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6 November 2008

The exodus

The fighting in the Congo forces thousands to flee their homes, reports Xan Rice

By Xan Rice

Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: this picture could have come from 1994, when more than a million people fled over the border from Rwanda during the genocide. It could also have been taken at any time between 1998 and 2003, when the smoky hills and forests of the mineral-rich region became the theatre for what some called “Africa’s First World War”. Instead it was taken just last Monday near the eastern town of Kibumba, under the watch of a 17,000-strong UN force, the biggest anywhere in the world.

The swift advance towards the provincial capital Goma by Laurent Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels, which caused more than 100,000 people to flee villages or camps, provoked panic in the west, with Britain, France and the US despatching envoys to the region. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-m oon, warned of a humanitarian crisis of “catastrophic dimensions”; Gordon Brown said, hyperbolically, that Congo should not be allowed to become “another Rwanda”.

To an outsider it might have seemed as if Nkunda’s actions were something new, as if a long and carefully nurtured peace had suddenly been destroyed. But to those on the ground in North Kivu province, especially the one million people displaced there by fighting since 2006, it was just more of the same.

When Joseph Kabila was elected two years ago in the DRC’s first democratic polls for more than 40 years, it was hoped that the myriad rebel forces in North Kivu would be persuaded to disarm. In January, after much arm-twisting, 22 armed groups, many of whom had benefited from controlling access to lucrative tin, gold and coltan mines, signed a peace deal with the government. But the swift disintegration of the agreement has shown that the ethnic roots of the problem grip too deep to be simply inked away.

Nkunda, a 41-year-old former Congolese army general who fought alongside the Rwandan Patriotic Front to liberate Rwanda after the genocide, claims to be defending the minority Tutsi population in eastern Congo from marauding Hutu militias. He blames, with some justification, the Congolese government for failing to disarm and even supporting Hutu rebels linked to the Rwanda genocide. Kabila, in turn, accuses Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, of supporting Nkunda with arms and other logistical support. Kagame denies the charge, but most analysts believe it to be true.

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The two leaders are expected to meet later this week. Unless their talks are vastly more successful than previous attempts, the picture archive of desperate civilians on the move in eastern Congo will continue to grow.

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