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Refugees on the move as DR Congo fighting escalates

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IWPR - September 19, 2007

Refugees continue to flee the fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as allegations emerge of Rwandan government support for ethnic Tutsi rebels.
The fighting in the North Kivu province of Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, is between government troops and the forces of dissident general Laurent Nkunda.

Refugees continue to flee the fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as allegations emerge of Rwandan government support for ethnic Tutsi rebels.

The fighting in the North Kivu province of Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, is between government troops and the forces of dissident general Laurent Nkunda.

In a statement on September 14, the United Nations World Food Programme, WFP, estimated that close to a million people had become internal refugees in North Kivu and the neighbouring province, South Kivu.

"We are working round the clock to reach people who have fled with virtually nothing," said Charles Vincent, WFP's country director for DRC.

"Across the east, the situation is getting worse every day for innocent civilians caught up in this conflict. There are too many we are currently unable to reach."

Some 35,000 refugees have moved across the border into southwestern Uganda, and are sheltering in giant tents at Nyakabande and other locations in southwestern Uganda. Conditions are terrible because of exceptionally heavy rains that have flooded the refugee centre

The Nyakabande camp lies in the shadow of Mount Muhabura, a towering extinct volcano where the international frontiers of three states meet - Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. Cold clouds billow down from the mountain in the early morning and engulf the refugees.

Dirty children sneeze incessantly as they squat around smoky fires chewing sugar cane. Some play football with makeshift balls made from packed banana leaves.

The cattle, sheep and goats they managed to drive with them from DRC try to find nourishment among dark gray stones and boulders.

Most of the refugees crossing into Uganda are Congolese ethnic Hutus who are fleeing attacks by Nkunda's forces.

Nkunda was made a general in the DRC national army in 2004, but subsequently withdrew from it and led units loyal to him in a series of attacks against ethnic Hutu militias in North Kivu.

The general belongs to the Tutsi minority, known as Banyamulenge in DRC, and claims to be defending them against ethnic Hutu paramilitaries. Some of these are indigenous Congolese Hutus while others are the remnants of the Interahamwe militias responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that resulted in the deaths of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The Interahamwe fled into DRC in 1994 after being defeated by Tutsi forces who brought their leader Paul Kagame – now Rwandan president – to power. In DRC, the Interahamwe's political organisation is known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda or FDLR.

Nkunda recently told the London-based intelligence magazine 'Africa Confidential" that he is prepared to fight to the bitter end to prevent what he says are plans by the DRC government and the Interahamwe to wipe out his fellow-Tutsis.

General Nkunda renewed his campaign against Hutu militias in August after the commander of DRC's army, General Gabriel Amisi, said an official counter-insurgency operation against the FDLR had been suspended.

On September 10, Amnesty International warned of a growing danger that the current fighting will escalate into ethnically-based killing on a massive scale. It cited numerous reported cases of rape and murder of civilians, and the use of child soldiers.

Those interviewed by IWPR at Nyakabande were overwhelmingly Hutus who said they had been attacked by Nkunda's Tutsi forces.

"We ran away from our farm and came with only a few animals because Nkunda ordered his soldiers to kill us," said Francis Shebisimbo, a subsistence farmer. "We are caught up in a war and we are suffering. Even here ,our children are sleeping in the cold and we have little to eat. The only solution to the war is for Nkunda to be killed. He should be arrested and killed."

Nyirantenzi Nyirakashaja fled from her village just across the border on September 10.

"We heard firing," she told IWPR. "It was an attack by Nkunda's forces. We ran away, because in 2005 my husband was killed by Nkunda's militiamen.

"If the situation does not improve, I will not go back to the Congo. The men who killed my husband should also be killed."

Another refugee, Eranze Akobahoranye, also blamed Nkunda for the latest wave of violence.

"I am a Hutu. I came here with my family. We walked on foot," said Akobahoranye. "I fear the war and I fear to go back. I wish death to Nkunda. He kills our people. He kills the Hutus. He has armed the Tutsis with guns, from children to adults. The Tutsis are armed and even keep their cattle with guns."

Like other past and present conflicts across eastern DRC, the present bout of fighting has been accompanied by allegations that neighbouring countries are interfering. In the case of Nkunda, the suggestion is that he is being actively supported by fellow-Tutsis in the Rwandan government.

"I have seen many Rwandan army soldiers in the hills of Runyonyi fighting alongside Nkunda's forces," said Shebisimbo in the Ugandan refugee camp.

The Rwandan government has denied involvement in the latest fighting, but international organisations allege that it is channelling military assistance to Nkunda. In its September 10 statement, Amnesty International said, "Reports that the Rwandan government is, at the very least, conniving in the supply of manpower, arms and ammunition to an alleged war criminal like Laurent Nkunda are deeply worrying."

Speaking the same day, Rwandan president Paul Kagame denied that his government was involved.

At a press conference quoted by the Kigali paper New Times, Kagame argued that whatever Nkunda might have done, he had "legitimate grievances" and should not placed in the same category as the FLDR, which was bent on pursuing its "genocide campaign" and was "a menace to the region".

Other refugees alleged that in the course of the fighting, Nkunda's forces had attacked international peacekeeping troops of MONUC, the United Nations mission in DRC.

IWPR was unable to verify this claim.

The 18,200-strong MONUC contingent has concentrated its forces in North Kivu, but their role has been limited to monitoring roles and providing logistical support to the demoralised government army.

MONUC's military spokesman Gabriel de Brosses recently said the peacekeepers did not have a UN mandate to engage in combat.

"The popular expectation is to see probably MONUC playing a more offensive role on the terrain, but that is definitely not our mandate," Brosses said in a radio interview with Voice of America. "We are not carrying out joint operations with the Congolese army."

At the same time, Brosses said MONUC was providing the DRC with helicopters to transport ammunition and troops as well as evacuate the wounded.

The Rwandan president was scathing about the UN force's attitude to the warring sides. "MONUC doesn't want to discuss FDLR and other negative forces in eastern DRC. But when it's about Nkunda, they… start to move tanks," he said.

The fighting in North Kivu has triggered fears among diplomats and aid agencies that the Congo's third full-scale war in a decade is beginning. Two previous periods of conflict, in 1996-97 and 1998-2003, dragged in seven neighbouring countries and resulted in more than four million deaths.

The North Kivu crisis comes as the Ugandan government prepares to send troops into another part of eastern DRC, close to the border with Sudan, in an attempt to flush out guerrillas of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army.

Henry Wasswa is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.


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