Sun, Jun 25, 2006 - Page 17 News List

Votes don't fill stomachs in Congo

By Lydia Polgreen  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , AVEBA, CONGO

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."

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