Rebel Advances In Congo Send Civilians Fleeing Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo made big gains this week on the country's eastern border. As has happened many times before in the area, the fighting touched off a mass exodus of civilians seeking safety.

Rebel Advances In Congo Send Civilians Fleeing

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. We turn now to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the east, thousands of innocent civilians are doing what they have done so many times in their nation's turbulent past - leaving home in search of safety. They're trying to outrun fighting between government troops and rebels who, earlier this week, captured the regional captial, Goma. NPR's John Burnett visited the nearby town of Sake to document the exodus.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: In a promising sign for the so-called M23 rebels, the presidents of Congo and Rwanda and an M23 chief are meeting in Uganda to discuss the insurgents' grievances. This, only days after the Congolese head of state refused to negotiate. In the nearly deserted streets of Sake, a six-man rebel squad patrols the town they won, then defended against a counter-attack but held onto.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

BURNETT: Sake is calm now. People left because of all the bombs fired by Kabila's army, says a rebel commander who didn't give his name because he wasn't authorized to speak. The leader of M23 told us to stop and wait here in Sake, not to take any more territory. Now, we're awaiting word from negotiations in Kampala.

Almost the entire town of 37,000 people has taken flight. Today, the eight-mile road leading from Sake to Goma was jammed with an exodus of disconsolate villagers carrying everything of value because leaving it behind means giving it to looters. Foam mattresses, jerry cans and radios, goats, pigs and babies, lanterns, stew pots and charcoal braziers - all of it muscled forward on heads, tump lines and heavy wooden scooters called chukutos.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

BURNETT: All we know is that we have to leave. We don't know where we're going or where we'll sleep, says a distraught man whose small son struggles with a bicycle laden with two bulky bedrolls and two ducks hanging from the handlebars.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

BURNETT: You're the most powerful nation in the world, he says addressing a radio reporter, why don't you save us?

The British charity Oxfam reports from 100,000 and 150,000 refugees are on the move because of the M23 offensive. They're sleeping in schools, in grass lean-tos and in the open, and it's been raining heavily.

This is not a new story. Marauding militias, common in the wilds of eastern Congo, have driven some of these same villagers from their homes again and again over the past 20 years. On Thursday, government troops and the rival MiMi(ph) militia lobbed mortars indiscriminately at Sake, trying to dislodge the rebel army.

MUHINDO KININGA: (Speaking foreign language)

BURNETT: A local leader named Muhindo Kininga counted nine people killed by shrapnel. That's not including the body of a man lying in the mud nearby, whose limbs are twisted under him and whose face is frozen in an attitude of surprise. A three-truck convoy full of blue helmeted, expressionless U.N. soldiers passes on the road. People glower.


BURNETT: They're still angry at the contingent of 1,500 international peacekeepers stationed in Goma that did nothing to stop the rebel advance. The U.N. says it's not a substitute for the national army.

KIWA BIRIZEN: (Speaking foreign language)

BURNETT: We don't like them, says a lumberman named Kiwa Birizen. They don't do anything for us.

He's understandably testy, considering there's an unexploded mortar round lodged in his kitchen floor and he says he hasn't eaten in three days. He says retreating government soldiers looted all the stores in Sake before high-tailing it south.

When asked which side they support in this soldiering conflict, every refugee interviewed today said neither side, we just want peace. John Burnett, NPR News, Goma.

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