UN aid convoy delivered vital medical supplies to Congo refugees today for the first time since fighting began weeks ago.
UN peacekeeping troops escorted the trucks north from the provincial capital of Goma through the lines of rebel troops and past the village of Kibati, where tens of thousands have sought safety from the fighting of the past week.
Both the Congolese army and the rebel leader it has been battling guaranteed safe passage for the convoy.
Medical supplies and tablets to purify water were the priority in this shipment a UN spokeswoman said, adding that another convoy on tomorrow would take food for some of the 250,000 refugees displaced by the fighting.
She said health clinics north of Goma had been "looted and completely destroyed", leaving the hospital in Rutshuru as the only operating medical facility in a region of hundreds of thousands of people.
Food, however, was the critical issue for most people.
"Everybody is hungry, everybody," said Jean Bizy, 25, a teacher, who watched with envy as the UN convoy stopped to deliver a sack of potatoes to UN troops in Rugari. He said he has been surviving on wild bananas for days.
Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda went on the offensive in August and brought his fighters to the edge of Goma last week before declaring a unilateral cease-fire.
The conflict is fuelled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda's 1994 genocide and Congo's civil wars from 1996-2002. Nkunda claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter a half-million Rwandan Tutsis.
All sides are believed to fund fighters by illegally mining Congo's vast mineral riches, giving them no financial interest in stopping the fighting.
Tens of thousands of people in Kibati have received little food aid since they fled their homes a week ago.
Since Thursday, streams of refugees have thronged the roads around Goma trying to get home, lugging babies and bundles of belongings, guiding children, pigs and goats.
To ease food shortages, rebels today allowed farmers to reach Goma in trucks packed with cabbages, onions and spinach.
Nkunda began a low-level insurgency in 2004, claiming Congo's transition to democracy had excluded the Tutsi ethnic group. Despite agreeing in January to a UN-brokered cease-fire, he resumed fighting in August.
Nkunda wants direct talks with the government and his rebellion has threatened to re-ignite the back-to-back wars that afflicted Congo from 1996 to 2002, drawing in a half dozen African nations.
Congo President Joseph Kabila, elected in 2006 in Congo's first election in 40 years, has struggled to contain the violence in the east.
Congo has accused Nkunda of involvement in war crimes, and Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda's command in 2002 and 2004.
Yet rights groups have also accused government forces of atrocities and widespread looting.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo is its largest in the world, yet only 6,000 of the 17,000-strong UN mission in Congo are in the east because of unrest in other provinces.