DRC: Kabinda emerges from siege
War came to Kabinda towards the end of 1999 when a long line of Rwandan troops appeared on the vermilion hillside that overlooks the town. The Congolese and Zimbabwean troops stationed there hurriedly dug foxholes and requisitioned any buildings sturdy enough to offer defence against the Rwandan mortars that began falling on the town. Overnight, Kabinda became a town under siege.
For 18 months, the town's inhabitants, swelled by thousands of displaced people who had fled the Rwandan advance, became prisoners on the frontline of the war - the last line of defence before the government stronghold and diamond rich town of Mbuji-Mayi.
People like Jacques Kamanda, who every morning would stare out of the window of his grubby mud and wattle hut towards the fields of cassava and maize which used to feed his family but which he could no longer farm. "I used to imagine the Rwandans eating my food and it made me very angry," Kamanda said.
But then on 15 March this year, as suddenly as they had appeared, the Rwandan troops began to peel away from their hilltop positions in compliance with a disengagement plan signed late last year by the parties to the war. Now, as the belligerents withdraw their armies 15 kilometres from their frontline positions, the curtain of occupation is drawn back to reveal desperate populations across the breadth of the country in desperate need of help.
"Life was too hard," said Kamanda, cradling the fragile frame of his youngest child in his lap. The child's hair has been tinged orange by malnutrition and Kamanda's brow is furrowed by the trauma of a man long unable to care for his family. "We could never find enough food to eat, and if we needed medicines we were left in God's hands," he added.
"The FAC [Congolese Army] soldiers were very bad," said one of Kabinda's elderly residents, too scared to give her name "in case they come back." "They were hungry like us and if they saw something they wanted they would steal it," she said.
Elijah Grundberger, a German national and friend of the town's Catholic Bishop has just returned to Kabinda with promises of help from his home country. He first arrived in Kabinda in February last year against the advice of his friends and without permission from the government in Kinshasa.
"There was a really awful situation here at that time," said Grundberger, standing on the dusty airstrip overgrown from disuse. "The Rwandan soldiers were positioned on the hill top just over there. You could see their fires burning at night and sometimes you could hear them laughing and coughing." Grundberger says he is glad to be back in Kabinda and amongst friends with whom he shared so much deprivation. "The nights were the worst time," he said. "We were always waiting for the Rwandans to attack."
But the attack never came and when the Rwandan soldiers withdrew and the lice-ridden Congolese government troops crawled out of their flooded foxholes and also began to withdraw, the residents of Kabinda celebrated.
Two weeks ago, for the first time since Kabinda was encircled, a throaty old cargo plane carrying medicine and food touched down on the airstrip just outside the town. Boys and men rushed barefoot to greet the plane and formed human chains to unload its cargo.
For the people of Kabinda and towns like it across the frontline of the war, the troop withdrawal is like a "gift from God". "Now we can breathe again and pray for a normal life," Kamanda said.
And for humanitarian agencies and their staff, the troop withdrawal allows them a tentative foothold back into towns to which they have had no access for so long. "Once we are able to reach towns like this, we can start assessing the needs and bringing relief," said Kees Tuinenburg, Country Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
But aid workers are all too aware that recent moves toward peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are shaky and that just as suddenly as the tide of war ebbed away from towns like Kabinda it can come crashing back without warning. They know that their ability to work effectively in the DRC remains largely at the mercy of the belligerents, and that if the soldiers return then they in turn will be forced to leave.
The people of Kabinda are praying they do not.
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