MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo officially ended in 2002, but the fighting has continued in the east of the country forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. In the remote Katanga province, several thousand people have taken refuge on two islands in the middle of a lake.
NPR's Jason Beaubien recently visited the islands in Lake Upemba and he has this report.
JASON BEAUBIEN: To get to Lake Upemba, you have to fly into a private dirt airstrip in the north of the Katanga province and then travel seven hours in a motorboat up the Congo River.
The river winds through low-lying grasslands and it serves as the main thoroughfare for the region. Children, old women, fishermen row dugout pirogues up and down the waterway. Occasionally, you pass a collection of sun blanched reed huts. One of the largest villages on this stretch of the river is Cobundo (ph). Mid January a group Mai Mai militia men attacked the village, chased away the lone policeman and burn more than 100 huts to ground. Cobundo now is an expanse of black soot and mud.
About an hour further upriver at Yonga (ph), you switch to a flat bottomed boat to pass through a canal that Belgian colonialists dug between the Congo River and Lake Upemba. Lush green elephant grass leans over the narrow canal, making it a times feel like a tunnel. At the end of the canal, the boat has to be pushed through a swamp. Then from the edge of Lake Upemba, it's still an hour and a half trip to the two islands where some 4,000 people have taken refuge from brutal militias.
FASTAN WAPACHINGU: (Speaking foreign language)
BEAUBIEN: Fastan Wapachingu, the Chief of Mitala says people came to the island because the Mai Mai destroyed their homes.
WAPACHINGU: (Speaking foreign language)
BEAUBIEN: He says he's fled back and forth from the small islands to his village on the eastern shore of Lake Upemba 15 times since the year 2000. Mai Mai militias were originally armed by the Conchasa Government to fight against the Rawandans in the late 1990s, but soon after they got their guns, the Mai Mais started living off the local population. They demanded food, raped women, burned houses and even killed people.
One of the most wanted Mai Mai leaders in the country, Jidion (ph), seized a gold mine to the east of here. The Congolese Army is now trying to wipe out the Mai Mai and regain control over what's been a largely lawless part of central Africa. The new fighting, however, is driving tens of thousands of villagers once again from their homes.
Lake Upemba's about 10 miles wide but it's extremely shallow. The island of Mitala where Wapachingo and about 2000 other people live is a little more than a swamp. The black lonely earth sinks under your feet. There are no trees, a dense tangle of reeds, grasses and vines covers much of the narrow island. People lash together bunches of reeds to create sleeping platforms above the mud. The villagers have brought chickens and ducks with them from the mainland. But they say they lost most of their animals to the Mai Mai. 54-year-old Alunga Fasteem (ph) says the Mai Mai destroyed everything she owned.
ALUNGA FASTEEM: (Speaking Foreign Language)
BEAUBIEN: We can't grow crops here, Fasteem says. We can't earn money and you're sleeping every night with the mosquitoes. She said her family fled to Mitala after the Mai Mai decapitated one of her neighbors and then paraded the head through the village. Like most of the men here, Fasteem's husband catches fish from the lake. Some people have piled mud into mounds and planted onions, tomatoes and squash.
Kasaba, the main staple of their diet, however, won't grow in the wet shallow beds. The offensive by the Congolese Army has pushed Mai Mai fighters from throughout the province towards Lake Upemba. Because of this, Alunga Fasteem says she doesn't expect to go back to her village any time soon.
FASTEEM: (Speaking Foreign Language)
BEAUBIEN: I'm going to say, she says, until the government provides security over there on the mainland. But there's been no government in this part of the Congo for years. Schools have fallen into disrepair. Health clinics have no medicine and no paid staff. The only aid agency working in the area is Doctors Without Borders. They're fighting a cholera outbreak, trying to vaccinate against measles and rejuvenating a small health clinic.
On the southeast shore of the lake, a local chief has formed a new security force called the Recon Civil (ph) to try to protect people from the Mai Mai. The Recon Civil, however, don't carry guns. Instead they carry baton magik, or magic sticks, to repel invaders. This has offered little comfort to the people of Mitala. They say they feel safer on the island even though conditions are extremely difficult. Everything on the island is wet. Sticky black mud gets tracked everywhere. The smell of rotting fish guts wafts up from the ground. There's no school, no church. The only thing to drink is the murky brown water from the lake.
Yet near the east side of the island, there's a small clearing with four miniature teepees. The teepees are made of reeds wrapped in colorful cloth. The structures seem out of place amidst the chaos of this muddy encampment. The Chief explains that these are for the children. Even here they have a playground.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
NORRIS: To see photos of life on Lake Upemba's islands, visit our website, NPR.org.