Indian UN troops on a patrol to flush out Hutu militia in eastern Congo
By Mike Thomson
As the UN patrol I have joined heads out of its base near Rutshuru in Eastern Congo under slate grey skies, thunder claps shatter the hum of insects and wildlife. It is an ominous start. This area, about two hours drive north of the provincial capital, Goma, has long been plagued by the notorious Hutu militia group, the FDLR.
Their leaders spilled into Congo's thick forests back in 1994 after involvement in the genocide there. Now their numbers are thought to have grown to something like 6000, and they are linked with rapes, killings, lootings and extortion..
We head down a narrow path that snakes through head high crops, often making it hard to see more than a few metres ahead. The Indian peacekeepers I am with - some of whom are armed with rocket launchers as well as small arms - look like they are expecting trouble.
This is despite the fact that militia forces are supposed to have been driven deeper into the forests by last year's big UN-backed offensive by the Congolese army.
A middle-aged mother in the first village we come to paints a brighter picture than I was expecting. She tells that the number of militia attacks have fallen and the village was able to hold its first communal celebration in years over Christmas.
But her son, Ferdinand, who now lives in another village near by, says kidnapping and extortion continue to be common there:
Thousands of people are living in the displaced persons' camp in Rutshuru
"In Mulala you have to pay them $10 to go into the fields." What happens if you refuse to pay them? I asked him. "They either kill you or kidnap you for a very long time. That's why people here have stopped going into the fields because they are afraid."
Ferdinand, who looks no more than 16, goes on to tell me that he has now joined the militia in an effort, he says, to stop attacks on his family. "It is the only way to survive" he tells me.
The man in charge of the FDLR offence, General Dieudonne Amuli, insists such situations are now rare. The General, a large gruff but quite genial man, insists that his forces have already gone most of the way in eradicating the FDLR threat here.
"We did not achieve total success, instead we achieved 80% of our objectives. But we do know that the FDLR are no longer able to destabilise the peace and we will continue to do our best to ensure they are not able to kill and look any more."
There is no way we can go back home
Displaced Congolese woman
The Congolese Army also claims that with the help of the UN, or Monuc as they are known in Congo, they have managed to force or persuade more than 2,000 FDLR fighters to lay down their weapons and go back to Rwanda.
However, a spokesman for the UN's DDRRR - responsible for disarmament, demobilisation, repatriation, reintegration, and resettlement - has warned that the militia has been replenishing its ranks with recruits from Rwanda.
Sam Howard says information gleaned from interviews with repatriated rebel fighters has revealed that many of these are children.
"It is quite worrying and alarming that children want to leave Rwanda and participate in warfare. We are very concerned and want to ensure that it does not continue to happen."
Mike Thomson with the Congolese Gen Dieudonne Amuli
Even where the government army's offensive has clearly been successful in driving away the FDLR, suffering has often continued.
The charity Oxfam claims that over the last year 900,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and 6,000 houses have been burnt down.
There have also been 7,000 reported cases of rape and a thousand civilians killed. Some of the casualties, it is widely alleged, have been at the hands of government soldiers, the very people sent to protect them from the FDLR.
People here told me that both sides have committed human rights abuses after accusing civilians of supporting the other.
The Anglican bishop of Bukavu, Lembelembe Josue, is among those who claim the previous Congolese Army offensive, Kimia 2, and its current incarnation, Amani Leo, have done more harm than good.
There is a glimmer of hope... let's not give up now."
Alan Doss, UN Special Representative
"The military operation is claimed to be a success but it killed more civilians than FDLR. We have to ask how many civilians were displaced, how many women were raped, how many people have been forced from their homes?
"The consequences of this operation is what we should be looking at now."
A sign of the precarious nature of life in Eastern Congo is the camp for displaced people that rings a UN base at Rutshuru.
Although many people who used to live there have felt able to return home recently, several thousand say they are still too scared to do so.
One woman told me: "Every day soldiers come to our village and rape. Now we have lost everything. We have nothing left, but still they come. There are so many men roaming the forest wearing military uniforms and carrying guns that we often can not tell one group from another. There is no way we can go back home"
Rather ironically, some here think the best way to curb FDLR violence is to allow them to come back to the villages they were recently driven out of. One, a 26 year-old father of two from the village of Kiseguro, told me:
"When the FDLR were living alongside the road with local people they took to farming like the rest of us. But now that they've been pushed deeper into the forest they have nothing to eat. So, to feed their stomachs they come here and loot all we have."
The DDRRR repatriation processing camp in Goma
So, I asked him, you would rather that the FDLR were allowed back? "Yes, he replied, for us local people this would be a solution because the army has totally failed to defeat them."
But the army has made clear that if the FDLR does return it won't be by their invitation. Meanwhile, the Congolese president's call to begin reducing the number of UN troops here, despite continuing violence in many parts of the east, has caused widespread concern.
But the UN's Special Representative in Congo, Alan Doss, insists that there will be rush for the door until there has been further reform of the Congolese army, long dogged by claims of human rights abuses.
He is both optimistic about the future and unrepentant about the UN's backing of the army's offensive against the FDLR , while voicing sympathy for the many civilians who lost their lives in the recent offensive:
"One death is one too many. We deplore the human rights abuses and people being displaced. But on the broader political front Rwanda and Congo came together for a peace deal and that is the biggest achievement in my book. They've reopened embassies and the two leaders have met by themselves.
"I hope as a result we can end the cycle of violence, there is a glimmer of hope but we will see. Let's not give up now."
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