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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 April 2006, 19:58 GMT 20:58 UK
No peace for DR Congo
A former child soldier

Despite a peace deal and the installation of a transition government in 2003, the Democratic Republic of Congo is beset by continuing internal conflict.

Former BBC correspondent Martin Bell - now Unicef Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies - went to assess the situation in the country. The BBC's Newsnight went with him.

Eight years after it started, the Great War of Africa is still killing people.

Fought on the hills and plains of eastern DR Congo, it has killed more people than any other conflict since the World War II - nearly four million in the past eight years.

Things were supposed to be getting better in central Africa when the civil war ended, but this year, fresh waves of refugees have broken over the landscape.

Child soldiers

Although a formal peace remains in place, DR Congo is far from a safe place - fighting in the east continues; former child soldiers are at risk of entering the fray again; and many women live under constant threat in a conflict where rape is a weapon of war.

DR Congo still has the world's greatest concentration of child soldiers. But there are not as many as there were - between 10,000 and 15,000 have been demobilised.

Unicef's Head of Office in DR Congo, Massimo Altimari
Unicef's Head of Office in DR Congo, Massimo Altimari
There is a danger that left with a choice of destitution at home or paid employment as militias they will re-enlist.

One former child soldier at a Unicef transit centre gives a grimly matter-of-fact account of his time

How old were you when you became a soldier? "I was 11 and a half years old."

How long were you a soldier? "I spent six and a half years in the army."

Did you kill anybody? "Yes, I killed many people."

What do you think of a life of a soldier now? "I never want to become a soldier again."

No government

Unicef's Head of Office in DR Congo, Massimo Altimari, rarely visits the site that he funds. The roads are too dangerous and the agency cannot reach 70-80% of the children who need help in the ungoverned north-east of the country.

"This situation doesn't permit all the displaced people to go back to their villages because they are scared, they are tired," he says. "They are going on like this for eight years, since 1998.

"We have no government here, the government is represented by the army and the army is not behaving well."

Pygmy tribal leader Batsinga Sepi
Pygmy leader Batsinga Sepi says his tribe was forced from its home
In north Kivu, a pygmy tribe has been forced to seek refuge in the Eringetti camp after fleeing fighting.

A government offensive drove rebels into the forest, their home. So for the first time the Pygmies - around 200 people - left the forest.

Their leader, Batsinga Sepi, says: "We didn't just hear about the war, we lived through it.

Many of our relatives have been killed in the fighting. Our message to the world is that we cannot remain living like this. We are suffering, look at the conditions we're living in."

Rape victims

Another of DR Congo's grim distinctions is that it has become a place where rape is used as a weapon of war.
A Church hospital in Goma, a provincial capital, houses victims of rape. In three years, the centre has treated 4,500 rape victims from just one area of the province.

And there are other consequences of rape evident in the hospital. One 14-year-old girl at the hospital recently gave birth to twin boys. She says she was raped by a taxi driver who was driving her home.

Asked how she feels about the two babies she says simply: "For the moment now I love them."

Goma itself has a fragile existence - the city is situated beside Nyriagongo, one of the world's most active volcanoes.

It last erupted in 2002 forcing 120,000 people to flee their homes. The population is now more than a quarter of a million. It is a disaster in the making - not if but when the volcano erupts.

Sometimes it seems that all the ills of the earth have befallen this one country at one time.

The people need a rescue, a miracle - or at very least a change of fortune - perhaps more than any other.

After all that has happened, it seems unlikely but it has to be possible.

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