ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Today, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross called the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo catastrophic. In Eastern Congo, tens of thousands of people have been displaced by fighting between rebel forces and the Congolese Army. The violence is connected to a conflict that has killed as many as five million people over the past decade. The rebels have declared a ceasefire for now, as we have discussed earlier this week on the program. But the forces led by the rebel general, Laurent Nkunda, control access to the city of Goma. NPR's Gwen Thompkins sent this report from Goma.
GWEN THOMPKINS: The road heading north from Goma to the village of Kibumba is a little over 10 miles. It's usually teeming with all manner of traffic, from 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 that you might see in a toy store. But most people here right now have been displaced by war. They get from one place to the another the old fashioned way - on foot. And just a little farther down the road, it is unnaturally quiet.There's almost nobody around except for a few dead bodies and the three rebel soldiers who killed them. The rebels are an ethnic Tutsis outfit under the direction of 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 the Goma city limits. It's not as 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 bodies of the army's dead are littered here. Rebel soldiers stand or sit within a few yards of each one. And sometimes, they eat their rations. But at least they are eating.
Mr. TIMOBANZI WAHIMI (Motorcycle Taxi Driver, Congo): (Through Translator) My family is in Goma (unintelligible) due to the displacement. (unintelligible).
THOMPKINS: That's Timobanzi Wahimi. He's a 32-year-old motorcycle taxi driver and he spent the past week with his family hiding out in Goma. The ordeal put thousands of civilians on the road, but when Wahimi got to Goma, he and his family had nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. Last night, Wahimi was under the stars.
Mr. WAHIMI: (Through Translator) Yes, I slept outside without even a blanket. Yes.
THOMPKINS: 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 here on the side of this country road for seven hours. He's got company though - Mwavita Barambesha has been stuck here, too. She wants to bring her family back to the village and never flee again.
Ms. MWAVITA BARAMBESHA (Villager, Congo): (Through Translator) I have no choice because I can't leave again, better to die there. It's because there, we are really starving. Yes, nothing. Nothing to eat really.
THOMPKINS: In Kibumba, rebels are at the threshold of the village. General Nkunda called a unilateral cease-fire Wednesday, and so far the village has been quiet. 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 blasted checkpoint. Riding back to Goma, it becomes clear that there are more rebels in here 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. By the time you see them, they've already seen you, maybe twice. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News Goma.