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Congo Fighting Leaves A Fragile City On Edge

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Congo Fighting Leaves A Fragile City On Edge

Africa

Congo Fighting Leaves A Fragile City On Edge

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

To eastern Congo now where millions of people have died over the last decade as armed factions battled for control of the region's many mines and fertile farmland. The city of Goma, near Congo's border with Rwanda, had been relatively untouched until last month. That's when the rebel group known as M23 captured the provincial capital. They have since retreated, but as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, the streets are tense again as men with guns inch closer.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Just outside Goma, in a displaced persons camp with military planes flying overhead, a school principal named Emmanuel Kibanja Miteso holds up a curiously familiar three-ring binder, full of names of parents and names of teachers. This is like a parent-teacher meeting.

EMMANUEL KIBANJA MITESO: (Through translator) Yes, parents and teachers meeting.

WARNER: The pages of this binder reflect the history of the war. The more fighting flared up north, the more people would flood into the displacement camp and the roster of names would swell. Because throughout the last decade of conflict in eastern Congo, the area around the city of Goma was always seen as safe shelter. That changed November 20 when M23 rebels marching down from the northern villages took over Goma.

Ten days later, they retreated under international pressure on the rebels and on Rwanda, believed to be the movement's biggest supporter. But it turns out the M23 never really left. They just changed into civilian clothes and went into hiding.

FIDEL BAFILEMBO: Especially in a compound, that used to be a cigarette making factory called Supermatch.

WARNER: Fidel Bafilembo is a researcher at the Enough Project, a D.C.-based advocacy group working to end crimes against humanity.

BAFILEMBO: Staying there, not leaving at daylight, and we have even spoken to people who have been providing them with food, water, things like that.

WARNER: Meanwhile, their opponents - the Congolese army - have also returned to the city. This is the same army that last month tucked tail and ran when the M23 moved in. Now, they're just outside the city limits. On the far edge of the camp, a woman works a sewing machine. Not 50 yards from her tent of sticks and plastic sheeting begins a hill, at the top of which the Congolese army has taken up position. Some of the displaced people in this camp just outside Goma are here because they fled M23. Others are here because they fled the Congolese army. They all came seeking safe ground. Now they find themselves directly between the strategic positions of the two forces.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: This elected leader in the camp, who asked that I not use his name because he's afraid of army commanders, said this camp is right at the combat zone. M23 on one side, he says, the Congolese army on the other. And an enormous lake, Lake Kivu, blocking their flight out.

Even though this is Congo's official army, the soldiers are not a comforting presence to those below. Kahindo Immaculee is a sexual violence counselor in this camp. She says like hyenas, the soldiers on the hill come down into the camp at night.

KAHINDO IMMACULEE: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Just last Monday, she tells me, women collecting firewood were ambushed by soldiers who selected the seven most beautiful and sent the others home. The beautiful ones, she says, were not released from the army base until Thursday morning. United Nations forces still patrol this camp, for what that's worth. The same soldiers fail to defend the city last month, so all eyes are on M23 and the army and what they'll do. And for almost two weeks now, the answer has been nothing, not a shot fired, which raises the question.

TARIQ RIEBL: What is everyone waiting for?

WARNER: Tariq Riebl is the country's humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam, which provides water and food to displaced persons camp. He says soldiers and rebels are stealing their water and other donated stuff.

RIEBL: The point is, at what point does it just become unsustainable? You have so many armed people from so many different factions. Is this just to push the political hand, the negotiations?

WARNER: Negotiations between M23 and the Congolese government in Uganda are supposed to come up with a power-sharing deal that the M23 have insisted on administrative control of Goma, as if it weren't the city with elected leaders but a system to be traded. The Congolese government refuses. And back at the camp, many people are looking to the United States to resolve things.

MITESO: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Kibanja, the school principal, says that when he heard last week that President Obama telephoned the president of Rwanda and asked him to stop supporting M23...

MITESO: I was really happy because M23 by themselves, they have no power to do anything.

WARNER: He's optimistic, he says, that it's only a matter of time before peace returns, and he can go home. Gregory Warner, NPR News.

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