Ragged and still dripping with the sweat of the weekend's battle, the Congolese militiamen turned to encounter a new enemy. The French Special Forces advanced with guns levelled. Only an hour before, gunmen had rampaged unchecked through the town of Bunia as a furious battle erupted between tribal militia.
But this time, as the militia battlewagon tried to pass the United Nations compound, the French were standing their ground. "The message is clear. I control this route and we will use it as and when we want," the muscular colonel leading the force told me.
Last weekend, France led the deployment of more than 1,400 troops sent to impose peace in Bunia, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo's anguished north-eastern Ituri region. Britain is expected to send a small supporting contingent. Can this, as many hope, spell a new beginning for Ituri? Or is it just a sticking plaster on Congo's seeping wound?
In a beanfield behind the deserted marketplace, two young masked men are among those desperate for it to succeed. Furiously swinging their hoes into the red soil, they hacked out a long, narrow hole. The air around us was choked with the smell of chlorine and rotting flesh. By our feet, a semi-naked corpse lay face down in the dirt.
The dead man, probably in his early 20s, had been shot in the neck and chest. Twisting his arms straight, the sweating diggers slid his remains into a black plastic bag and heaved the body into the hole. Throwing their plastic gloves on top, they quickly shovelled the loose soil on top. It was done - the 475th body buried by the Congolese Red Cross since the Bunia killings started exactly a month earlier. The victim's name, as usual, was unknown.
Dieudonne, a former teacher, can't remember how many people he has buried. He has seen it all - corpses with heads hacked off, burnt alive, slit from neck to stomach, eaten by both animal and human. "One man was bound with rope and had his heart removed," he told me with a shrug.
After the worst of the killing, when decaying corpses littered the empty streets of Bunia, animals were a big problem, he added. Packs of roaming dogs fed off the bodies, as did pigs and even ducks. Bunia became a city of sated dogs. "But some of them got sick and died. We had to bury them too," Dieudonne added, with a grim smile.
A boy skipped up the blood-splattered path. Another fresh corpse was lying in a shallow grave down the road, he said. Gathering their shovels, Dieudonne and his colleagues followed silently.
Bunia is the epicentre of the most ferocious and hate-filled of the conflicts that have wrenched the Democratic Republic of Congo apart since war broke out in 1998. A confusing tangle of rebel groups, variously supported by Rwanda and Uganda, have tried to topple the government in Congo's capital, Kinshasa. In the east of the country, more than three million people have died, mostly from disease or starvation.
In that period the world has paid little attention to Congo, and even less to the Ituri region. Here, the war is tribal - ostensibly a battle between the Hema and Lendu, but stoked by outside powers. But in the past month, Western interest has stirred.
The tempo of war is increasing. On Saturday the Lendu launched a fierce seven-hour offensive on Bunia. Caught in a Catholic mission, I crouched in the courtyard as rounds zinged overhead. Later, we sheltered on the porch of the UN building as shells exploded nearby. Later, an old couple wounded by shrapnel were stretchered into the makeshift hospital over the road.
Hostilities in Bunia first started on 7 May, the day after 6,000 occupying Ugandan troops pulled out of the town. The UN, which had pressed for them to leave, sent just 700 Uruguayan soldiers to take their place. The Hema and Lendu militia, armed with machetes, spears, firearms and poison arrows, rushed into the vacuum. The ensuing battle sparked an orgy of grotesque violence.
A quarter of a million people fled to the countryside. Another 20,000 crammed into the UN compound, protected by the nervous Uruguayan blue helmets. In the streets, entire families were being hacked to death. Some died on the rutted roads, others in their looted houses. The violence was inflicted with extreme prejudice. Many victims were mutilated, and some were cannibalised, their hearts, kidneys or sexual organs removed. A local priest saw a Lendu militiaman sporting a kidney on a thread around his neck.
Amid the carnage, the Red Cross volunteers - mostly good-hearted men made jobless by the war - started to venture out, spades and gloves in hand. "If we don't do this, who will? Otherwise the dogs will eat them, and people will get sick," said Montana. "But it is a terrible job. We have had to develop hearts of stone."
The volunteers, who are not paid, have courage as well as strong stomachs. In the first week of fighting two first-aid workers were killed. Two years ago, not far away, militiamen hacked to death six Red Cross workers, including two Europeans. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which prides itself on working in the world's toughest hotspots, immediately pulled out of Ituri province. It has not returned since.
The volunteers' gruesome work is not over yet, however. With Bunia under the control of a Hema militia, nearly all the Lendu have fled. There has been a succession of nightly assassinations. In a house outside town where the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko once stayed, the Red Cross tells me that 32 corpses are stuffed down a pit, awaiting burial, and 19 others have already been buried in the garden. Those who saw the dead said they bore the marks of terrible torture.
The killings have chilling echoes of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In one massacre, Lendu fighters filtered 22 Hema out of a crowd taking refuge in a church hall, then opened fire. There have been worse massacres, but this time it happened before the eyes of 700 impotent UN soldiers.
Last month's battle was a humiliating episode for the UN. As the slaughter continued around them, sometimes only metres away, the Uruguayan troops hunkered behind the razor wire of their base along with thousands of townspeople. At one point a body was thrown into the compound.
