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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 ...

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."

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