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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 August 2006, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
War haunts eastern Congo voters
BBC correspondent Karen Allen covered Sunday's election in the Democratic Republic of Congo's east: a region where the peace process is not yet complete. She looks back on polling day in an area still haunted by violence.

Voter in Bunia in eastern DR Congo
People in the east said they were voting for peace
We arrived at Aveba by helicopter on polling day. There are no roads to speak of in this part of north-eastern Congo - one of the bloodiest corners of this country, still scarred by violence.

Down below a mass of humanity had come here to vote. Viewed from the air it appeared like a scene from a vast colourful pilgrimage - orange, yellow and blue set against the backdrop of Congo's green hills.

The presence of UN marksmen was only clue that this was not some obscure religious gathering.

Blue helmets poked out of tall grass, the UN soldiers on standby should armed groups take advantage of the gathering, and strike.

On the ground, tens of thousands of people continued to arrive at this cluster of polling stations in the middle of nowhere.

DR CONGO POLLS
Man with huge ballot paper
32 presidential candidates
9,709 parliamentary candidates
25.6m voters
50,000 polling stations
260,000 electoral staff

Old men walked with sticks, young men went barefoot. Breastfeeding mothers stopped occasionally to nurse their babies.

And scattered along the way were hawkers selling cakes and nuts and fruit - a good day for business.

Giant ballots

These were the first democratic elections for three generations, and the overwhelming choice was reflected in the size of the ballot papers.

For the presidential race, the 33 candidates fitted onto a modest A4 sized ballot paper.

But with more than 9,000 hopefuls competing for a seat in parliament, voters were given a large unwieldy ballot form, the size of your average movie poster.

The democratic republic of Congo is a large country, with a large electorate and now an extremely large stationery bill.

The vast majority of people who flocked to Aveba have been or remain displaced.

UN peacekeeper at polling station in Bunia
UN peacekeepers were on alert in the east
Despite a peace deal three years ago, many civilians still find themselves caught in the crossfire between the Congolese army and militia, and forced to flee their homes.

Many people had walked for hours or even days to get here.

They may have had only the clothes they were standing in but they all had voting cards.

Unanswered questions

Ask them what they're voting for and without question they say "peace".

Press them on who will deliver that and the conversation falls silent.

Little wonder when they have been denied the opportunity to vote for so long.

This is largely the territory of President Joseph Kabila, yet still they are afraid to speak.

He may not have delivered a perfect peace, but many want him to continue.

An hour's drive in an armoured vehicle, part of a UN convoy, gave us some insight into what these people had fled from.

We passed young men armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Some wore bandannas and others army uniforms, but to the people who live here they're all the same.
Thick bush, impenetrable in places, made for perfect ambush territory.

As we pushed forward along the track linking Aveba to the village of Geti, we passed burnt-out houses along the way: some so recently burnt that the ashes seemed almost white with heat, while others were already overgrown with purple flowers.

A fortnight ago five civilians had been killed here, caught up in clashes between the army and militia. It happens a lot.

People are as afraid of the Congolese army here as they are of the rebels - they share the same taste for looting, murder and rape.

Men with guns

Arriving at Geti, we found thousands more queuing up to vote.

We met Jaba - a man in his forties with kind eyes, a green woollen hat and a pair of torn trousers.

He explained how he and his family had emerged from the bush just last week after being in hiding for seven months.

Home is now a camp for displaced people. He wasn't going to squander his chance to vote.

"I hope the election will change many things," he said.

"We hope the government can improve the situation so people can live a good life and I can send my children to school without fear of war."

He added life had been more peaceful under the former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was deposed by President Kabila's father, Laurent Kabila, in 1997.

In the past fortnight - the population of Geti has swollen from 20,000 to 40,000 and emergency relief teams say they could expect more.

HAVE YOUR SAY
People are voting for Kabila out of frustration
Joan, Mississauga

Driving back through the bush we passed young men armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Some wore bandannas and others army uniforms, but to the people who live here they're all the same.

This was an unsettling sight on polling day. There are huge expectations that these elections will halt the fighting, but little understanding that this will take time.




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