Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

DRC: Insecurity Prevails Despite Ceasefire

Stephanie Kale

GOMA, DRC, Nov 1 2008 (IPS) - The dirt road leading to Kibumba refugee camp is thronged with people trying to return to their homes as diplomatic efforts continue to strengthen a tenuous ceasefire.

The landscape here, 18 kilometres north of the provincial capital Goma, looks much the same as it did earlier this week, when an estimated 100,000 people across the eastern half of North Kivu fled camps and villages in fear of being caught in the crossfire between advancing Tutsi-led Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) and the government's troops.

Men pushed bicycles stacked with cooking materials and a few other possessions, and women carried babies on their backs and balanced cloth sacks on their heads. Gaggles of children followed.

"The situation is catastrophic. The displaced people are thirsty and sick, and have little help since Monday," said Deogratias Makombe, mayor of the Buhumba district.

Officials from Doctors Without Borders say the number and movement of people is difficult to gauge.

"The original inhabitants of the villages are trying to return to their homes, but there are many others displaced from refugee camps that are also trying to go home," said Marie-Noelle Rodrigue, a spokeswoman from Doctors Without Borders.

Rumours about rebel attacks nearby led many to break their march back to Kibumba from areas around Goma. Despite a lack of food, water and shelter, tens of thousands are at a makeshift camp called Kibati, five kilometres from a frontline patrolled by government troops.

"It seems like the place [Kibumba] has not been safe enough for them to go back. It seems that they are trying to gather in a few places between here and Goma," said Rodrigue.

Some refugees claimed they had been unable to cross the frontline.

Desire Mustafa is trying to return with his ten children. "When I tried to go back the road was blocked."

Sounds of gunfire earlier that day sparked confusion among the people trying to return to Kibumba. CNDP rebels said government forces fired warning shots to signal their presence at Kibati. Some people in the camp said they believed fighting erupted again outside of Kibumba and they didn't know if they could safely pass.

Mwangaza fled Kibumba with her five children. She said that although she has nothing to eat or medicine for her children who have fallen sick this week, she's afraid to go back to home.

"All of my children have fever and diarrhoea. I'm asking if someone can help my children and bring them food and medicine because I don't know what's there in Kibumba," she said.

CNDP forces, led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda, say they are protecting the Tutsi-minority from ex-Interahamwe, Hutu militia who fled Rwanda after committing the genocide.

The CNDP advanced close to the eastern lakeside city of Goma on Oct. 29. For now, they control the road that leads to Kibumba about five kilometres north from the masses of sprawling homeless at Kibati.

The rebels appeared calm sitting outside barracks two kilometres from government troops. They say they are not stopping people from returning to their homes.

"Since 6 a.m. we've watched thousands of people return to their homes," said one rebel soldier.

Back in Goma, schools and shops are still closed but people are making their way out of their homes. Police are patrolling the streets and there is a heavier presence of U.N. troops on the streets. Outside Goma, the bodies of several soldiers were found on the street as United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer and Alan Doss, the head of the U.N. Mission to Congo arrived on Friday.

Many NGOs and residents left Goma on Oct. 30, after guns crackled through a tense night of fighting and looting in the city. Ten people were reported killed.

Terna Gyuse adds more from Johannesburg on diplomatic efforts to consolidate the ceasefire: A large delegation including Frazer and Doss was in Goma on Friday to assess security and humanitarian needs in and around the city. Following meetings with the governor of North Kivu, Julien Paluku, and the province's military commander, it was agreed that responsibility for Goma's security will be shared by the U.N. and the Congolese National Police.

The foreign ministers of France and the United Kingdom meanwhile arrived in Kinshasa for talks with DRC president Joseph Kabila. Both were expected to travel on to Rwanda, whose government has been accused of backing Nkunda's CNDP fighters. Rwanda denies involvement in the present conflict, but Rwandan president Paul Kagame and Kabila have agreed to attend and emergency summit in Nairobi.

Nkunda has demanded direct talks with the DRC government but Kabila has so far rejected this.

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