying to surprise the enemy," Col. Tremblay says. "Here, surprise is very difficult. We're not trying to surprise the enemy with covert operations or intelligence. We want them to surrender. They need to have an exit."

To provide that exit route, the UN deploys its demobilization teams ahead of its military operations. They fan out into villages, contacting the rebels and offering to help them return to Rwanda if they give up their weapons.

Matthew Brubacher, a Canadian officer in MONUC's disarmament and demobilization program, has negotiated with rebel officers by satellite phone, shaken hands with them in village marketplaces, helped set up mobile radio stations to broadcast messages to the rebels, and scattered leaflets from helicopters to reach them in the jungle.

Sending rebels home

The leaflets portray a young girl gazing sorrowfully at a group of rebels, while the text appeals to the rebels to think of the future of their families. "You still have a choice," the leaflets say, listing a dozen cellphone numbers anyone interested in disarming can call.

Mr. Brubacher also helps to organize "extraction missions" to get defecting rebels and their families to the safety of MONUC bases. It's sensitive and dangerous work, but he believes it is succeeding.

More than 1,500 FDLR fighters were demobilized last year - three times as many as the previous year - in the aftermath of the government's decision to stop backing the Hutu militia.

Down to fewer than 5,000 fighters and pushed into the remote bush by the military offensives, the FDLR rebels feel "abandoned and betrayed," Mr. Brubacher says. "It's looking more and more futile. There will always be a hardcore group, but we've weakened them. They can't recruit as fast as we take them out. They've lost a lot of their areas, and their revenue from charcoal and cattle is being disrupted."

The UN base in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, has a group of tents reserved for former rebels and their families waiting to be bused back to Rwanda. Didas Bizimana, a painfully thin 29-year-old former corporal in threadbare clothes, is going back to a country he fled at 13 with the great wave of Hutu refugees after the genocide.

At 17, he says, he was recruited by the FDLR. "They told us we were fighting for the liberation of Rwanda," he recalls. "You could not refuse to join. They forced everyone - you could not escape. But when I realized that I was fighting for nothing, I decided to escape."

The war, he says, caused only suffering. "Our life in the forest was very bad, very difficult. There was no hope. We had illnesses without any medical care. We suffered from the rain. We had hardly any clothes."

FDLR commanders told him that anyone who returned to Rwanda would be tortured, forced to confess to crimes and then killed. But a year ago, he found one of the leaflets scattered by the UN helicopters.

Then he heard former combatants talking on the UN's mobile radio station, and noticed that some of his FDLR friends had already disappeared into the demobilization program - his unit was down to 100 fighters, barely half what it had in 2003.

"I heard that those who go back home to Rwanda have a better life than we did in the forest," he says. So one night, he slipped away and walked to the nearest MONUC base. The next morning, a UN platoon went back to fetch his wife and five children.

Now they sit waiting for a bus ride back in time - to a home and past life so forgotten that he can't even remember his father's face.

Disarmament remains a slow and arduous process. A government agency offered $50 cash for every gun surrendered to it, but only 14 were given up in Kitchanga on the first day of the campaign. Community leaders had told their people to hang on to their weapons because the fighting could erupt again.

Another group, called Hope in Action, has been giving twice that amount ($100 worth of roofing iron) for every gun surrendered to it. But after more than a year, it has destroyed 4,120 - still a drop in the bucket, considering the 500,000 firearms estimated to be in private hands here.

"The cost will be immense," says program co-ordinator Bidjosi Ntaganda Bika. "The problem is still huge and very real. Each ethnic group is keeping weapons to protect itself."

And what will happen when the peacekeepers leave? The current UN mandate in Congo will expire at the end of May, so President Kabila can celebrate Congo's 50th anniversary on June 30 without appearing too reliant on foreign troops.

The agreement likely will be renewed for  another year. But the government in Kinshasa is insisting that the peacekeepers must be gone by the end of 2011 (when Canada also expects to have withdrawn from Afghanistan), which could lead to even greater uncertainty and turmoil.

If the fighting stops, there are people willing and able to help to rebuild the country.

In war-ravaged Rutshuru district north of Goma, two investigators for the local military prosecutor have set up shop in the only place they could find space to work - the locker rooms of a soccer stadium.

They have no electricity, no functioning toilets and no transportation - and the town has no court house, so trials must be held in tents.

Yet the two are responsible for investigating and prosecuting the military crimes of several thousand Congolese soldiers.

"How are they expected to do their work with so few resources?" asks Prem Rawal, a military prosecutor from Halifax who has worked for MONUC for the past six months.

"They would probably say they are overwhelmed - they wouldn't be alone in saying that in this country. Yet somehow, despite all these challenges, they are finding their way forward. They keep trying."

A glimmer of hope

But will the UN, with so little time left, find its way forward? Will MONUC turn its attention to civilian nation-building like this, instead of military operations linked to atrocity and abuse?

Col. Tremblay, the Canadian commander, acknowledges that his new priority is to "consolidate" territory, rather than to keep chasing the FDLR from village to village.

And Mr. Rawal says he is now much less pessimistic than he was before coming here, when he would have laughed at anyone who referred to the "Congolese military-justice system."

"It's very easy to feel overwhelmed here," he says. "We all go through those days where we ask if our work is making any difference.

"But I always look for the ray of hope. I see those judges, prosecutors and clerks, and they are still doing their jobs."