RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Democratic Republic of Congo this month is scheduled to hold its first free elections in nearly half a century. They are the most expensive elections ever held in Africa.
International donors are spending more than $400 million on the polls in the hope that a representative government can lead Congo out of years of turmoil.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the eastern part of the country, in the city of Bukavu.
JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:
In 2004, renegade Congolese soldiers overran this port city on the shores of Lake Kivu, and in the process they killed more than 100 people, raped scores of women, and pillaged Bukavu's shops.
Thirty-eight year old Philician Subante(ph) had his house looted three times on the first night of the invasion.
Mr. PHILICIAN SUBANTE: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: They came in a group, Subante says, firing bullets everywhere. Soldiers smashed the windows and broke down the door. Subante says he's eager to vote on July 30th, because he believes an elected government will be able to control the military and bring security to the Congo.
Mr. SUBANTE: (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: The election, he says, will bring a government that is capable and responsible.
This is something Congo has lacked for decades. The vast country gained independence from a brutal Belgian regime in 1960. Five years later, Joseph Mobutu seized power in a coup. During his 32 year reign, he renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko, dubbed the country Zaire, and drove one the richest nations in Africa into the ground.
After Mobutu was overthrown in 1997, the country descended into a civil war that drew in the armies of Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Uganda. That civil war officially ended in 2002, but sporadic fighting continues here in the east.
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Father Justin Secetar Kulamushe(ph), the Chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of the Bukavu, says the Congo has been devastated by decades of corrupt rule and war.
Father JUSTIN SECETAR KULAMUSHE (Chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of the Bukavu): (Foreign language spoken)
BEAUBIEN: The greatest need here, he says, is peace.
To try to deliver that, the United Nations has deployed 17,000 troops - its largest peacekeeping mission in the world - to the Congo. Blue helmeted soldiers from Uruguay, Pakistan and South Africa rattle along Bukavu's deeply rutted streets in white U.N. jeeps, with machine guns mounted on their roofs. In the civil war during the 1990's, the soldiers from neighboring countries took over Congolese mines and shipped the proceeds back home. Father Justin says the destruction of his country has been fueled by outsiders and their desire for his country's mineral wealth.
Father KULAMUSHE: (Foreign language spoken):
BEAUBIEN: For me, this is an imported war, Father Justin says, fabricated in the laboratory in the West. And he says it's a war over diamonds and gold.
The collateral damage in this conflict has been huge. Some four million people have died mainly as a result of disease and starvation after being driven from their homes. There's been almost no investment in roads, sanitation, schools or other public infrastructure since the 1950's. Congo is the size of western Europe, but it only has 300 miles of paved roads. Factories have collapsed in on themselves. Most of the country lacks electricity.
Bukavu has two hydro dams, but the power comes on only sporadically, if at all.
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There's great enthusiasm, maybe even over-inflated expectations, about the upcoming election. At this rally, hundreds of women marched through Bukavu to support the current president, Joseph Kabila. The 34-year old Kabila came to power in 2001 after his father, rebel leader Laurent Kabila, was assassinated. Thirty-three candidates are running for president. Almost 10,000 people are vying for 500 seats in the national assembly.
The logistical challenges of conducting an election in such a large country with terrible infrastructure are huge. U.N. peacekeeping mission known by its French acronym, MONUC, is distributing the literally tons of polling materials throughout the country. Alpha Sow, the head of MONUC in Bukavu, says the U.N. has assembled a fleet of more than 80 aircraft and hundreds of trucks to support the election.
Mr. ALPHA SOW (Head of Bukavu Office, MONUC Peacekeeping Mission): So for the moment and for us, the priority one is election, priority two is election and priority three is election again.
BEAUBIEN: In addition to ferrying ballot boxes, MONUC is also attempting to keep the peace. Officially, the U.N. troops are here to assist the newly reconstituted Congolese army. But many observers say the Congolese military can't yet control the numerous militias, local defense forces and foreign fighters who roam the east of the country. Again, Alpha Sow with MONUC.
Mr. SOW: It will take some time, but it is coming progressively. This army is being operational. Definitely, they need people, they need (unintelligible), they need to be fairly paid, you know.
Under Mobutu, when the government couldn't come up with the money to pay its troops, Congolese soldiers were told to live off the land. Even in the newly integrated armies, soldiers only make about $15.00 a month and their pay is often late. Congolese troops with battered AK-47's slung across their shoulders still demand money, food and even sex from the local population. This military culture and what remains the largely lawless country continues to be a problem.
Mick Mutiki(ph) is with the civil society group in Bukavu that's deploying poll monitors for the upcoming balloting. Mutiki calls this election the last hope for the Congo. Since the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961, he says there has never been a legitimate government in Kinshasa, and this has spawned successive armed conflicts in the country.
Mr. MICK MUTIKI: (Unintelligible) the population who were killed in this war. It was population who were suffering. It was (unintelligible) who was killed. But now we want election to ensure a peace. We want election is guarantee of peace for us, for our children and for our children's children.
BEAUBIEN: If none of the 33 presidential candidates gets 50 percent of the vote on July 30, there will be a run off at, as of yet, an undetermined date.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Bukavu.
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