DR Congo

Tide of refugees overwhelms Congo's northeast

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Originally published
By Fiona O'Brien
MANGINA, Congo, Jan 21 (Reuters) - They call them the "effaceurs" -- those who rub out.

The rebels fighting for northeastern Congo have trailed destruction in their wake, looting, raping and terrorising villagers. Thousands have fled, a growing tide of refugees wandering around in search for food, shelter and security.

Aid workers estimate that more than 100,000 people have been forced from their homes in the last few months of fighting in the dark forests and mud-hut villages of the Ituri region, close to the Ugandan border.

While international hopes for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been caught up in the optimism of peace accords and the withdrawal of foreign troops, inside the massive central African country the war is far from over.

It is civilians who suffer the most. At Mangina, 30 km (19 miles) north of the town of Beni, around 25,000 people are stranded, pushed out of their homes by the conflict between rebels of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) and its rival Congolese Rally for Democracy-Kisangani (RCD-K-ML).

More than actual fighting, it is what aid workers describe as "organised terror" that has forced most people to flee.

Relief workers and witnesses say advancing rebels from the MLC and the allied Congolese Rally for Democracy-National (RCD-N) have committed major human rights abuses, killing, raping, torturing, and looting villages they pass through.

There are some reports of cannibalism, horrifying tales of rebels cooking and eating pygmies, many of whom have fled their homes deep in the forests for the first time to escape the rebel scourge.

Josephine Tebani first left her home when rebels arrived in Nyakunde in January 2001. She moved west to Komanda, but a year later another offensive drove her on to Mambasa, a town 160 km (100 miles) west of the Ugandan border which has changed hands several times in recent months.

"When the 'effaceurs' arrived in Mambasa people ran into the forest," she said, sitting in the Mangina church compound where thousands waited to collect blankets and cooking utensils from aid teams.

"Then they took megaphones and told them to leave the forests and come to their homes. When the people came back from the forests they started hitting, shooting. They told us even if you go to the forest we will come to get you."

"They looted everything, everything, down to the roots," said Amina Mwamini, a young woman who fled Mambasa shortly before the MLC took the town for a second time in November.

"We call them effaceurs because if they see anything, even goats, dogs, they would kill them."

GROWING TIDE OF REFUGEES

Kahambu Baseme, who lives in Mangina, stood near the church, two small children clinging to her legs. Kahindo, a girl of about nine, and her brother Kambale, six, lost their parents when their home was attacked and walked more than 100 miles to reach the site.

"They (rebels) killed the mother and father, they slaughtered them," Baseme said. "The parents had a small shop, then the rebels came and they wanted money. The father said there wasn't any. The children saw it all."

The wave of scared civilians grows with every rebel movement, picking up entire villages on its way. There are risks of disease, malnutrition, and little money or infrastructure to deal with such a massive movement of people.

The United Nations mission in Congo is due to complete a report this week on human rights violations in Ituri, and says the scale is large.

Congo's government, main rebel factions, opposition parties and civic groups signed a peace deal in South Africa in December to end four years of war that has killed around two million people, but rebels and rag-tag militias in the lawless east are still fighting among themselves.

The MLC, RCD-N and RCD-K-ML signed their own ceasefire last month but there has been more fighting since. Mai-Mai militias, loosely allied to the government, are another unknown quantity.

Aid workers say that often drunk or drugged, the rebels are out of control. Far from the eyes of the world, they prey heavily and freely on a civilian population which has no choice but to succumb or flee.

Many of those who left their homes walked barefoot and without belongings down the region's red soil roads. They have nothing to go back to, but say anything would be better than a life constantly on the move.

"When we left, we couldn't even take anything with us, we just left," said Etienne Lai, who fled her home three months ago, and has moved several times since with her husband and their five children.

"This cloth I am wearing, someone had to give it to me in a town where we stayed for a month. Do I want to go home? Of course. If things get quiet there, I will go home."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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