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Wednesday, 1 August, 2001, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
Historic aid boat leaves Kinshasa
boat on the congo river
The Congo river is a vital economic lifeline
By Mark Dummett in Kinsasha

A first convoy of boats carrying humanitarian supplies for the rebel held east of Congo has set off from the capital, Kinshasa.

For three years of war, the several thousand kilometre long Congo river has been cut in half, making river traffic between the two halves impossible.


If you want to address the effects of the war you have to start with the Congo river

UN official Michel Nourreddine Kassa
But two months ago the United Nations announced boats would once again be able to make the journey, and one month ago a UN barge carrying fuel made the trip from Kinshasa to the northeastern city of Kisangani.

The convoy is being hailed as a symbol of peace for the country which has been devastated by its war and its division in two.

The UN negotiated with both the government in Kinshasa and the Ugandan and Rwandan backed rebels in the east to allow the boats to leave.

Trading

Medicine, school books, clothes and construction materials will be taken to Mogalo, in northern Equateur Province, where such basic things have been impossible to buy since the region's ties with Kinshasa were cut.

Then, in September, 1,000 tonnes of maize will make the return journey.

Democratic Republic of the Congo
For years it has been sitting in warehouses, waiting for a buyer - while downstream Kinshasa's residents have been suffering from a food crisis.

Ad Spijkers, the Food and Agriculture Organisation's representative in Congo hailed the day "as one I will remember in five years time". The boats left after a ceremony of speeches, music and traditional and modern dancers.

A white pigeon, masquerading as a dove, was released to a round of applause from the government ministers and aid officials present.

Kinshasa's docks, which have been silent and slowly rotting away for years, reverberated to the sound of a typical Congolese party.

River

Explaining why the boats mean so much to Congo, Michel Nourreddine Kassa, the head of the United Nations Humanitarian Office in Kinshasa, said that everyone in the country could understand their significance.

Boat leaves Kinshasa
Kinshasa's docks come to life again
"If there is anything which is of importance to all the Congolese people, its the Congo river," he said.

"If you want to address the effects of the war you have to start with the Congo river, the royal avenue for Congo's food and economic traffic."

But both Mr Kassa Mr and Spijkers, along with the rest of DR Congo's aid community, are aware of the problems the country faces.

In spite of a ceasefire that has seen UN peacekeepers deployed to positions along the massive frontline, a bloody conflict over control of Rwanda's border and over the control of Congo's forest and mineral resources continues to get worse.

Aid agencies say more than two million people in eastern Congo alone have died prematurely as a result of this war, and another two million are said to be internally displaced.

See also:

21 Jun 01 | Africa
In pictures: Historic Congo trip
21 May 01 | Africa
Congo River reopened to traffic
30 May 01 | Africa
UN optimistic over Congo
20 Apr 01 | Africa
Congo rebels allow UN to deploy
28 Feb 01 | Africa
Troops withdraw from DR Congo
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