Food supplies were delivered across rebel-held areas of eastern Congo today for the first time in weeks.
More than 100 tons of food will go to 50,000 civilians in the area north of the provincial capital of Goma over the next four days, a UN World Food spokesman said.
Fighting between the army and troops loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has displaced at least 250,000 people despite the presence of the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world, with some 17,000 troops.
Many of the thousands who were gathered outside a small Catholic church in Kiwanja today said it was too dangerous to return to their fields because armed groups were there.
Musi Batai, an elderly man with a farm a few miles from Kiwanja, said pro-government militiamen had occupied his fields, rich in beans and corn.
“They told me I had to pay them if I wanted to take my food,” he said, adding that the men chased him away at gunpoint and said they were going to sell his food.
At a stadium in Rutshuru where a second UN distribution was taking place, thousands gathered around stacks of corn meal and beans lined on a green field. The bags are meant to last a family 15 days.
“There is plenty of food, but I can’t go back to my farm,” said 29-year-old Ibrahim Masumbuku, who was waiting in line for rations. “There is no security anywhere.”
Eastern Congo has been unstable since millions of refugees spilled across the border from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which saw more than 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus slaughtered.
Many of the Hutu extremists who orchestrated the mass killings have remained in Congo, prompting Tutsi-led Rwanda to invade the mineral-rich nation twice.
Nkunda, who quit Congo’s army in 2004, claims he is fighting to protect Tutsis, who like Hutus are a minority and one of an estimated 200 ethnic groups in Congo.
There are fears the country could slide back into a ruinous war such as the one in 1998-2002 that drew in more than half a dozen African nations and tore Congo into rival fiefdoms.
Rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda seized vast territory rich in coffee, gold and tin in the east. Angola and Zimbabwe sent tanks and fighter planes to back Congo’s government in exchange for access to lucrative diamond and copper mines to the south and west.