After decades of war, millions of Congolese seize chance to vote

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The Independent Online

"So many people have died," cried Kabira Masiki, throwing her hands up in the air. "So many people. We have no peace." Mrs Masiki, 55, had been waiting in line outside the school house being used as a polling station in Rutshuru, a small town 70km north-east of Goma, for four hours and was prepared to stand there in the dusty, oppressive heat all day if necessary.

She had never been able to cast a vote in free and fair elections, but yesterday her opportunity arrived along with more than 25 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who finally got a chance to choose their leaders for the first time in 40 years.

They came in their thousands, to more than 53,000 polling stations dotted across a country the size of western Europe. Mothers with babies strapped to their backs, old men shoeless. Young and old, male and female, they came to do something hardly any of them had done before - put a cross on a ballot paper.

Turnout was predicted to be between 80 and 90 per cent, a proud vote for democracy and a defiant snub to the militia groups that had threatened to disrupt the poll. People leaving the polling stations triumphantly waved their ink-stained thumbs - the sign that they had cast their ballot.

International observers and the UN forces, known as MONUC, predicted that voting would continue long into the night. In many districts, the sheer number of parliamentary candidates left voters with ballot papers the size of six pieces of A3 paper. Illiteracy and inexperience meant long delays were expected.

But, by late afternoon, many polling stations in and around Goma, the capital of the North Kivu district that borders Uganda and Rwanda, had finished voting. Some continued for two hours after the polls officially closed at 5pm.

Since gaining independence in 1960 following 75 years of brutal Belgian rule, the DRC has lurched from one disaster to another. The kleptocratic reign of the US-backed dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, was ended in 1997 when a rebellion in the east, led by Laurent Kabila and backed by Rwanda and Uganda, drove the ailing Mobutu from power. Kabila swiftly fell out with his former allies and four million Congolese people have died in the regional and civil wars that have raged in the DRC ever since. It is estimated that 1,200 people are still dying here each day from war-related diseases.

Against this backdrop, Congo's voters have invested a huge amount of hope and expectation in the introduction of multi-party democracy. In Rutshuru, where seven people were killed during an election rally earlier this month, Lumboga Pierre, a father of 10, showed off his voting card as he waited in line. "With this, I can vote," he said. "With a president we will get peace and happiness. Surely there will be peace and the looting and the killing will end." Mr Pierre, who used to work as a tax inspector before the war, said he had voted once before, in elections organised by Mobutu. "It was obligatory to vote for Mobutu," said Mr Pierre. "This is different. This is free and I am very happy." The Catholic Church, a powerful voice in the DRC, had threatened to boycott the elections, claiming fears of widespread vote-rigging. But within days of the poll they publicly backed the vote.

Not that it would have made much difference. Most Congolese have been waiting for these elections their entire life. It has been impossible to find anyone here who did not plan to vote.

By 11am, five hours after poll opened, there were still long queues in the village of Buganza, 11km from the Ugandan border. Bahati Kalekezi, a 22-year-old in a fake Arsenal football shirt, had walked one hour the night before and stayed in the village overnight to ensure he was in line at 6am.

"I will wait until I cast my vote," he said. "I must so that we get a president who can build the country and bring peace. There will be change, we need more schools." UN forces, alongside the Congolese army, were patrolling polling stations in all major towns as well as those areas where militia forces have been active. But even in villages like Buganza there had been no problems.

With 33 presidential candidates it is unlikely that Joseph Kabila, who became president in 2001 after the assassination of his father, will manage to get more than 50 per cent of the vote.

Mrs Masiki will wait in line again outside the school house in Rutshuru. Her nine children have known nothing but dictatorship and war, but she is convinced it will change. "After voting we will have peace and the war will end," she said. "The dream is happiness and peace. It will come."

Front-runners for the presidency

Joseph Kabila

The son of assassinated president Laurent Kabila, the 34-year-old has been heading the transitional government since his father was murdered by a bodyguard in 2001. He is popular in the eastern provinces where he is credited with ending Congo's civil war in 2002. However, his inheritance of the presidency is considered by some to have been illegal.

Jean-Pierre Bemba

Bemba is the main opposition candidate and one of four current vice-presidents. He has been credited with reviving the economy as Finance Minister. The son of a businessman, he has spent £11m on his campaign. He leads the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, a rebel group turned political party whose forces were accused of cannibalism during the civil war.

Oscar Kashala

Oscar Kashala, a 51-year-old, Harvard University-educated doctor, is a political novice. The cancer specialist has traded in his life in Massachusetts, his home for 19 years, to run for president in his homeland. He has played up his role as an outsider, saying that his lack of involvement in the country's violent past and his overseas experience offer a fresh start.