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Page last updated at 14:31 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Congolese head home despite fear

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Goma

Woman and child outside Goma
Thousands of displaced people remain in desperate need
The front line that divides government forces from rebel fighters around Goma in eastern DR Congo is a deceptively normal place.

For a few torrid days and nights, when fighting raged on the northern and western fringes of the city, it was a hellish battleground.

But now, if you are not in uniform or carrying a weapon, you can slip through the front-line almost without noticing it.

As you leave the city on the main road north of Goma that winds through the Virunga National Park up to Rutshuru, the first sign of trouble is a force of UN peacekeepers, their white armoured vehicles parked by the roadside.

They represent Goma's last line of defence - a force that will, according to the UN's peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy, use all its firepower to repel any armed group that tries to enter the city.

Extra troops

Until now, the UN has had 850 soldiers stationed in Goma, but Mr Le Roy said they were already redeploying troops from other parts of the country.

Rebels loyal to Laurant Nkunda in Kiwanja, 6 November 2008
The forces loyal to Laurant Nkunda have a long fighting experience
Those extra troops will help, but the UN will need more than just extra boots on the ground. They will need commitment to engage the rebel forces of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) led by the charismatic commander General Laurent Nkunda.

General Nkunda's fighters are both determined and seasoned - having taken part in countless battles across the region over the past decade.

They are also fighting on familiar turf, with a disregard for civilian casualties that will make it tough to keep them out of the area.

That is particularly worrying for the people now struggling to settle in the Kibati camp for the displaced a few hundred metres further up the road, past the UN force, towards the front line.

Chaos

The camp is overwhelmed with chaotic humanity. Tens of thousands of people fled there as General Nkunda's forces advanced south through villages and camps, driving civilians forward as they came.

Now, this vast camp of flimsy plastic and banana-leaf shelters is sandwiched between the UN and the areas the rebels control.

If fighting resumes, Kibati will be the front line - a prospect that would almost certainly mean horrific civilian casualties.

UN peacekeepers north of Goma, 5 November 2008
The UN is redeploying troops to Goma from other parts of the country

For now, the aid agencies are trying to bring back some order to the place. After shutting down their operations for almost a week, they have begun getting food, shelter and medical help to the camp.

Water stations are finally in place; the UN children's charity Unicef is virtually besieged by people desperate for the emergency biscuits they have been handing out to families with children over recent days; and the World Food Programme has resumed deliveries of food.

But for many families, it is happening far too slowly.

Just outside the camp, as the tents thin out and finally disappear altogether, the road continues north. Over the past few days, it has been lined with a steady stream of people bent double under the weight of their belongings.

Rotting bodies

They have been trudging northwards past the last of the government soldiers, past the dead fighters rotting in the ditch, past the empty artillery shell casings and discarded ammunition boxes that litter the first CNDP checkpoint, and on towards their homes.

Among those on the slow march home was a family of 20 - parents, grandparents, and children, each one burdened with as much as they could carry.

One child carried a bag of charcoal on his head; another carried a goat; the women had bundles of belongings wrapped in filthy cloth. The family's head, Ndugu, said they were leaving the safety of Kibati because they simply had no choice.

"We know its dangerous, but what can we do. We had no shelter (for the rainy season), there is not enough food for everyone, and we just couldn't stay," he said.

"We will try to forage in the gardens for food at our home. We know there isn't much but we would rather die in our home than in the camp."

Map of eastern DR Congo



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