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Thursday, 14 September, 2000, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
DR Congo's forgotten disaster
10,000 refugees have been trapped in Shabunda, under siege by militias
10,000 refugees have been trapped in Shabunda
By Andrew Harding in Shabunda

From the air, the endless jungles of eastern Congo stretch out into the haze like a simmering cauldron of pea soup.


Suddenly our plane banked sharply. Out of the window a clearing in the forest, and a dirt runway came into view.

In the past two weeks, two planes had been shot at, trying to land.

We got through safely, to a small town under siege called Shabunda.

We had hitched a ride with a consignment of humanitarian food aid - the first to reach Shabunda in eight months.

Aid is badly needed. Sheltering from the oppressive midday heat, more than 100 women and children gathered in a schoolroom to wait for their daily cupful of porridge.

'Vicious' civil war

Jestrid Awezai cradles her 18-month-old son, Jacques, on her lap.

Jestrid Awezai: On the run with infant son from numerous armies
Jestrid Awezai: On the run with infant son from numerous armies
Like everyone else in the room, she is on the run from Congo's vicious civil war which has now forced more than one million people from their homes.

"They came at night," she said.

"They killed our cows, then kidnapped us. I don't know why."

"Eventually we managed to escape from the Mai Mai."

The Mai Mai, a Congolese group, are one of half a dozen militias fighting in the jungles of eastern Congo.

They have entirely surrounded Shabunda and have trapped at least 10,000 people in the town.

An Italian missionary, Jean-Pierre Valentin, is trapped with them.

Rwandan soldier: Chasing those repsonsible for genocide in his country
Rwandan soldier: Chasing those repsonsible for genocide in his country
"We're hostages," he said.

"The people here can't even get to their fields or hunt in the forests for fear of being kidnapped or killed."

I walked to the edge of town with an armed escort.

Shabunda is guarded by about 600 troops from the RCD - a rebel army heavily backed by neighbouring Rwanda.

Rwanda is one of at least five countries which have become embroiled in Congo's horrendously complicated civil war.

The Rwandans explain that they are hunting down the remnants of the Interahamwe militia responsible for the 1994 genocide in their country.

Under occupation

However, in the process the Rwandans have occupied a huge portion of someone else's country.

Claude Jibidar, aid worker: This is a forgotten disaster
Claude Jibidar, aid worker: This is a forgotten disaster
Claude Jibidar is the man in charge of trying to get humanitarian aid to much of eastern Congo.

He is the World Food Programme's coordinator for the region.

"This is a forgotten disaster," he says.

"Unfortunately, it is not as visible as in other places."

"We have armed bands all over."

"The roads have become totally insecure."

"It makes it very difficult to go where we need to go, when we need to go."

Same old story: Hungry civilians in the village of Kalunge
Same old story: Hungry civilians in the village of Kalunge
When we got through to the village of Kalunge, with Deo Buuma from the charity, Save the Children, we found more traumatised civilians.

People were going hungry in one of the most fertile places on earth.

There is, in theory at least, a ceasefire in force in DR Congo.

However, a low-level conflict grinds on.

It is a slow, complicated, you might say unspectacular war but more than one million people are still on the run, and many more are struggling to survive.

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See also:

26 Aug 98 | Africa
The Congo Conflict: Q&A
30 Jun 00 | Africa
Timeline: DR Congo conflict
07 Sep 00 | Americas
Africa: UN's 'strategic ghetto'
30 Jun 00 | Africa
Congo's unhappy birthday
30 Jul 00 | Africa
UN calls for pressure on Kabila
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