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Congo: the new exodus

As thousands of refugees flee their homes and rebels attack once again, Daniel Howden and Claire Soares report on a disaster that has its violent roots in the Rwandan genocide

Along the red dirt roads looping in and out of the jungle, they trooped in their thousands. The women clutching infants to their chests and balancing rolled-up mattresses, blankets and pots on their heads. Any child old enough to walk carried a jerry can of water or dragged a sack of food.

Many of these Congolese have lost count of times they have fled the fighting that has racked the east of the country for 15 years. But yesterday, as rebels closed in on the provincial capital Goma, and government troops appeared to be in a full-scale retreat, the refugees loaded up the few possessions they could carry and began another long march to what they hope will, this time, be safety.

About 30,000 people arrived at a makeshift shelter north of the city in hours, tripling the size of the Kibati camp, said the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). "It's chaos up there," spokesman Ron Redmond said.

Indeed it is chaos across much of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, since the rebels launched a new offensive at the weekend. Government troops have been heading south, away from the front line. The world's biggest peacekeeping mission has found itself under attack, with local people hurling stones at the blue helmets, angry at the UN failure to protect them from the violence.

Some foreign aid workers have tried to evacuate from hotspots only to find irate masses barring their way. Others are trying to juggle the extra demands of the crisis, with one hand tied behind their backs. "We're going to have to bring a lot more supplies and equipment into this area," said Mr Redmond. "At the same time we're restricted because of the security and how many people we can get involved in this operation." Even before the latest violence, eastern Congo was in the grip of a major humanitarian disaster with 850,000 internal refugees in North Kivu.

The man who has lit the fuse is a renegade general, Laurent Nkunda. With his tall, lanky frame and glasses perched on the end of his long nose, Mr Nkunda fits every stereotype about the Tutsis of Africa's Great Lakes region for whom he says he is fighting. Mr Nkunda claims the Congolese government has not protected his minority tribe from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after executing the 1994 genocide – and so it is up to him.

On Sunday his rebels launched a fresh assault on government positions in North Kivu province and the so-called National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) has edged ever closer to Goma. "Our men are surrounding Goma, but we have not yet gone in," CNDP spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa told The Independent by telephone last night. "Do not expect us to stay there with our arms crossed for very long though," Mr Bisimwa warned. "We cannot continue to accept Hutu militias controlling these areas. We must make sure our people are safe, so if we have to go in to protect them, then we will."

In theory the battle between the government and Mr Nkunda should be a one-sided affair. The Congolese army has an estimated 20,000 troops in the region, compared to a rebel fighting force of about 6,000. Yet witnesses have reported Congolese government soldiers fleeing the battle zone.

Even the army's commander of operations in North Kivu yesterday admitted the going was getting tough. "The situation is very serious. It won't be much longer before I have to leave here," Colonel Delphin Kahimbi told Reuters.

The rebels' spokesman accused the Congolese army of not only beating a retreat from the towns of Kiwanja, Rutshuru and Goma, but of handing them over to Hutu militias operating under the banner of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). UN officials and independent observers poured cold water on this alleged transfer of power, saying it was part of the rebels' propaganda strategy to cast the conflict in genocidal terms.

Today's crisis in eastern Congo is the backwash from the infamous genocide in Rwanda and similar atrocities in neighbouring Burundi. The refugee camps in Goma that have been overrun were originally set up to house the Hutus fleeing the fallout of their own murderous exploits in Rwanda. Once the Tutsis, under Paul Kagame, had established control of Rwanda and stopped the genocide, many Hutus remained in Congo for fear of what would face them at home.

Mr Kagame's forces pursued the militia deep into Congo. It was this invasion in 1997 that led to the downfall of Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko. The Hutu/Tutsi conflict saw Rwanda topple the leader of a country 89 times its own size. Then, as now, the conflict had the potential to draw in almost every country from central Africa and the Great Lakes. At one point, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan and Chad had troops in Congo. This legacy of foreign combatants, of which Mr Nkunda is the latest manifestation, has cost more than four times as many lives as the 800,000 lost in Rwanda's genocide – and counting.

At the start of this year, the outlook for eastern Congo was decidedly more hopeful. Mr Nkunda and the government signed a peace deal in January which was supposed to end the fighting so that humanitarian and development work could begin in earnest. But there were almost daily ceasefire violations. Full-scale fighting resumed in August.

"The reality is that this has been going on for the past two months in rural areas. Now it's come to the towns," Erna van Goor, the head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said yesterday by telephone from Goma. "There are very few people out on the streets today. The place is quiet, everyone is waiting, braced for whatever is going to happen next."

The rebels say they want face-to-face talks with the government to resolve their issues, something the president Joseph Kabila has refused – until now. "It would appear that there is some movement in that direction but there is no confirmation yet," said Michel Bonnardeaux, the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force, Monuc. "We are certainly hoping that this is a show of force from the rebels... It would appear to be an attempt at strengthening their bargaining position."

Monuc is the world's biggest peacekeeping mission, but with just 17,000 troops in a country the size of western Europe, resources are stretched thin. Yesterday the UN deployed helicopter gunships to attack several rebel positions, but the feeling among the general populace is that the blue helmets are inadequate.

That frustration has erupted into violence, in the form of rock-throwing mobs in Goma on Monday and angry protests yesterday, which prevented peacekeepers evacuating a group of aid workers in Rutshuru – a town near the front line – to safety.

And the longer the fighting goes on, the more the number of refugees will swell. "These people are in a very precarious situation," said Ms van Goor of MSF. "We're in the middle of the rainy season now and without proper water and sanitation, they're vulnerable to all sorts of diseases."

Factfile: The Democratic Republic of Congo

* The Democratic Republic of Congo is the size of Europe. Travelling from top to bottom is equivalent to a trip from Scotland to Sicily; from west to east like driving from Ireland to Russia.

* Its abundant supplies of coal, iron ore, bauxite, timber, diamonds and gold have been fought over for generations.

* The former Belgian colony was the setting for Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart Of Darkness.

* Apart from King Leopold II of Belgium, Congo's most famous president was the leopardskin cap-wearing Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled for three decades and renamed the country Zaire.

* Congo's war was the world's worst conflict since 1945. Although it officially ended in 2002, about 1,200 people a day are still dying. Malaria, cholera and malnutrition will wipe out the equivalent of Manchester's population this year.

* In 2006, Congo's first free elections since 1960 returned the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, to power.

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