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How Congo's heaven became hell

A soldier overlooking hills in North Kivu, eastern DR Congo

As Congolese government troops and UN peacekeepers engage in fierce fighting with rebel forces in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, BBC World affairs correspondent Mark Doyle assesses why it is such a volatile region.

Eastern DR Congo was once memorably described by the journalist Kate Thomas.

The place "looks like heaven", she wrote, "but it feels like hell".

She was right. There are towering volcanoes, rushing rivers and sparkling lakes. Heaven indeed.

And there are, above all, the hills - the green, rolling and fertile hills that stretch from the current conflict zone, right across the border into neighbouring Rwanda, which is itself called the "Land of a Thousand Hills".

That should be a clue as to why eastern DR Congo is also hell.

The geopolitics of central Africa have tied the heart of eastern DR Congo, the provinces of North and South Kivu, whether they like it or not, to Rwanda.

After the genocide of Rwandan ethnic Tutsis, in 1994, the killers - the Rwandan army and a large proportion of the entire population of ethnic Hutus - were militarily defeated and chased into DR Congo.

Some of them remain in eastern DR Congo as a militia force which, according to Rwanda's now dominant Tutsi rulers, could threaten genocide again.

But in the intervening years another force also emerged in eastern DR Congo, this time a Congolese Tutsi force, led by a self-declared general, who said he was protecting Congolese Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia.

A boy in DR Congo running in front of a tank

Almost all Congolese say that "General" Laurent Nkunda is a puppet of Rwanda's Tutsis.

In reality neither of these groups is really protecting their ethnic kith and kin because they are, by their pursuit of violent solutions, exposing their people to reprisals from the other group.

That is what hell feels like in eastern DR Congo.

According to the United Nations there are now about a million people displaced by the war in the single province of North Kivu alone.

Eastern DR Congo feels like a different country to the capital, Kinshasa, which is about 2,000km (1,240 miles) to the west on the Atlantic seaboard.

Northern DR Congo is tied to the capital by the Congo River, that great trading artery of the country that flows down to Kinshasa.

Southern Congo is tied to Kinshasa by money - most of the profitable industrial mines are in the south and the Kinshasa politicians, of course, stay close to them.

UN tanks in DR Congo on a road where thousands of people are fleeing
DR Congo is home to the world's largest UN peacekeeping force
But eastern DR Congo is just a separate series of seemingly intractable problems with Rwanda glued on.

From Kinshasa, Rwanda looks like a humiliatingly tiny and tightly run country which has successfully fought proxy and real wars with giant, unruly DR Congo.

Journalists talk in shorthand about "the world's largest United Nations peacekeeping force" working in "one of Africa's largest countries".

But in reality almost all the UN forces are concentrated in and around eastern DR Congo.

The region is the source of the tensions that have sparked all of DR Congo's wars in the past decade.

Though it looks like heaven, for those one million war-displaced people, it feels like hell.

And the UN, for all its concentration of forces, has not fixed it.

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