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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 April 2006, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
Reasons for hope in DR Congo
In recent years the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen a series of coups, military revolts and wars which have left millions dead. And despite elections promised for this summer, the outlook seems little rosier today.

A former child soldier
A former child soldier tells Martin Bell of his experiences

But former BBC correspondent Martin Bell has just returned from the region and perhaps surprisingly, he is not entirely pessimistic about its future.

It was 40 years ago this summer that, as a young reporter in eastern Nigeria, I interviewed survivors of massacres and forced expulsions - what these days we might call ethnic cleansing.

These were the events that led to the Biafran war a year later - Biafra being the name the rebels gave to their hoped for new country.

I reported that war too, including the fall of their capital, Enugu, to government forces.

As the federal Nigerians stood on the verge of victory, I remember making a misjudgement: that, after all the bloodshed and bitterness, reconciliation between the two sides would be difficult if not impossible.

I was quite wrong. The widely predicted retaliation and revenge killings never happened.

Wretched circumstances

I was reminded of this just last year, when I travelled to Darfur in my present role as a Unicef goodwill ambassador.

Darfur's problems are as intractable now as they were then - with no political settlement, more than two million refugees camped in wretched circumstances and another half million unreachable by the aid agencies.

Darfur refugees
Two million people have been displaced by fighting in Darfur

But a hopeful sign - one of the few - is the positive part being played by the African Union's first ever peace-keeping force: small and overstretched but providing some security to the displaced.

Their commander was, and still is, a Nigerian General George Okowo.

At the age of 17 he had fought in his country's civil war. And this is the interesting part - he was on the losing side.

He was a sergeant in a mortar platoon of the rebel Biafran Army. And now he's a senior commander in the Nigerian Army, the force that he had been fighting.

So today in Sudan he not only promotes, but single-handedly personifies, the possibilities of peace and reconciliation.

I make this point because I think there is a tendency among journalists everywhere, and perhaps old Africa hands in particular, to prophesy doom and gloom.

We have constantly to remind ourselves that even in Africa - perhaps especially in Africa - things do not always go from bad to worse.

They did not in Nigeria. They have not in South Africa, despite grave problems in both countries. And there are other examples.

Brutal war

But the Democratic Republic of the Congo does seem to defy all optimism.

Despite peace and power-sharing agreements, the prospect of elections this summer and the insertion of a substantial UN force, the eight-year-old war is still continuing in the east of the country: government forces on one side and shifting alliances of rebel militias on the other.

It is the great war of Africa. It has killed four million people - the greatest loss of life in any conflict since World War II.

This year, new waves of refugees have included for the first time the pygmies, driven from their homes in the forest.

They had been attacked, and some killed, by rebel militias. They could not resist.

They showed us their weapons, bows and arrows, even poison-tipped arrows, which are no match for Kalashnikovs.

DR Congo still holds the greatest concentration of child soldiers in the world. Thousands remain under arms. Some have been demobilised.

We met 34 of them at a Unicef transit centre. A young man of 17 told me his story.

He had joined a militia at the age of 11 and a half, started carrying a gun at the age of 13, and fought many battles.

In one of these, 17 of his battalion had died. Had he ever killed anyone, I wondered.

"Yes," he replied, "I killed many people."

Vast scale

No less shocking is the plight of the women. Rape has been used systematically as a weapon of war.

At a hospital in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, we were greeted by 50 victims of rape who were near the end of a two month process of physical and psychological healing.

Through that hospital, in the past three years, have passed more than 4,500 such women - and that is just from one part of one province of the country.

Many of them have babies as a result of what happened to them.

Part of the horror of this thing is the sheer scale of it.

It is easy to be overwhelmed, and to prophesy more of the same, a brutal war without end in the heart of Africa.

That was the mistake I made in Nigeria, and I will not make it again.

Elections will be held, probably in July, and they just might set the Congolese on the path to the peace and freedom that they have never enjoyed, through more than a century of colonialism, dictatorship and war.

They are in desperate need of a future unlike their past.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 March, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Democratic Republic of Congo
03 Feb 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Nigeria
10 Jan 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Sudan
31 Jan 06 |  Country profiles

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