The townspeople and aid workers were outraged at the troops' inaction. But in truth, there wasn't much more they could have done. Their UN mandate was pitifully limited - under orders from New York and Montevideo, their job was to protect UN staff and installations, not to save civilian lives. Their numbers were too small.
And, for the most part, the South Americans are neither experienced peacekeepers nor hardened warriors. Uruguay gained independence in 1830 and the country hasn't fought a war since. This was the first combat fire most of the soldiers had heard. Seven have since been hospitalised with nervous breakdowns.
For Commander Col Jorge Berez, the worst moment was on the night of 9 May, when his troops had to lay rolls of razor wire around the UN compound as Lendu fighters took potshots. A Uruguayan armoured personnel carrier returned fire - the commander cannot say how many they killed - but child fighters crawled under the wire and started fires beneath the vehicles. Then they stole emergency axes and started to slash the tyres. "It was complete chaos," he said.
Nevertheless, many feel that the troops could have shown greater steel. When the church massacre started on a Saturday morning, Catholic missionaries frantically called the UN for help. An armoured personnel carrier was sent - seven hours later. "They say they are military observers. But we call them the counters of the dead," said the Belgian priest Father Joe Deneckere.
Despite the comparisons with Rwanda, what is happening in Congo is not genocide. Like the Tutsi, the Hema keep cattle and are seen as being well-schooled. Like the Hutu, the Lendu sow the fields, value education less and are more numerous. But the comparison ends there. These warring sides are just two of Ituri's 18 major tribes. And there is no history of tit-for-tat massacres. In fact, the two tribes co-existed peacefully, with only occasional clashes over land disputes. "The Hema were like spots on a leopard's back," said one Lendu intellectual in Kinshasa.
Two factors propelled simmering enmity into a bloodbath. One is the greatest of all Congo's leopards, Mobutu, under whose kleptocratic rule the once prosperous province slid into poverty. The other is foreign. Rwanda and Uganda have armed both Hema and Lendu militia as their proxies. The Kinshasa government is believed to have sent weapons to the Lendu recently. Local sources say Bunia airport was a "central African weapons bazaar" before the 6,000 Ugandan troops withdrew last month.
The foreign backers and local warlords want access to Congo's fabled wealth. Riches lie under the ground in every direction from Bunia. Thirty miles to the west starts a rich seam of gold, exploited first by Belgian colonials. Further west, towards Kisangani, there are diamonds. To the south, coltan, a rare mineral used in the making of mobile phones. And to the east, under Lake Albert and in the Semliki River valley, lies quantities of unexploited oil. The Canadian-British firm Heritage Oil, which has been linked to the mercenary outfit Executive Outcomes, has already signed an exploration agreement with the Ugandan and Congolese governments.
If last month's massacre shocked the outside world, it surprised nobody in Ituri, and certainly not Muhito Tibasima. The 26-year-old mother of two was in Nyankunde, 25 miles to the north, when Lendu fighters took control last September. It became one of the worst atrocities of the entire war.
Drugged fighters butchered more than 1,000 people, most of them Hema, over a month and five days of occupation. The town hospital, where Tibasima - who is paralysed from the waist down - was confined, saw some of the worst bloodshed. For a nightmarish week militiamen murdered dozens of patients in their beds. A Christian pastor hid in the roof above the operating theatre for five days. He was eventually found and also executed.
Tibasima watched as the militia killed a young boy in the next bed with a series of machete blows. "They told me I was next. But they joked that because I was paralysed they couldn't kill me like that. They would bury me alive," she told me. When asked to explain the savagery, she struggled for words. "It can only be Satan that has come to sow hate in people's hearts."
Tibasima is now in Bunia's dilapidated public hospital. Yet despite the French arrival, the town is not safe. Last Saturday morning, Lendu militia launched a fierce assault in an attempt to wrest back control before the multinational force is fully deployed. For seven hours a deafening rattle of gunfire was punctuated by the explosions of shells and rocket-propelled grenades.
I and about 70 Western journalists, who had come to cover the French arrival, found ourselves caught in the heart of the battle. After being evacuated under gunfire to the UN compound, we crouched on the veranda of the UN base alongside six armed Uruguayans.
Now the international media, complete with satellite broadcasting facilities, are camped beside the UN headquarters. With the tightly packed tents and piles of shiny equipment, it looks something like a summer rock festival.
Muhito Tibasima, however, could go nowhere. As other patients leapt from their beds and, despite illness and wounds, ran down the road to the UN camp, she had to stay put. She is angry that the UN did not come to protect the hospital as well. "We are in town here, too. Even 10 soldiers would have saved the situation," she said.
Now Ituri's hopes lie with the French. Unlike the Uruguayans, they will be able to open fire to keep the peace. And as their colonel made clear, he will not be afraid to use force. But the mandate is just for three months, after which a larger Bangladeshi contingent is due to step in. As it is, while the French may be able to secure Bunia, the size of the force will make it impossible to venture far into the countryside.
For the embattled residents of Bunia, however, the small French contingent is all that separates them from a return to the horror. "Now is the moment, it's make or break time," Nigel Pearson, a British aid worker in Bunia, told me. "We really need this force to deploy quickly. And if that doesn't work, God knows what will."Reuse content