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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 June, 2003, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Normal life on hold in Bunia
By Andrew Harding
BBC, Bunia in DR Congo

Child with Uruguayan UN peacekeeper
Communication between the locals and Uruguayan soldiers is basic
It's getting dark and raining heavily. I'm squatting inside a small, muddy tent, trying to balance a laptop on one knee, and keep the mosquitoes off my neck.

We are busy editing some radio and television reports about the situation here in Bunia.

But the cables are all snaking through puddles, and I have just managed to get an electric shock from my microphone.

Our cameraman, Phil, has gone outside to put more fuel in the generator.

In all, there must be about 40 tents here - squeezed on to a tiny patch of grass inside the United Nations compound. It feels a bit like an outdoor music festival - but with gunfire.

Spanish shortage

The two-storey UN building is painted white - and guarded by a team of Uruguayan soldiers wearing light blue flak jackets.

They are friendly enough, but I don't speak Spanish, and neither - it seems - does anyone else in town.

The locals have taken to calling the Uruguayans "boo-boo", meaning deaf.

There's a big marquee-sized tent behind ours which belongs to the UN. It used to be a hospital, and it reeks of something I don't want to think about.

Behind that is a long coil of razor-wire, which separates the journalists from a larger group of campers.

French soldiers patrol in Bunia

Some 3,000 Congolese have packed into the yard at the back of the compound.

They have been here since early May, when the latest round of killings started in town.

A patchwork quilt of orange and blue plastic sheets covers the entire area. Underneath it, families sit on bedrolls looking out for leaks, cooking supper, and laughing at the strange equipment, and stranger antics of foreign journalists.

At six o'clock, Ester walks through a small gap in the barbed wire. She is a nimble, middle-aged lady who used to work in the offices of a local gold-mining company.

'Absurd' conflict

She has agreed to come and cook for us. Tonight it's rice, beef, spinach and bananas - the same as lunch.

Someone asks her which tribe she comes from - Hema or Lendu. Their rival militias are fighting for control of the town.

Ester politely refuses to answer. Partly, I think, because she is scared by the subject. But partly because she simply does not want to be identified with a conflict that she, and most other people here, find absurd.

This morning our young driver, Aimee, turned up an hour late. He had lost his family, he explained, with a smile. It's an almost routine event in Bunia.

There had been some shooting in their neighbourhood the day before. His wife and two children had run off into the bush while he was working with us.

Union of Congolese Patriots soldiers
Militia groups - trying to seem like politicians, not thugs
This morning, Aimee had tracked them down to a camp out near the airport - a muddy field full of makeshift tents.

"They're fine," he said - and then, with unbearable politeness: "I'm sorry I'm late."

Our translator is called Dieudonne. He is an older man - wiry and alert. He used to be a linguistics professor at Bunia's university.

Now he is helping me to track down some child soldiers to interview.

It's a dangerous subject. The militia leaders - smiling thugs in sharp suits - are trying to clean up their act now that French troops are arriving in Bunia.

They want to be treated as politicians - not war criminals.

We have been staying here in the UN compound since last Saturday, when the town suddenly erupted into mayhem again.

'Just kids'

I was woken up at seven by the sound of shooting a few kilometres away. I had spent a very comfortable night at a Belgian priest's house and was looking forward to some coffee and toast.

The next moment, heavy machinegun fire was coming from the street outside.

"Just kids," said Father Jo, looking almost disconcertingly serene as he lit another cigarette.

He has lived in Bunia for 17 years and has seen it all.

Refugee camp near Bunia airport
Refugee camps hold thousands of people
A plaque on the wall outside shows that priests from his order - the White Fathers - have been working in Eastern Congo for over a century.

"We should be safe here," he said, as the bullets fizzled through the trees overhead. "You must try some of our homemade mango jam."

Back at the compound, the rain stops briefly at around eight o'clock. We have finished our report, and I'm standing outside with three Russian pilots.

Their helicopter was forced to land at Bunia by the bad weather.

In return for lending them a kettle, they have brought out the inevitable pepper vodka, brown bread, and salami.

We stand and look around us - at the mud, the patchwork quilt, and the Uruguayans. No-one can think of an appropriate toast.



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