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Last Updated: Monday, 6 February 2006, 12:53 GMT
Families bear pain of Congo clashes
Orla Guerin
By Orla Guerin
BBC News, DR Congo

A child in a refugee camp in Dubiye, in DR Congo's Katanga province
Many families in eastern DR Congo have taken refuge in camps
I stood at the end of the bed, watching his chest rise and fall. He lay in a stuffy, makeshift clinic, run by a handful of overstretched doctors from Medecins sans Frontieres.

His name was Fiston, and he was three years old but so small I had mistaken him for a baby.

I asked a young Congolese doctor if he would live. "We hope so," he told me, but he dropped his eyes. I think he could not bring himself to say what he already knew.

Just minutes after we left the room, Fiston died. At the time his young mother was outside weeping. All week I found myself wishing that he had not died alone.

In his short time on earth, Fiston lived a lifetime of horror - hungry, hunted, prey to rebel fighters and to disease.

QUICK GUIDE

Officially, he was born in peacetime, after Congo's multi-layered conflict ended in 2003.

But peace has eluded the east of the country and the feared Mai Mai militia are trying to grab as much power as they can.

They are farmers turned fighters - fierce and superstitious. It was former President Laurent Kabila who recruited them in 1998 to stem the advance of Rwandan-backed forces.

Since the end of the war the Mai Mai in Katanga province have been extorting money from civilians, and trying to control local mining and poaching.

'Victims twice over'

Recent months have seen a long season of burning by the Mai Mai, and sometimes the army. More than 120,000 people have been driven from their homes, as village after village was torched.

The government began a crackdown against the rebels in November, but there are mixed views about how serious or successful it is.

Map showing Katanga province, DR Congo

In the midst of it all are the civilians - families forced to flee into the bush or walk for days to reach tightly-packed camps, like those we found in the town of Dubiye.

Richard was our guide. The Mai Mai burnt his village last June. He was softly spoken, with careful English and the habit of saying "thank you" at the end of every sentence.

"We are victims twice over, caught between the Mai Mai and the army," he told me.

Every day he left his crude hut of sticks and plastic sheeting and came to meet us, looking neat and tidy. His trousers had huge turn-ups and hung loosely on his body. But somehow he kept his dignity, in someone else's clothes.

Burned as witch

In camp number three we met Banzi - a pained and weary man, who explained life under Mai Mai rule.

"We could not eat cassava leaves on Thursday," he told us. "That was the day for their gods. When they were having a feast we had to bring food, but we couldn't wear any clothes. And no-one was allowed to see the face of their leader, Gedeon."

A child in front of a destroyed house in DR Congo's Katanga province
Many villages have been burned by rebels - and some by the army

Breaking any of these rules, especially the last one, could mean death.

What the Mai Mai did to Banzi's family is hard to recount. Last October they came for his wife - Mwelambwe, the woman he called "my beloved".

The Mai Mai claimed she was a witch, even though the local witchdoctor said otherwise.

"The last time I saw my wife she was tied up, put on firewood and being beaten," he said.

"At that time they had not set her on fire. She said: 'I am dying innocently.' When she said that I started crying. I had no power so I left the place. When I came back to the killing place the next day, I found only ashes. She was dead."

I asked Banzi to tell me about his wife. He broke into a smile. "She liked very much to go to church and to sing in the choir," he said.

Unstable nation

In the town of Mitwabe we were greeted by the chiefs of 16 burnt villages, men in rags with hunted faces. They told us the last time food stuffs were delivered here was in July.

A Congolese soldier in front of a UN peacekeeping force truck
DR Congo is home to the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world
Transporting aid is not easy - the roads are like a broken jigsaw puzzle. But hearing stories like this, you ask yourself: Where is everyone? Where is the United Nations? Where is the international outcry?

Congo is home to the biggest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, but in Katanga the UN is all but invisible.

The area is rich in minerals, and it is the home province of Congo's current leader, President Joseph Kabila. It seems the president or those around him do not want the UN shining a light on his home turf.

This is election year in Congo - the first general election since independence from Belgium in 1960.

But privately, UN officials warn that the vote may not change much. They want the world to get involved in rebuilding this country - they say it is too big and too unstable to be left to itself.

Nine African countries had a hand in the last war in Congo. If the country starts to slide again, its neighbours could go with it.

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