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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 June 2005, 07:44 GMT 08:44 UK
Congo's battle with disarmament
By Will Ross
BBC News, Bunia

The population of Bunia, the main town in Ituri district in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been through hell.

Many Congolese militiamen voluntarily surrendered their weapons to a UN mission
More than 9,000 militia have been disarmed in Ituri

Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in recent years, but at least some of the guns are now being put down.

United Nations peacekeepers from countries as diverse as Bangladesh and Morocco patrol this busy trading centre close to the Ugandan border and there is also a small presence of the Congolese national army.

With elections expected this year, they hope to bring peace to this volatile part of the country.

Their challenge is to disarm a variety of militia which have been fighting for years for control of this mineral-rich region - the different groups were backed and armed by neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda.

Broken promises

Hautela Theo used to fight for the Nationalist and Integrationist Front militia, but recently he handed over his gun to the UN peacekeepers and returned to civilian life.

Ex-FNI fighter Hautela Theo
This is risky because we have friends who are waiting to see if we are helped before they decide whether to disarm or not.
Ex-fighter Hautela Theo

He says he received $50, but other promises have not been fulfilled.

"We are disappointed, because when we disarmed, they promised to help us with projects and finding some work. But up until now, we haven't been helped," Hautela says.

"And this is risky because we have friends who are still in the bush. They are watching what happens to us.

"They are waiting to see if we are helped before they decide whether to disarm or not."

Both jobless, Hautela and his brother now pass the time killing Martians on a hand-held computer game.


Some former militiamen have found work, riding the motorbike taxis which ferry people around Bunia's dusty streets.

Motorbike taxi riders in Bunia
There is an almost constant drone of motorbikes in Bunia

But for ex-Union of Congolese Patriots fighter Kisembo, who doesn't own a bike, it's a struggle to make enough money to feed his family once he has paid the owner.

He is now desperate for other employment, but he says there aren't any jobs.

In order to finish the war in Ituri, each person needs to be given some work, he says, to keep them busy, then the war would end.

"If I've got a job, why would I fight?" he asks.

Tired of war

Earlier this year, 10 Bangladeshi peacekeepers were killed by militiamen.

Colonel Mahmud Chowdhury
The situation has become better, but still we need to be cautious
Colonel Mahmud Chowdhury

But the commander of the UN forces on the ground, Colonel Mahmud Chowdhury, says with the disarmament programme, the situation is now improving.

"Nine thousand plus have voluntarily disarmed their weapons," he says.

"After that the situation has become better but still we need to be cautious.

"About 90% have disarmed and 1,000-plus are still out there. But we are trying to get them. They're the bandits."

The region may not yet be pacified, but it is slowly getting back to normal.


At a very lively wedding in Bunia, after Kahindo and Kiningani had said their vows, the congregation literally danced in the aisles.

An ex-militiaman in front of a portrait of late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko
Portraits of Mobutu can still have pride of place in the home

You wouldn't call it a private wedding: one elderly woman had clearly just abandoned her cooking pots to join in.

She danced into the church holding an enormous wooden spoon, which she waved around in the air.

But as a small saloon car drove Kahindo and Kiningani away from the church, there was a quick reminder that life is still far from normal.

Coming in the other direction was a huge armoured UN vehicle; perched on top were the blue-helmeted peacekeepers from Morocco.

The next vehicle they passed was a jeep full of soldiers of the Congolese national army, all clutching machine-guns.

Respect for Mobutu

People here are tired of this war and look back with fondness to the rule of their late dictator.

A UN vehicle patrols a road in Bunia
UN patrols are a reminder that life is still far from normal in Bunia

In Hautela's home hangs a picture of Mobutu Sese Seko - the man who ruled the country for over 30 years.

He was viewed from outside as one of the world's great political dinosaurs, responsible for keeping the population poor while amassing billions of dollars in his personal bank accounts.

However, many Congolese still refer to Mobutu with a great deal of respect and his portrait can still have pride of place in the home or even on a colourful Kitenge shirt.

The people of this vast country were supposed to be voting in the first multi-party elections since independence 45 years ago by the end of this month.

But now it looks as though those elections are still many months away as the country tries to unite and efforts to bring peace to the volatile north-east continue.

Many I have spoken to feel a more urgent effort is needed to find work for the ex-militia.

Then the cycle of violence could be ended.

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