Rebels in Congo appear to have the eastern capital of Goma, U.N. peacekeepers, the army and the government exactly where they want them.
Having approached Goma in a dramatic push this week that sent soldiers running from the front line, the rebels are now posted a few miles outside city limits. They decide who goes in and who goes out.
The road heading north from Goma to the village of Kibumba is a little more than 10 miles. It is usually teeming with all kinds of traffic, due to huge lorries carrying goods from the countryside into Goma or heading in the opposite direction to load up once more. There are hundreds of motorcycle taxis that carry passengers sidesaddle the whole way and, for the more ingenious traveler, there are homemade wooden bicycles — adult-sized versions of the kind one might see in a toy store.
But most people here right now have been displaced by war. They get from one place to another the old fashioned way — on foot. And just a little farther down the road, it is unnaturally quiet. There is almost nobody around except for a few dead bodies and the three rebel soldiers who killed them.
The bodies of the army's dead are littered around, and rebel soldiers stand or sit within a few yards of each one, sometimes eating rations. But at least they are eating.
The rebels are ethnic Tutsis under the direction of Gen. Laurent Nkunda. They are said to be supported by the Tutsi-led government of neighboring Rwanda. Over the past several days, the rebels have pushed southward and are just about eight miles from Goma city limits. It is not yet clear what they want, but they may have intimidated their way to the bargaining table with the Congolese government. Nkunda's advance brushed back the Congolese army like a wild pitch across home plate.
The ordeal put thousands of civilians on the road, but when Timobanzi Wahimi got to Goma, he and his family had nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. Last night he was under the stars.
"I slept outside without even a blanket," Wahimi says.
Today, he's been trying to move his family out of Goma, two at a time, on his motorbike. But after making one trip to Kibumba, he was stopped from returning to Goma at a rebel checkpoint, and he has been waiting on the side of a country road for seven hours.
He has company though — Mwavita Barambesha has been stuck, too. She wants to bring her family back to the village of Kibumba and never flee again.
"I have no choice. I can't leave again, better to die there," Barambesha says. "Because we are really starving. Nothing to eat really."
Rebels are at the threshold of Kibumba. Gen. Nkunda called a unilateral cease-fire Wednesday, and so far the village has been quiet 00 but it is a creepy kind of quiet. Frightened-looking men whisper that the rebels are not allowing them to leave the village, and if they do leave Kibumba, they can't make it past the checkpoint.
Riding back to Goma, it becomes clear that there are more rebels in the area than meet the eye. Sometimes they are obscured by tall grass, or sometimes they are standing among the big, floppy ficus trees or near the eucalyptus.
They also cluster at a makeshift base or near their pup tents, which look to be made from hay. But on a country landscape with yellow wildflowers pretty enough to appear in any fairy tale, they are ever sober and ever watchful.