BUNIA, Congo—After years of false starts and costly failures, peace is finally taking hold in Congo's remote northeastern Ituri region, a key battleground in a stubborn pan-African war that's claimed 4 million lives.
In recent weeks, Congo's patchwork national army, backed by United Nations peacekeepers, has chased some 4,000 militiamen into the dense forests near the Ugandan border, the most aggressive military action to date against the once-fearsome militias that held sway here.
The militias still control some Ituri villages. But 16,000 have turned in their guns under a 2003 peace agreement, and U.N. and Congolese officials say the militias are on their last legs. They predict that most residents of Ituri will be able to vote in peace in a national constitutional referendum scheduled for Dec. 18 and the entire province will be secure before national elections scheduled for next June, the first democratic election in this country, formerly known as Zaire, since 1960.
That would be very good news in a region that's been the scene of warfare not only among tribes and warlords but also among the armies of six neighboring countries that are greedy for its rich stores of gold, diamonds and other minerals.
In 1998, a year after a coup overthrew Congo's longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, neighboring Uganda and Rwanda began arming ethnic Hema and Lendu militias in Ituri, seeking to exploit the tribes' traditional rivalry for a piece of the region's resources. The rivalry escalated to an all-out war that's killed more than 60,000 civilians. Eventually, troops from Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Burundi entered the fray.
Five different multinational peace agreements have failed to resolve the conflict in a country that's roughly the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River.
Since arriving in 1999, the U.N. mission in Congo—the organization's largest peacekeeping operation, with a $1 billion annual budget and more than 16,000 troops—often has seemed helpless. In the spring of 2003, when 500 people were killed in a battle in Bunia, just outside the U.N. base, it seemed emblematic of the mission's failures.
The mission later had to face charges that its peacekeepers and civilian officers had raped dozens of underage girls. After a series of internal investigations, 178 civilians and military police officers were sent home and the U.N. toughened its policies against sexual exploitation.
"We've made very good progress since then," said the top U.N. official in Congo, William Lacy Swing. "We're committed to a zero-tolerance policy."
Last February, militiamen killed nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers in an ambush outside the Ituri town of Kafe, the deadliest attack on the U.N. in Congo. Since then, the mission has beefed up military operations and supported Congolese raids on militia training camps.
"They have made it safe here now," said Kasereka Leon, an 83-year-old hospital laundryman in Bunia, who'd hid under tables in the maternity ward as artillery shells rained down during the 2003 battle.
The 8,000-man Congolese force in Ituri has had its own problems. Commanders are struggling to create a coherent army out of a hodgepodge of career soldiers and demobilized former militiamen.
Soldiers often wait months to receive $20 monthly salaries from the transitional government, if they receive them at all, and some are looting and raping the civilians they're meant to protect.
It's common to see soldiers in tattered, ill-fitting uniforms piled by the dozens on the backs of trucks or hitching rides in passing cars. They're sometimes outgunned by militiamen and thieves roaming through a region where, it's said, you can buy a Kalashnikov rifle for $20.
"The militias don't have a lot of men, but they are strong with guns," said Congolese Sgt. Ngueli Vunga, who manned his roadside post outside Bunia armed with a beat-up rifle and a small human skull. He and two other soldiers said they'd found the skull in a nearby ravine; it had a gaping hole on the left side, where a machete probably went through.
Although nearly half of Congo's 3.4 million refugees have returned home, extreme poverty and the threat of militias hiding in the bush keeps a few thousand refugees living in fly-infested camps in Ituri.
"The people who are left in the camp have no means to go away," said Peloi Modestina, 59, who came to her camp outside Bunia four years ago, after a Lendu militia captured her village and killed her husband and six children while she was away at church.
Conditions in camps across Congo are dire, and aid agencies said that as many as 1,000 people died each day from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria and diarrhea. In a recent survey, the charity group Doctors Without Borders found that 45 percent to 67 percent of Congolese—most of whom live on less than a dollar a day—lack access to basic medical care.
Acknowledging the humanitarian crisis, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on donors last week to provide $1 billion in new aid for Congo next year.
The referendum Dec. 18 provides some hope. Some 23 million people have been registered to vote out of Congo's 60 million people, the largest and most complicated election that the U.N. ever has managed. Its $422 million budget dwarfs the $250 million spent on Iraq's election last January.
U.N. and local election officials are hustling to prepare 40,000 polling centers in time for the referendum, a steppingstone to next year's national elections.
Already, there are problems: Thousands of Congolese who manned voter registration centers have yet to be paid, and much of the electorate is uneducated about the constitution.
Many Congolese—desperately poor and mostly illiterate—say they expect politicians to bribe voters.
"It's money," said Jacqueline Alima, 23. "If people are starving, they'll take it easily."
But in a country that's seen only dictators and warfare for nearly all its existence, some say that just having a democratic vote is a sign of progress.
"The election is very important," said Leon, the hospital worker. "I haven't voted for a government since Mobutu, and that time there was only one candidate."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CONGO-PEACE
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