Page last updated at 18:53 GMT, Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Militias 'clearing villages' in DR Congo

Kibumba camp in DRC

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Democratic Republic of Congo

For the past decade, only weeds have crawled up through the cracks and fissures that split this vast, windswept lava field in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nothing else grows here. The last time humans lived on the barren plain - about 10km north of the city of Goma - was in 1997, when the last of the refugees from Rwanda's genocide finally moved on.

But now they are back, in the tens of thousands.

This time, the plain is filling with Congolese fleeing the militias that occupy the hills and valleys of the east.

It seems clear to me that civilians are being driven from their homes by force
Father Mario Perez

In all, about 30,000 people have dotted the valley with flimsy shelters of brush and twigs, with coverings of orange and white plastic.

According to aid agencies who are supporting them, the camp began forming last October, as people sought shelter from the fighting which erupted between the rival factions.

But in January the warring groups signed a peace accord that should have created a chance for people to return.

Instead, the numbers arriving at the Kibumba camp have been accelerating.

Village attacked

Young boy standing in front of camp
The number of people arriving at the camp has been growing

Maninere Ngendahimana's story is typical.

The 35-year-old mother of seven trekked for a week with her husband and children after forces loyal to the former Rwandan army officer Laurent Nkunda overran their village of Nkogwe.

"First we went to a camp near the village where it was safe to sleep," she says.

"But when we tried to go back during the day to work the fields like we used to, the soldiers attacked us. They beat my husband and my son, and threatened to rape me and take my children as soldiers if we tried to go there again."

Her family stayed in the camp for several weeks, living off the support from UN and humanitarian agencies. But the agencies pulled out after they were caught in a series of attacks throughout December, February and early March.

"We had to come here," Mrs Ngendahimana says. "We had no choice. There was nothing to live off, and we can't go back."

Growing crisis

Father Mario Perez runs the Don Bosco Ngangi home for orphans of the war in the provincial capital of Goma.

He regards the numbers in his home as a tragic barometer for the crisis across the eastern DR Congo, and they are rising fast.

He has been working for the past decade with families torn apart by the conflict, and he sees a disturbing new pattern.

Monuc soldier on patrol in DRC
The UN has 17,000 peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo

"It seems clear to me that civilians are being driven from their homes by force. In the past, they were just running from the fighting between the armed groups, and they were able to go back as soon as things had settled down," he says.

"But now they're being pushed out with aggression, and humanitarian groups are being prevented from helping them. I think the militias are trying to clear the countryside and push people to Goma."

Father Perez blames all the militias for adopting the same policy, but he blames Laurent Nkunda's CNDP (Party for the Defence of the People) in particular.

Change of uniform

High in his mountain base overlooking the camp and Goma, Mr Nkunda denied the allegation.

Since January's peace accord, he has swapped his military uniform for a grey suit and tie, and changed his title from "Brigadier General" to "Chairman".

Although he still leads the troops who are blamed for the recent harassment of Congolese civilians, he categorically denied the charge.

Militia leader Laurent Nkunda
Monuc is not here for the population. Monuc is here for the government of Kinshasa
Militia leader Laurent Nkunda

"We are not responsible, and we cannot, because we are for the defence of the people," he said.

"If the people are harassed, we can say that in the area of CNDP, there are no people, but they are here. You can see for yourself."

Mr Nkunda acknowledged that there has been an exodus of people from rural areas towards Goma, but he blamed the United Nations's peacekeeping operation Monuc for using its radio network to broadcast warnings about imminent bombings that never happened.

"So when the population heard that it's from the radio of Monuc, they fled from this area. But this area is the most secure area.

"Monuc is not here for the population. Monuc is here for the government of Kinshasa," he said.

The UN categorically denies issuing any such warnings, and in Kibomba camp nobody reported hearing the broadcasts.

Instead, they say they cannot not see any point at which they will be able to return to their homes, regardless of whatever documents the factions have signed.

"There is no peace," says Mrs Ngendahimana. "Not for any of us here."

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CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda speaks

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