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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 July 2006, 07:56 GMT 08:56 UK
Congo election reporters' log: Wednesday
Displaced people in eastern DR Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo is getting ready for what should be the first free presidential elections since independence 45 years ago.

After years of conflict and misrule, this country some two-thirds the size of western Europe does not have a road or railway running from one side to the other.

A team of BBC reporters is covering the polls and journalists are sending their observations:

Arnaud Zajtman, Kinshasa, Wednesday 26 July: 2010 local time

Tension is rising at we get closer to the election date. There is no curfew but in Kinshasa's city centre, people rush home before night falls.

We are getting near the height of the election battle and people remember that only a few years back, the president and the vice-presidents currently competing in the campaign were fighting a real war one against the other.

This has only ended thanks to the set-up of a power-sharing government and people in Kinshasa know that some of them will lose power - and so there is a danger that fighting to resume once again.

However, my neighbour is more at peace now than a week ago. She is one of the 2,000 Lebanese who live here and her five-year-old son was stuck in southern Lebanon during the bombings.

The boy fled with his uncle in Syria only four days ago. He is now safe, and so is her entire family.

Kinshasa's Lebanese community is 90% Muslim from the south and 10% Christian.

Some of them are successful diamond dealers, but most are shopkeepers or small industry-owners and they have not been spared by Congo's instability.

They have lost everything during the massive looting that went on here in 1991 and 1993.

But even more recently, when Joseph Kabila's father Laurent was killed in January 2001, 11 Lebanese, some of them very young, were executed by the men allegedly involved in the president's assassination.

This was because one Lebanese money-changer knicknamed "Heritier" was allegedly involved in the plot but failed to play his part and disappeared.

The 11 Lebanese, including Heritier's own brother, were killed in retaliation.

My neighbour says, however, that she hopes things will now go smoothly in DR Congo, because her country is being bombed, and she, and her 2,000 compatriots, have nowhere else to go.

Noel Mwakugu, Kisangani, Wednesday 26 July: 1930 local time

There has been a lot of campaigning here in Kisangani today, with four presidential candidates - Eugene Diomi Ngongala, Nzanga Mobutu, Arthur Z'ahidi Ngoma and Pierre Pay Pay - criss-crossing the city and going door to door in a last-minute effort.

It's become very confusing - most of the people I spoke to had shifted from one meeting to another and it was difficult to tell who they really supported.

But people in Kisangani say their main concerns are the delivery of schools and hospitals, and salaries for civil servants.

This Eastern province is vital in the election - its large population means that the winner here is likely to become president. That's why so many candidates, even some who are relative novices, have made the efforts to come here.

President Kabila's supporters were also out in their regalia at the opposition meetings. It's a unique situation - you'd expect them to be shouting insults at each other but that hasn't happened.

Joseph Winter, Lubumbashi, Wednesday 26 July: 1750 local time

As we left Zambia market after the lap-top link-up we noticed a large crowd outside a "battle bus" belonging to one of the parliamentary candidates, Denis Kalonji Ngoye of the Christian Social Democratic Party, PDSC.

On closer inspection, we saw that they were handing out small bottles of mineral water, while the loudspeakers strapped on top of the bus were deafening people with campaign slogans.

Some people queued up patiently for these free gifts but at the front of the queue, there was quite a scramble as each bottle was handed out.

Denis Kalonji's campaign director
Will bottled water and a t-shirt buy a vote?

Mr Kalonji's campaign director (pictured giving out the bottles) denied that he was trying to buy people's votes - on the cheap.

"The water symbolises life. We give out water to show that if we are elected, we will give life," he said.

"We are not handing out money like some candidates do."

Many Congolese are so poor that the free gifts - caps, T-shirts, water, food - given out at election time are extremely welcome.

And I am sure most will happily take whatever is given to them.

Not everyone proudly wearing a new Joseph Kabila T-shirt or cap in Lubumbashi will vote for him - and not all of those rushing to get water will vote for Mr Kalonji or the PDSC.

I wonder if the candidates are not wasting their money?

Orla Guerin, Goma City, Wednesday 26 July: 1720 local time

We drove north from Goma City along roads lined with dense forest interspersed with patches of banana groves, to reach the village of Kiwanja. In the past two months thousands have fled here to escape the latest fighting and instability in the east of Congo.

First they sheltered in the grounds of a church, now most have found temporary accommodation with local families. We found the rest in a rough camp with makeshift huts made of plastic sheeting.

People told us they had fled from the Interahamwe militia.

One man said he had been forced to leave his home time and again over the years because of fighting.

He told us he fled into the forest with his children. They suffered from exposure, hunger and disease and one by one five of them died.

Everyone we met said they wanted to vote and they hoped it would make a difference, but no one sounded convinced.

Mark Doyle, Mitwaba, central Katanga Province, Wednesday 26 July: 1415 local time

Five thousand feet above sea level, and the air is fresh and clean.

This is a small settlement. There's a rutted dirt road lined with Eucalptus trees, a Catholic church compound, an airstrip and a football field.

DR Congo
I'm glad to be here after the dust and filth of the mines I visited in southern Katanga. But most of the rest of the people I meet are not.

Next to the football field there are two camps for war displaced people.

One has civilians who fled fighting between government forces and rebels of the Mai-Mai group. One has former Mai Mai combatants.

"Mai-Mai" means Magic Water. If you go through the rites of initiation, it's said, the water can stop bullets.

The two groups live in sulky acceptance of each other - for now.

That's because here in Mitwaba they have access to medical care from a small group of nurses from Medecins Sans Frontieres and the occasional food delivery from the church.

No-one is likely to cause major trouble while the aid continues and while UN peacekeepers, in this case from Benin, remain in place.

