International envoys converged on eastern Congo to help end some of the worst violence in years as thousands of anxious, hungry refugees struggled to get home amid a fragile ceasefire.
A crush of people, sweat streaming down their faces, were back on Congo’s dirt roads again after fleeing the battlefront between the army and Laurent Nkunda’s rebel movement.
“We’ve had nothing to eat for three days,” said Rhema Harerimana, travelling with one baby nursing at her breast, another on her back and a toddler clinging to her skirt.
She said she has been on the run for five days but was heading home to Kibumba, about 17 miles from the eastern provincial capital of Goma where rebels halted their advance on Wednesday and called for a ceasefire.
The conflict is fuelled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and Congo’s unrelenting civil wars. Nkunda claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter half a million Rwandan Tutsis.
All sides also are believed to fund fighters by illegally mining Congo’s vast mineral riches – meaning they have no financial interest in stopping the fighting.
Ordinary people are bearing the brunt of the dispute.
According to the United Nations, 50,000 Congolese appear to have fled refugee camps near Rutshuru, a village 55 miles north of Goma, in recent days. Several aid agencies reported that three camps and makeshift settlements were empty, and one aid worker said the camps were burnt down, United Nations high commissioner for refugees spokesman Karl Steinacker said.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo flew over the area in helicopters and said the camps were still standing, but could not tell if people were still there, he said.
The UN’s deputy representative and humanitarian co-ordinator in Congo said more than a million people had been displaced – 220,000 of them since August.
“This is extraordinary,” Ross Mountain said. “A million in a province of six million.”
Outside Goma, the bodies of several soldiers lay on the streets as senior US envoy for Africa Jendayi Frazer arrived along with Alan Doss, the top UN envoy in Congo. As they arrived, the UN peacekeepers put on an unusual show of force, deploying at least four tanks around the city, putting armoured cars on patrol and sending UN troops with riot shields patrolling on foot.
“The ceasefire is fragile,” Mr Doss said. “It will not hold if there isn’t progress on other fronts, those political and diplomatic.”
He said both sides had assured him they would respect the ceasefire.
Meanwhile, rebels were manning checkpoints on the outskirts of Goma. Peacekeepers have retreated to within three miles of the city, abandoning positions north of Goma to rebels who have fired rockets at their armed cars and one missile at a helicopter gunship.
France’s foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and Foreign Secretary David Miliband are expected to visit both Goma and the Congolese capital Kinshasa.
The international envoys aim to get Congo’s President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan president Paul Kagame to sit down together and sort out the issues at the root of the conflict.
EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel – who was holding separate talks with the two presidents – said in Kinshasa that both leaders had agreed to hold a peace summit in Nairobi, Kenya.
Demand for minerals has fueled Congo’s conflicts for years. Nkunda has also complained about a £5.6 billion agreement in which China gets access to Congo’s minerals in return for building a highway and railway that would open up the remote mining interior to southern neighbours.
Nkunda halted his rebels’ advance on Wednesday and called the ceasefire, saying he wanted to allow humanitarian help through and refugees to go home.
But a team from International Medical Corps trying to reach a clinic in Kibumba was stopped by a rebel guard who said he needed permission to let them pass. Hours later, the team was still waiting. Nearby, rebels refused to allow about 20 drivers of motorbike taxis to return home to Goma.
Nkunda’s rebellion has threatened to reignite the back-to-back wars that afflicted Congo from 1996 to 2002, drawing in half a dozen African nations. Kabila, elected in 2006 in the first vote in 40 years, has struggled to contain the violence in the east.