Thousands of hungry and homeless lined up for food Friday deep in rebel-held territory in eastern Congo as the United Nations began its first large-scale delivery in the area since fighting broke out in late October.
More than 100 tons of food were going to 50,000 civilians in the area north of the provincial capital of Goma over the next four days, U.N. World Food spokesman Marcus Prior said.
This part of eastern Congo has served as a breadbasket to the region, its verdant hills and valleys made especially fertile by dark, rich volcanic soil. But many of the refugees say it's too dangerous to return to their fields.
"They told me I had to pay them if I wanted to take my food," said Musi Batai, an elderly man who said pro-government militiamen had occupied his fields near Kiwanja, rich in beans and corn. The men chased him away at gunpoint and said they were going to sell his food, Batai said at a Catholic church where WFP was handing out food.
Fighting between the army and fighters loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has displaced at least 250,000 people despite the presence of the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world, with some 17,000 troops.
At a stadium in Rutshuru where a second U.N. distribution was taking place, thousands gathered around neat stacks of corn meal and beans lined on a green field. The bags are meant to last a family 15 days.
"There is plenty of food, but I can't go back to my farm," said 29-year-old Ibrahim Masumbuku, who was waiting in line for rations. "There is no security anywhere."
Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency plans to move tens of thousands of refugees from two camps in Kibati to a new site 9 miles west next week because the area is just miles from the tense front line.
Aid groups have expressed concern about rape and other violence in the government-controlled camps.
There are fears the country could slide back into a ruinous war such as the 1998-2002 one that drew in more than half a dozen African nations and tore Congo into rival fiefdoms.
Rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda seized vast territory rich in coffee, gold and tin in the east. Angola and Zimbabwe sent tanks and fighter planes to back Congo's government in exchange for access to lucrative diamond and copper mines to the south and west.
Eastern Congo has been unstable since millions of refugees spilled across the border from Rwanda's 1994 genocide, which saw more than 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus slaughtered.
Many of the Hutu extremists who orchestrated the mass killings have remained in Congo, prompting Tutsi-led Rwanda to invade the mineral-rich nation twice.
Nkunda, who quit Congo's army in 2004, claims he is fighting to protect Tutsis, who like Hutus are a minority and one of an estimated 200 ethnic groups in Congo.
On Thursday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he will support a U.N. plan to send 3,000 more troops to Congo, but he said the force must have better leadership and equipment.