International envoys converged Friday on eastern Congo hoping to help end some of the worst violence the central African nation has seen in years. Thousands of anxious, hungry refugees struggled to get home amid a fragile cease-fire.
Reporters saw a crush of people, sweat streaming down their faces, 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, traveling with one baby nursing, another on her back and a toddler clinging to her skirt.
Harerimana said she had 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 Wednesday and called for a cease-fire.
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The conflict is fueled by festering ethnic hatred 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 a half million Rwandan Tutsis.
All sides also are believed to fund fighters by illegally mining Congo's vast mineral riches, giving them no financial interest in stopping the fighting.
Ordinary people are bearing the brunt of the dispute.
According to the U.N., 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 burned down, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Karl Steinacker said.
U.N. peacekeepers flew over the area in helicopters Friday and said the camps were still standing but they could not tell if people were still there, he said.
The United Nations' deputy representative and humanitarian coordinator in Congo said more than 1 million people have been displaced — 220,000 of them since August.
“This is extraordinary,” Ross Mountain said. “A million (displaced) in a province of 6 million.”
Outside Goma, the bodies of several soldiers lay on the streets as the senior U.S. envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, arrived Friday with Alan Doss, the top U.N. envoy in Congo. As they arrived, U.N. peacekeepers put on an unusual show of force, deploying at least four tanks around the city, putting armored cars on patrol and sending U.N. troops with riot shields out on foot.
“The cease-fire is fragile,” Doss said. “It will not hold if there isn't progress on other fronts, those political and diplomatic.”