NYONGERA, Congo, May 9 (Reuters) - "I buried my child in the forest," said Jeannette Nyirarukundo, who fled her village in eastern Congo when it was attacked by the government army meant to protect it.
Six-year-old Moise starved to death before the family reached the safety of a camp at Nyongera, 70 km (44 miles) from North Kivu's provincial capital Goma.
Some 113,000 civilians have fled fighting in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu since February, and the province now has 600,000 displaced people, according to the U.N. humanitarian coordination agency OCHA.
"We slept in the forest for two weeks, and then they came after us there too. It wasn't safe anymore, and we came here," said Nyirarukundo, 28, who was accompanied by her husband and three surviving children.
Eastern Congo is no stranger to violence, but ironically the latest surge in killing started with a deal designed to bring peace to this corner of the vast country nearly four years after a nationwide accord officially ended a 1998-2003 war.
Laurent Nkunda, a dissident Congolese army general, led his two brigades into the bush in 2004, vowing to protect his fellow ethnic Tutsis. He is under an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes after his men occupied Bukavu, South Kivu.
After last year's historic polls saw President Joseph Kabila become Congo's first democratically elected leader in more than four decades, the army and Rwandan mediators began negotiations to bring Nkunda and his soldiers into existing army brigades stationed in North Kivu. That process began in January.
But instead of ending the violence, the five new mixed brigades began hunting down Nkunda's enemies in the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu-dominated Rwandan rebel movement based in eastern Congo.
"There's more and more movement every day ... If this military strategy continues, we could be looking at another 280,000 more (displaced)," said Luciano Calestini, emergency specialist for eastern Congo for U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF.
"The next six months is going to be a disaster. It's going to be catastrophic," he said.
Human rights observers accuse the mixed brigades of killing, raping and forcing civilians from their homes.
Soldiers from the mixed Bravo Brigade arbitrarily executed at least 15 mostly Hutu civilians in Buramba village about 100 km (60 miles) north of Goma, the human rights division of Congo's U.N. peacekeeping mission said in a report.
Bravo Brigade commander Colonel Sultani Makenga blamed the massacre on the FDLR.
"What we did was separate the population from the FDLR. That's why the villages are uninhabited," Makenga told Reuters in an interview. "We evacuated the civilians in order to fight the FDLR alone ... It was to protect them."
Makenga said operations would continue until the FDLR were chased out of Congo or destroyed.
Dominique Bofondo, territorial administrator of Rutshuru, where Bravo Brigade is based, said civilians now lived in fear of the mixed brigades.
"These are the same soldiers who killed people, who raped women. And now they are here to take care of us? ... We are in the hands of a killer," Bofondo said.
In Nyongera camp, Nyirarukundo said she is still afraid to return home but says her surviving children are hungry and sick.
"For now, we have nothing. There's no food. Nothing. We just want security, so we can go home," she said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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