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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 September 2007, 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK
DR Congo's terrifying ritual of violence
By Karen Allen
BBC News, Goma

E Kivu woman refugee
Villagers carry what they can as they flee the fighting
Schoolteacher Brigite Mawazo Bonane was among the many who heard the gunshots ricocheting around the hills in North Kivu and fled for their lives.

An estimated 10,000 refugees are on the move amid the latest outbreak of fighting between the Congolese army and fighters loyal to renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda.

Brigite was one of those weighed down with cooking pots, mattresses and firewood and clutching small children, who I found stumbling into the village of Mugunga, just 30 km from the provincial capital, Goma.

"Everyone was on the move when the fighting broke out," said Brigite. "I remember there was bombing from the air...we just kept running."

It is the third time she has been forced to abandon her village, Sake, in the past 12 months.

Map of N Kivu in eastern DR Congo

Fleeing from places like Sake has become something of a terrifying ritual as skirmishes close to the border with Uganda continue in spite of a nominal ceasefire.

The United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator, John Holmes, has been telling the UN Security Council what makes this unrest so terrifying is that an estimated 300,000 civilians have been displaced.

"Attacks on civilians are all too frequent, and in particular, the problem of sexual violence which is arguably the worst in the world by some way, that is, the kidnapping of women as sex slaves, multiple rapes, mutilation - absolutely brutal sexual practices," John Holmes told the BBC.

He says it seems to be a "sort of culture which has grown up of impunity, and a feeling you can get away with anything - and of course, the reality is that at the moment, you can get away with anything, and that's one of the fundamental problems that's got to be tackled."

Tutsi v Hutu

A brief period of calm descended when General Nkunda and the government agreed to deploy "mixed brigades", made up of Nkunda's men alongside regular army units - but the deal collapsed last month.

E Kivu insurgents with captured soldiers from regular Congo army
Nkunda's forces are holding Congolese army soldiers as prisoners

General Nkunda's spokesman, Jean-Kim Muhire, told the BBC why the integrated unit system broke down: "There was not the transport support, the helicopters to help quell the Hutu rebels."

Gen Nkunda says his insurgency is not about "toppling the regime of Joseph Kabila" but about holding the government responsible for its failure to confront the Rwandan Hutu rebels who fled to DR Congo after the 1994 genocide.

He has repeatedly accused Kinshasa of opportunistic alliances with the Hutus of the Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) to attack DR Congo's ethnic Tutsis and says his goal is to subdue these FDLR forces, made up of key members of the 1994 genocide, Hutu members of the former Rwandan army and a mix of displaced Rwandan Hutus.

Even though he has 5,000 men under arms, Laurent Nkunda is proving a formidable challenge to the Congolese army, which with 30,000 men in North Kivu, backed up by UN peacekeepers, has so far failed to subdue his insurgency or catch the general himself.

Double game

One former Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) member of parliament, who has now left politics, argues that the insurgency is about integrating North Kivu into mainstream politics.

Gashinge Devote, a Tutsi businesswoman living in Goma points to the absence of Congolese Tutsis in the lower house of parliament, and the few Tutsi civil servants employed in the local administration - even though as a population the Tutsis make up about 300,000 of the four million inhabitants of N Kivu.

She also says Kinshasa needs to be held accountable for the human rights abuses of the Congolese army, for the rapes of women (though Nkunda's men are similarly accused) and for failing to address the security concerns of the Tutsi.

Renegade Congolese Tutsi General
He (Gen Nkunda) has some political grievances which are legitimate
Rwandan President Paul Kagame
Those security concerns keep an estimated 40,000 Congolese Tutsis disenfranchised in exile across the border in Rwanda.

But in Kinshasa many accuse him of being a stooge, armed and financed by Rwanda - after all the general was a former officer with the RCD which was backed by Rwanda during DR Congo's civil war.

Denials from both parties do not satisfy their critics, who say Rwanda is playing a double game, engaging in diplomacy with Kinshasa while stirring things up on DR Congo's eastern border.

Only recently Rwanda's President Paul Kagame defended General Nkunda's rebellion by saying his fellow ethnic Tutsi has "legitimate political grievances".

Even if that were true, in pursuit of his aims General Nkunda stands accused of crimes against humanity, including sexual violence and the recruitment of child soldiers - that's why he is the subject of an international arrest warrant.

But while he eludes capture and his men continue to skirmish with their pursuers, villagers like Brigite flee in terror.

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