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Last Updated: Friday, 1 April, 2005, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
Fighters scent peace in DR Congo
By Ishbel Matheson
BBC News, Bunia

UN peacekeeper holding gun handed over by Congolese militiaman
Some guns have been handed in - but many remain
It is nearly midday. The tropical sun is unbearably hot. Lying on the earth, at a UN disarmament point, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo town of Bunia, is a snaking line of weapons.

There are guns - mostly Kalashnikovs - a couple of mortars, radio equipment and boxes of bullets. In a few hours, 54 weapons have been handed over.

But UN peacekeepers say just half of the region's militiamen have disarmed and promise to take tough action against the others.

A fighter pushes his way through the crowd of youths, pressed up against the barbed wire barrier. He surrenders his weapon to the United Nations' Moroccan soldier, who immediately pulls out the magazine.

Basisa Basaro fought for the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) - a militia associated with the Hema ethnic group - for four years. But now, he has had a change of heart.

"I love peace. I am tired of fighting."

Chef

Other fighters give the same simple reason. These are murderers, rapists, gunmen who have committed the appalling atrocities, which are a hallmark of this region. But now, they claim to be war-weary.

Saidi commanded 70 men for the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) - an armed group from the Lendu community. He waits in line with his erstwhile Hema enemies. There is no apparent animosity between them.

It is easier to start a war, than to end it
Peter Simana, UN
"We are all Iturians. That's where it stops. All of us here want peace. That's why we're happy to turn in our weapons."

Before he was a fighter, Saidi worked as a chef in Bunia. He boasts that he can cook European and American as well as African cuisine.

But when the wars started in DR Congo, he - like many others - became swept up in the violence.

"I really didn't want to fight. I had to defend my family. I had to defend the ones I loved. We had to run away from this war, until finally we decided to fight ourselves."

Lethal hardware

The ethnic warfare in Ituri erupted in earnest after the invasion of eastern DR Congo by Rwanda and Uganda in 1998.

As the rivalry between the East African nations grew, Kampala and Kigali armed and funded opposing militias.

Long-standing tensions exploded, fuelled by the ready availability of weapons.

In Aru, a town at the northern end of Lake Albert, Peter Simana from the UN Development Programme, looks at a large haul of arms.

"It is easier to start a war, than to end it," he reflects.

"But this is step in the right direction."

The weapons surrendered by another militia, the FAPC, include rocket-propelled grenades, long-range mortars, land-mines, heavy machine-guns, plus a pile of guns, mostly AK-47s.

It is lethal, expensive hardware. The leader of the FAPC is a wealthy businessman, Jerome Kakwavu. He has been appointed to a high-ranking post in DR Congo's national army - even though human rights groups have accused him of committing war crimes.

Sick of soldiering

The deal was part of the disarmament agreement signed by the main Ituri militia, and the Congolese government, last September.

The armed groups were given the option of returning to civilian life or to be employed as soldiers in DR Congo's new integrated army.

We will go after them. We will take them
Colonel Hussein Mahmud, UN
Lute Mpenda has fought with various militia groups, ending up with the FAPC.

After nine years of conflict, he is tired.

"I am going back to civilian life. I am really, really sick of the soldier's life."

The deadline was midnight, 31 March 2005. But so far, the FAPC is the only militia which has signalled it intends to honour the pledge.

As midnight passed, less than half of the targeted 15,000 fighters had surrendered their weapons.

The biggest militia group, the UPC, complains it had not been given enough time or resources to tell its soldiers about the programme.

That explanation is rubbished by some.

"They don't want to," is the simple explanation one of Bunia's residents gave. He preferred not to be named - attacks and murder are commonplace in the town. Few are brought to justice.

Talking tough

"It is not encouraging," admits Colonel Hussein Mahmud, the deputy force commander of the UN's Ituri brigade.

UN troops hand out leaflets in Bunia about the disarmament deadline
The real challenge begins after the arms deadline

"The majority have retained their weapons."

Under Congolese law, fighters who have not handed in their arms are considered outlaws. They are liable to be arrested and imprisoned.

The job of hunting them, will fall to United Nations soldiers, along with the Congolese army and police.

Col Mahmud made plain his determination.

"We will go after them. We will take them. We know their areas, we know their camps, but we can't say exactly when. "

Great challenge

Ordinary Congolese have mixed feelings about the UN force in Bunia.

They recall how, when violence exploded in 2003, the small Uruguayan contingent of peacekeepers did little to stop the killing.

The UN force is now bigger - totalling over 4,000 troops in Bunia - and it has a beefed-up mandate, with authority to use force to protect civilians.

But the suspicion remains, that the blue helmets will not have the guts for the fight.

Father Alfred Buju, of Bunia's Justice and Peace Commission, is worried a security vacuum may have been created by the partial disarmament.

Civilians detest the militia - he says - but they also rely on their brutal form of protection.

"The big question is whether the international community will be able to protect them. This is a great challenge."


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