While I'm here, the Beninois play a football match against the former fighters.

The score? One-Nil to Benin. ("We didn't want to beat them too badly", says a young Lieutenant)

The election?

A small group of women sashay down the road singing the praises of the alliance backing incumbent President Joseph Kabila.

The woman leading the singing is the only fat person I see in Mitwaba.

Felin Gakwaya, Goma,Wednesday 26 July: 1310 local time

I have just been to a conference for journalists about the measures we can take to work safely in this area. It was run by an organisation called Journalists in Danger.

They spoke about the health risks - it's easy to get sick here - and some safety issues.

Mupepa Kakara (Photo: Felin Gakwaya)
Pygmies endure discrimination, says activist Mupepa Kakara
Journalists were warned about verbal or physical aggression, kidnapping, imprisonment by militia groups or even government soldiers - you never know - and the danger of assassination.

Earlier, I interviewed Mupepa Kakara, the president of the Adelipo Association, which defends the rights of pygmies.

The pygmies feel discriminated against as they don't get the chance to study and don't get government jobs.

They are not supporting any particular political party in the election - they say they will vote, but their choice of candidate will be a secret.

Joseph Winter, Lubumbashi, Wednesday 26 July: 0850 local time

People here in Lubumbashi are far more excited about the elections than the people I met in Kinshasa, and people are looking forward to casting votes.

Railway line, no longer in use, in Lubumbashi, DR Congo
Some of the children who live nearby are fascinated by what we are doing. A policeman also walked past, staring at us
Joseph Winter
Zambia market, Lubumbashi

President Joseph Kabila held a large rally here yesterday - this province, Katanga, is his home area. There are still a lot of people walking round with Joseph Kabila hats, t-shirts and pieces of cloth.

I'm in the Zambia market, which is the cheapest market in town. Everything is on sale here, from women selling petrol in plastic cans, to people selling piles of sugar which they scoop up in small tins.

I was surprised to see that they sell frozen fish brought all the way from South Africa in refrigerated containers. I'm not sure about the hygiene implications but in terms of intra-African trade it's interesting.

I'm busy all day doing a live laptop link-up, getting people from the market to answer questions emailed in from readers around the world.

Some of the children who live nearby are fascinated by what we are doing. A policeman also walked past, staring at us.

Karen Allen, Geti, Wednesday 26 July: 0630 local time

Having retired to bed with the sound of a lullaby, we awake to a new day at 6am with more singing.

Women from the refugee camp where we have spent the night begin their morning tasks.

People look for their names on a voters' list
DR Congo is preparing for its first democratic elections in 40 years
It's hard to believe from their mood that these people have fled fighting between the Congolese army and militia groups, and spending the night among them is a great levelling experience.

We're starting to attract less attention - blending in.

As we walk through the rows of tents, there are people trying to normalise their lives. A perfectly ironed shirt lies on a blanket, as a boy re-heats his iron in a small fire.

And in the distance a small girl washes plates on a small stand fashioned from bamboo. Not that there is any food this morning to dirty the plates, but it's a ritual that doesn't look out of place here among the tents.

The aid workers from Medecins Sans Frontieres who have been our hosts continue their task of building a health centre for the camp.

Many have left their permanent jobs in Paris and Geneva to lend emergency assistance out here, trading coffee and croissants for cold water baths in this vast tented city.

They are jovial and committed. Since scaling up their operation two weeks ago they've vaccinated 10,000 kids against measles. The immediate need now is for more food, water containers and tarpaulin for shelters.

The World Food Programme has warned that food supplies are drying up here. They say this is the worst displacement they have seen in two years. Depressing, with elections just days away.

Hassan Arouni, Kinshasa, Wednesday 26 July: 0530 local time

A warm "good morning!" - or "Mbote" as they say in Kinshasa. When I arrived a few days ago I was pleasantly surprised to find wide boulevards and gentle breezes blowing from the mighty Congo River.

Not so gentle are the tensions and expectations surrounding the first multiparty polls in more than 40 years.

Only yesterday there was an exchange of petrol bombs and tear gas between security forces and supporters of veteran opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, whose party is not taking part.

Despite the problems that there have been in the east, here in Kinshasa President Kabila's supporters seem sure of one thing: that come Sunday, he will be given a mandate to continue ruling the country.

Karen Allen, Geti, Tuesday 25 July: 2230 local time

The town of Geti close to the Ugandan border has a population of 15,000, but in the past two weeks that has more than doubled, as tens of thousands of internally displaced people have fled the fighting between rebel groups and the fragmented Congolese army.

Men look at voter list in Geti
Ituri province has one of the highest voter registrations

We arrived in the late afternoon to find swelling crowds. More than half are children, grubby, hungry and excited at the arrival of strangers.

Many of the families here try to cling on to some semblance of normality. I pass a man having a haircut at a makeshift barber's stall, and as night falls all you can smell is burning fires as women prepare a modest meal of beans.

But the World Food Programme is warning that food supplies here are drying up. They describe the recent influx of frightened people as the worst displacement they've seen in the past two years.

So what are the prospects for Sunday's vote?

Five people were killed in the militia attacks at the weekend and large numbers of people here are too frightened to return to their villages to vote.

The sad irony is that Ituri, the province where Geti is situated, has one of the highest levels of voter registrations in DR Congo.

Today we will spend the night in the Medecins Sans Frontieres compound, my producer and I assigned two folding hospital beds.

Ringing in my ears when I finally hit the sack will the sound of the lullaby three elderly women sang so sweetly to the sleepy children in the camp.

There may be despair at the continuing violence in this part of the world, but for a moment this cluster of people were able to forget.


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