The first time the Congo army tried to take this village back from the militias that have fought for it since the civil war supposedly ended in 2002, the government soldiers cut and ran. That was January.
The second attempt, a month later, also failed, despite heavy backing from UN peacekeepers trying to stabilize the nation before elections in July, the first in more than four decades. Instead of fighting the militias, the soldiers mutinied and looted the peacekeepers base here.
It was only after the third try, last month, that the militia was finally chased away, deep into the equatorial forest.
But while the state may have wrested control, for now, the push to do so has spawned a crisis of its own. Thousands of people have flooded the village, exhausted and haggard from waiting out the battles in the bush, perpetuating the hunger and disease that has continued to grip Congo in the aftermath of its deadly five-year civil war.
In less than a decade, an estimated 4 million people have been killed, mostly of hunger and disease caused by the fighting. It has been the deadliest conflict since World War II, with more than 1,000 people still dying each day. For many here, survival, not elections, is the milestone.
"We run because we are afraid to die in our houses," said Ngava Ngosi, one of the thousands caught in a deadly pattern of flight from village to jungle and back again in the seemingly endless chaos of eastern Congo. "But in the bush we also die."
The battle for Aveba, one of a string of small but strategic villages in the mineral-rich Ituri district, illuminates the perilous road ahead for Congo as it struggles to set upon a path of peace and democracy.
The presidential and parliamentary electionsin July will be the first moment of self-determination for most Congolese; the last multiparty election was in 1965. Congo was ruled for 32 years by Mobutu Sese Seko, who named it Zaire and held the country hostage by his rapacious and iron-fisted rule.
Since Mobuto was deposed in 1997, the nation, renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been caught in the murderous grip of rival militias, both home grown and backed by neighboring countries.
The war has officially been over since a peace agreement between the factions was signed four years ago, but the transition to peace has yet to come. Fighting has continued intermittently in the confusing and complicated conflict, which began when Rwanda and Uganda backed a rebel movement to overthrow Mobutu, who died in Morocco in 1997. The war spun out of control when that rebel movement turned against its foreign backers.
The election is meant to draw a line between that chaotic past and a more hopeful future. But the process of preparing for the election has been extra-ordinarily difficult in the troubled and violent eastern regions, where militias have battled government troops over control of lucrative industries like diamond and copper mining, and in the short term the election may cause as many problems as it solves.
"We broke the back of the militias, but still a kind of uncertainty prevails," said Major Obeid Anwar, commander of a company of Pakistani peacekeeping troops stationed in Aveba."It hampers people from resorting to their normal lives. This uncertainty has many faces and it brings a lot of suffering."
Thousands of civilians have fled the operations to clear out militia strongholds by escaping into the jungle, where they face hunger and disease. At times it was unclear if they were fleeing the militias, who raped and looted their way through their villages, or Congolese soldiers, who did pretty much the same.
Ill discipline in the army, an amalgam of former rebels and government soldiers fused into a national force under the peace agreement, has been another problem. Their official salary is less than a US$1 a day, and even that does not come regularly. Long accustomed to living off loot, government soldiers are frequently accused of human rights violations, including rape and murder.
The UN is investigating a report published June 18 in The Observer, a British weekly, that peacekeepers fired mortars into a village inhabited by civilians as part of an offensive in Ituri in April. The report was based on a videotape by a British journalist traveling with the UN troops.
In Aveba, where Anwar's company is based, civilians have begun trickling in from the jungle, hoping to find food and safety. Most are from surrounding villages, so they have taken up residence as squatters, occupying the houses and eating the crops of those who fled.
In the Evangelical Assembly Church in the center of the village, hundreds of people sleep crammed together, head to toe, trying to stay warm in the frigid mountain air.
Aproline Avurasi arrived in Aveba in earlier this month with her five children. They brought with them only what they could carry: a metal bowl filled with rags and what little food they had, and a few cooking implements tightly wrapped in cloth. They took up residence in the church, hoping to find help here. They found nothing but more misery.
"We were starving in the bush," Avurasi said. "We are also starving here."
Three nurses, themselves displaced by the fighting, have set up a clinic in an abandoned house. A medical aid organ-
ization gave them several boxes of basic supplies, and within three days, they were inundated by patients, almost 300.
One man, sick with what the nurses believed was meningitis, lay nearly motionless on a ragged mat of reeds. A man shot in the foot while fleeing soldiers lay on the floor in the crammed waiting room, covered by a filthy scrap of cloth. A line of women clutching their sick babies stretched out the door.
"We don't have the equipment to do very much, but at least we try to comfort people," said Adirudu Yanga, one of the nurses in the impromptu clinic.
Anwar said he had begged for more help from aid agencies for the families gathered here, but none had arrived.
"I even feel ashamed to go and see these people living in the church," he said "I promised them help will arrive, but nothing comes."
Aid agencies in Bunia, the regional capital, have struggled to work in the area. The militias and bandits remain in the countryside even if they have been pushed from their hilltop redoubts, and they prey upon aid convoys for food, medicine and money.
Disease is also rampant. On Thursday, Doctors Without Borders appealed for help in fighting pneumonic plague in the northeast, citing 144 cases, and said the area faced "an outbreak spiraling out of control," Agence France-Presse reported.
The need is enormous: One Italian agency, Cesvi, tried to take food to Aveba but found so many displaced people in Geti, along the way, that it emptied its supplies there.
In Geti, 16km east of Aveba, hundreds of people arrive each day, searching for food and safety. The Kanoya family, some two dozen people, sat beneath a banana tree waiting for Tchoni Mugero, its patriarch, to build a makeshift shelter out of grass and sticks. It had taken three days for the family to gather enough materials to build a house, and in the meantime they had been sleeping outside.
"We have never suffered like this," said Djimo Charles Kanoya, a member of the family."We spent one month in the bush. The children are hungry and they are so cold."
Even more than food, the people need blankets and plastic tarpaulins to shelter them from the cold mountain air at night.
At the hospital in Geti, Ngele Anyodi, a nurse, said children were dying of disease and malnutrition every day because they could not get to a better-equipped hospital.
"This place was looted in the fighting, " he explained, showing the ransacked offices, laboratory and pharmacy, stripped clean of microscopes, medicines and medical equipment. "We cannot care for the sickest people here. We don't have the means."
Indeed, the nurse in charge -- there are no doctors here -- was also a patient, sick with malaria.
An election may be around the corner, but voting, he said, was the last thing from his mind. Dead people, he said, cannot vote.
"We need help," Anyodi pleaded. "We need to survive first."
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