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In Congo's remote hills, a struggle to survive

His home was looted by wild government soldiers still pillaging this empty hilltop town. His fields are at the mercy of armed militias. And somewhere in the countryside, a rebel army is digging in.
Judith, a 4-year-old displaced girl, receives medical treatment for severe malaria as her mother keeps watch, at a clinic run by the aid organization Merlin, in Goma, eastern Congo, on Thursday.Karel Prinsloo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

His home was looted by wild government soldiers still pillaging this empty hilltop town. His fields are at the mercy of armed militias. And somewhere in the countryside, a rebel army is digging in.

In a tense vacuum between war and peace where little government authority exists, Katembo Mastaki is trying to protect his family the only way he knows how: tethering a ripped piece of plastic sheeting-turned-tent to the jagged barbed wire surrounding a U.N. base.

"It's only God who protects us here," the 27-year-old teacher said, huddled in the grass and dirt Wednesday outside a U.N. base in Kanyabayonga.

The scene this week represents a snapshot of suffering in a town that has not even been directly hit by Congo's latest fighting.

About 80 miles and a world away from Goma, the regional capital, the town is one of several perched across lush pastoral hills that was denuded of its inhabitants and ruled by extraordinarily unruly government troops since last week.

In this lawless corner of Congo, there are no police. There is no fuel, and no electricity. Terraced fields of precious beans and maize are untended. Shops stand empty. Children are not going to school.

Fleeing the violence
Clashes between rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and Congo's frail military have displaced at least 250,000 people since August, a humanitarian catastrophe that has brought countless lives to a standstill. All this in a province that was already struggling to deal with 750,000 other desperate refugees displaced over the last decade.

Nkunda says he is fighting to protect minority Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu rebels who helped perpetrate Rwanda's 1994 genocide. But critics say he is power-hungry and Tutsis are not targeted more than any other of Congo's other 200-plus ethnic groups. They argue, in fact, that his war has only increased resentment against them.

Earlier this week, rebels began pulling back fighters from several fronts around Kanyabayonga, ostensibly to support U.N. peace efforts, but clashes persist.

Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said the army, together with pro-government Mai Mai militias and Rwandan Hutu rebels, attacked rebel troops Thursday in Katoro, a small village near Kiwanja, about 45 miles north of Goma. Rebels fended off the attack after two hours, Bisimwa said.

The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, agreed to send 3,100 more peacekeepers, boosting the 17,000-strong Central African mission. Though already the U.N.'s largest, the force has been heavily criticized for failing to stop the violence.

Enemies from all sides
This week, 44 Congolese civil society and rights groups issued a letter pleading for the fighting to stop.

"We are witnessing tragedies on a scale never experienced before in (our) history, in which civilian populations are being summarily executed by bullets or blows from machetes, knives, hoes and spears," the letter said. "With each day that passes, more and more people die."

The groups accused retreating army troops of killing, pillaging, raping and "leaving chaos and total disorder in their wake." They also accused rebels of going door-to-door in newly seized territories, forcing boys and men aged 14 to 40 to join their ranks.

"We don't know which saint to pray to; we are condemned to death by all this violence and displacement," the letter said. "We have been abandoned. Who will protect us?"

Dinner interrupted by gunfire
Though many hoped Congo's 2006 elections would finally bring an end to violence, Congo's east has deteriorated deeper into chaos instead, with rebels expanding their territory and armed, vine-clad, machete-wielding militias still roaming lawless hills.

Mastaki said armed Rwandan Hutu militias have often came to his fields, taking manioc and maize — whatever food they wanted.

The unwieldy army itself is part of the problem. But some troops complain they are not paid enough to survive, and have to loot to get by.

Mastaki recounted how soldiers burst in on his family last week as they were eating dinner in Kanyabayonga, which until then had been spared the brunt of the latest war.

"We heard gunshots and thought the rebels were coming," Mastaki said. "But it was our own army shooting in the air."

Thousands fled into bush or nearby forests, exposed to boiling days, cold nights, and frequent downpours. Mastaki, his wife and three children fled with thousands of others to the hilltop U.N. base, forming a massive ring around it made of temporary shelters made of bamboo, leaves and plastic sheeting.

While a blue-turbaned Indian peacekeeper looked on from behind a sandbagged post, Mastaki counted what few possessions he had left: the clothes on his back, a thin foam mattress, four iron pots, a pair of plastic bowls and jugs, and a single utensil — a withered iron spoon.

Mastaki said he returned to his home to find it almost completely empty.

"Soldiers are still looting as we speak," he said Wednesday as a crowd of barefooted children gathered to listen. "Why is the U.N. here?"

Nowhere else to turn
Despite that oft-heard criticism, the mere presence of peacekeepers has given civilians with nowhere else to turn a kind of refuge. Mastaki put it his way: "At least nobody will shoot us here."

As he spoke, soldiers busily crisscrossed the red earth road that cuts through town, toting bundles of likely looted goods and live chickens. They passed doors of empty thatched homes that had been kicked in. Many sat on doorsteps of evacuated homes, rifles at their feet, their wives cooking meals in open pots.

No U.N. presence was visible in the town, and Mastaki said most people women dared not walk through town for fear of being raped.

Outside another of the U.N. base's gates, a pair of men tried to profit from the desperation, charging a fee for the luxury of charging cell phone, vital connections to the outside world. About 70 phones were plugged into seven dusty power strips connected to a small rumbling generator.

This week, refugees have heard sporadic volleys of gunfire, either from drunk soldiers or fighting further away in the hills.

"We've been reduced to begging," Mastaki said. "I just want to go home."