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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 November, 2004, 12:17 GMT
Wars in paradise
By Mark Doyle
BBC, DR Congo

As fighting continues between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and rebel forces, people in the eastern region of the country try to go about their daily lives. Over the last 40 years, roads and rail lines have gradually fallen into disrepair and been reclaimed by the jungle. Mark Doyle travels with the people who use a plane service to get to work.

A family shelter
Many families in the region have fled their homes to escape the fighting
Like most commuters, I was relieved to find that I had some leg room when I boarded the Air Commuter plane in the north eastern Congolese town of Bunia.

There are about 20 seats on the plane and I only had about half a dozen fellow passengers.

Bunia is on the shores of Lake Albert - one of the great lakes of the Rift Valley which runs like a spine up central Africa.

As we climbed high above the lake's shimmering surface, the hills and jungles of eastern Congo beckoned.

This is a densely populated and fertile land. The soil is rich and the forest deep.

On the one hand, this is good news - people can grow food - but the dense forests are also a problem.

Ceasefire

Militias can hide in them and avoid the United Nations peacekeepers who are trying to implement a ceasefire and a power-sharing deal in Congo's fragile post-war period.

The first stop on the commuter plane's journey was the town of Beni.

The country's economy can support commuter planes while three million people wallow in the misery of refugee camps
There was a hitch when we arrived there because our parking slot was occupied by a large and very broken-down cargo plane.

About 50 men in blue overalls simply pushed the old plane to one side. I was enjoying this unusual spectacle when I realised that my leg room was about to be taken up.

We were joined on board by a group of nuns from one of Congo's religious orders.

The Africans among them wore colourful dresses. The Europeans had neat haircuts and sensible shoes.

Cellphones

There were also Congolese and foreign businessmen chatting furiously on their mobile phones as they climbed the short ladder into the plane.

A boy walks through lava rocks in Goma
Goma was devastated by the volcanic eruption in January 2002
Yes, even in small Congolese towns in the middle of the jungle, there are cellphone networks.

It's one of the paradoxes of this enormous country. Rich soil, but hungry people who have fled militias.

An economy that can support commuter planes, while some three million people wallow in the misery of refugee camps.

We left Beni in a cloud of dust from the dirt airstrip, and were soon over Lake Edward.

Most Africans still use the British colonial names for the Rift Valley Lakes.

Lava

We began to see volcanoes in the distance and the now dormant lava flows from Mount Nyiragongo which erupted a few years ago.

The town of Goma would be our next stop.

Most of Goma was buried in lava during the eruption. But new houses have now been built on the flows, many as wide as a football field and several metres deep.

Right next to Goma is the city of Gisenyi. It's in the neighbouring state of Rwanda, but the no-man's land between the two urban centres is, in places, no more than 20 metres wide.

From the air the two cities look like one, but they are very definitely separated.

I was last in Gisyeni 10 years ago, during the genocide in Rwanda of ethnic Tutsis.

The Tutsi rebels who ended the genocide had chased the ethnic Hutu army (which was responsible for the mass killings) into Congo.

The fallout from the Tutsi victory, along with the refugee crisis it created, is still with Congo today.

Relations between the two countries are terrible, with both accusing the other of backing rebellions against them.

Smuggling

After a short stop in Goma for refuelling, the commuter plane was off again climbing high above another Rift Valley waterway, Lake Kivu.

This lake is used for smuggling arms between the various regional rebel groups and, although United Nations troops from South Africa mount boat patrols to try to stop the smugglers, the peacekeepers are few in number and Lake Kivu is huge.

The rich red fields on the shoreline here looked even more fertile to me than those on the shores of Albert or Edward.

Soon we were losing height again and we landed in the town of Bukavu, the last stop of my commute between northern and southern Congo.

My plane journey was over some of the most beautiful landscape in the world - dramatic mountains and shimmering lakes.

As I looked out of the window I got to thinking that it would be so easy to attract tourists here.

Plantations could flourish, cattle could grow fat, children could go to school.

But I was dreaming.

There are wars down there, wars in paradise.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 13 November, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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