Image: John Holmes
T.j. Kirkpatrick  /  AP
John Holmes, center, the top U.N. diplomat for humanitarian affairs, tours the Kibati camp on Saturday. 
updated 2/8/2009 3:50:25 PM ET 2009-02-08T20:50:25

Sylvie Manyamangu gave birth last week out in the open on a chilly night.

Still, she decided that was better than returning to the home in eastern Congo that she fled from three months ago, carrying whatever she could in a hefty pile on her head.

"There's nothing left there. They looted everything, even the roof off my house," she said. "If I go back, there will be nothing."

Still, she acknowledged that the sprawling Kibati refugee camp where she and her eight children have landed was not the best solution either.

"Here, I also have nothing," she said, one sickly child wrapped on her back and others scurrying around her skirt.

Manyamangu applauded along with scores of other refugee women when the top U.N. diplomat for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, arrived at their camp to hear their concerns this weekend.

Holmes' four-day trip to Congo comes amid an outcry from aid workers and human rights groups, who accuse U.N. peacekeepers of failing to protect civilians from deadly attacks.

Manyamangu's hometown of Kibumba, just to the north, was among many in eastern Congo overrun by rebels loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda. The rebel leader claimed to be fighting to protect Congo's Tutsi minority from the Hutu militias linked to neighboring Rwanda's 1994 genocide, when some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.

Nkunda was captured by authorities in Rwanda last month, who took advantage of a split in his rebel movement. It was a stunning about-turn, for Rwanda's now-Tutsi government had supported Nkunda for years.

"I was so happy when he was caught," Manyamangu said. "It was he who forced us away, so with him there could be no peace."

250,000 fled fighting
Nkunda's troops seized great swaths of eastern Congo in a matter of weeks last year, forcing at least 250,000 people to flee the fighting.

Since his capture, thousands of refugees have already gone home — some 24,000 of the estimated 50,000 who flooded into Kibati, just outside the regional capital of Goma, which is on the border with Rwanda.

Holmes toured the sprawling camp on Saturday, viewing huts covered in white tarpaulins and wooden structures with bright blue doors, asking residents questions.

The biggest fear among camp dwellers is whether fighting could erupt again. Numerous militias and rebels have fought and plundered in eastern Congo since the central African nation suffered a decade of wars that ended in 2003.

Etienne Mupenda read a list of the refugees' needs and concerns to Holmes. In addition to plastic sheeting, seeds for planting and food until their vegetables grow, the refugees hoped to be protected by civilian authorities and establish a local civilian administration.

Security ‘the biggest issue’
"I can't promise a miracle," Holmes responded. "But we'll do our best in talking to the governor ... I understand that security is the biggest issue."

Later, he told reporters he would look into providing packages of necessities to encourage people to go home.

Pictures of guns
Groups of children too young to know anything but war and displacement danced and sang under the direction an Italian aid group that works with children in conflict zones.

Eduardo Tagliani explained to Holmes how, when children are encouraged to draw, their trauma comes out in pictures of houses and guns.

"First, they draw the thing they have lost, then they draw the thing that took it away from them — and perhaps the thing that could help them get it back," Tagliani said.

Gogo Kambale Kioma, a local official, said described a cycle in which some refugees go home only to return, because their houses were destroyed or are now occupied by government soldiers, or because of sharp disagreements with neighbors over looting and politics.

Many local administrators loyal to Nkunda remain in place, and returnees are being accused of supporting Nkunda's enemies.

"We really need to sensitize both groups that this really is not the moment to create another conflict," he said. "Whatever people have lost, they need to just blame the war. Otherwise, we could be heading into another tribal conflict."

Eastern Congo has Hutus and Tutsis, just like Rwanda, along with other ethnic groups.

While Rwanda is recovering from its genocide and its Tutsi leaders are trying to turn the tiny mountainous nation into a high-tech service center, eastern Congo continues to be convulsed by violence.

Hunger and disease
An estimated 5.4 million people — the world's deadliest conflict since World War II — have died in Congo's wars and some 1,500 continue to die every day, mostly from hunger and disease caused by conflict, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

President Joseph Kabila recently invited Sudan and Uganda to send troops into Congo to fight Ugandan rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army who have fled to Congo's far northeastern forests. The LRA headquarters was bombed, but that only scattered the rebels into villages where they have slaughtered an estimated 900 civilians since Christmas.

Holmes is to visit that area Monday, around the town of Bunia.

Aid workers and U.N. officials, meanwhile, fear another bloody backlash against civilians from Hutu rebels. Those rebels now hiding in Congo's eastern forests but are expected to emerge and retaliate after Rwandan troops that Kabila invited in to hunt them down leave Congo at the end of February.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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