It was her favorite dress, a pretty, long one with a wild pattern of colorful flowers. By her calculation, Anastazi Mahano saved five years for the small luxury, keeping the dress from the mud that stains everything here brown, wearing it only for weddings and Sunday church.
When rebel fighting engulfed this area recently, she padlocked it inside her mud-walled house and fled empty-handed, along with thousands of others, into the rolling green hills. Arriving back home Wednesday, however, she found the padlock smashed and her belongings looted — perhaps by unpaid rebels, or unpaid government soldiers, or even neighbors more desperate than she.
"It took me a long time to buy that dress," Mahano said as she surveyed her wrecked house. "It was my special clothing. I'm so brokenhearted."
As panicked thousands have abandoned villages across eastern Congo in recent months, the scale of looting that has followed has been massive, a crime reflecting the predatory culture pervading Congo since the Belgian colonizers perfected it decades ago.
The millions of minor thefts may pale in comparison to the more professional looting of eastern Congo's vast mineral wealth, which is helping to finance the conflict. Collectively, though, the thieving soldiers have set back an already economically marginal population by years, if not decades, making it even harder to reverse the effects of a conflict that threatens to destabilize the entire Central African region.
Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi rebel leader with close ties to neighboring Rwanda, has said he has begun fighting again to protect the region's minority Tutsis from Hutu militias that fled to eastern Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. He vowed recently to "liberate" all of Congo.
Eastern Congo has been the epicenter of two civil wars in the past decade, and the most recent fighting has left the provincial capital of Goma encircled and displaced tens of thousands of Congolese.
As the rebels advance, the nature of the looting here indicates how desperate Congo has become. Humiliated, retreating government soldiers, hungry rebels and other opportunists have wrestled chickens and cellphones from fleeing villagers and smashed the doors and windows of abandoned homes, making off with mattresses, goats, pots, clothes, radios and TVs.
The road that leads north from Goma has become a long, pathetic tableau of government soldiers leaning in doorways or in front of houses they now occupy.
A bit farther north, rebels have set up a roadblock where trucks heading to Goma heaped high with cabbages, charcoal and other goods must pay an astounding $500 tax or be turned back. Some drivers park there for days before managing, somehow, to get the money.
The impact of the predation is difficult to calculate. Person by person, though, it has been catastrophic economically and, in a way, morally, as Congolese have watched their painstakingly earned savings and possessions carried off by drunk soldiers with guns.
"I have lost my appetite," said Jean-Marie Kabale Kapitula, 42, describing his devastation when he found two of his three saws stolen, along with three goats and his only pig, belongings representing years of work.
He was among a few dozen people who returned Wednesday to this village of thatched-roof mud houses in a cool grove of banana and mango trees. Like Kapitula, most of them have lived their entire lives here, getting by throughout the notoriously kleptocratic rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, when some earned a decent living, the rebel invasion that ousted Mobutu and the decade of civil war that followed.
Over the years, some people managed to fix up their homes with wooden doors and glass windows with neatly painted trim. Some have planted the pink and purple flowers that grow wild in this spectacularly lush part of the world.
'How can we start again?'
People here said they had never been forced to flee during previous conflicts. But when rebels loyal to Nkunda advanced through the area two weeks ago, the fighting was so heavy the entire village joined the mass exodus toward Goma.
Kapitula left in a hurry, padlocking the wooden door of his house and hoping for the best. When he returned, he found a village of smashed doors and broken windows.
The two stolen saws had been "a remembrance of my father," he said, touching his heart.
His father had worked 30 years on a Belgian-owned coffee plantation, making $1.50 a day in the end. Before he died in 2006, he had bought the two $90 saws with what amounted to his life's savings and given them to his son.
Kapitula was able to employ four people, using the saws to fell tall trees and cut up the wood, which he sold in a local market. That brought him about $30 a month, and after a year or so, he managed to buy a third saw and add two men to his crew.
He was eventually making about $50 a month, and life was looking up. He bought the pig. He was taking care of his 70-year-old mother.
"Now I'll be able to make maybe $15 with the one ax," Kapitula said. "Now the men I employed are jobless. They are coming to ask me, as a boss, how can we start again?"
As a few dozen people arrived here Wednesday, they began asking themselves the same question — and counting their losses.
In some houses, it seemed that the thieves did not so much go looting as go shopping, taking the best items and leaving the rest.
Mahano, who has lived in Nyongera for six years, was at first afraid to go inside her house. When she did, she found her newest blankets stolen along with her favorite dress.
"It took so long" to accumulate her things, she explained. "I go to the field and plant, and wait for reaping. Then I go to the market and sell a small quantity for money, and then wait for the next time of reaping, and then wait again. I'd say it took five years to buy the dress. Even more than five years."
Her neighbor Leonard Hangi pushed his door open.
Besides a suit and other clothes, his radio had been stolen, he said. Like Mahano's dress, it was a small luxury, a prized possession that represented a degree of simple, humanizing pleasure in a life of mostly unrewarded hard work.
"It had a cassette player, and it used batteries," Hangi said, explaining the radio's practical features. "It was just for my spare time. I liked to listen to the news and to African music."
He has worked for 24 years as a security guard at the Belgian coffee plantation, making about $1.50 a day. He was one of the few people in the village who had a radio, which had cost him $15; he saved for two years, he estimated.
But there were others, he said, who were worse off.
Among those chased away from the area were people who had already been displaced from villages farther north and were living in a vast, tented camp across the road. When the rebels came, they fled again.
Trying to start over
Francis Huzumutima was one of them, and he returned Wednesday to assess his new position in life. Though he was now wearing an old shirt, torn pants and muddy flip-flops, things had not always been so, he said.
He had once lived a semi-glamorous life in the capital, Kinshasa, attended university in the eastern city of Bukavu and gotten a job as a primary school teacher during Mobutu's heyday, when salaries were good.
He earned $300 a month then. Even after Mobutu had cannibalized the country, he was able to manage, earning about $20 a month.
With nearly 30 years of work behind him, Huzumutima had amassed a small rural empire of goats and chickens, dishes and cooking pots, a radio, a few suits. "I even had a mattress," he said.
It was all looted when a militia group passed through his village.
But he started over.
After a few weeks living in the camp here, he had managed to build a banana-leaf shelter and had acquired some pots and pans, partly through the kindness of strangers.
It was all wiped out again when Nkunda's rebels came through. Now Huzumutima is facing retirement with nothing.
"I have no hope to recover all my properties," he said. "I had a very nice life before, but I don't hope to have that life again."