Congo: a touch of hope in the war without end

UN sends in 3,000 more troops as UK charities launch disaster appeals

A man cradles his son as he stares intensely at the camera; the baby, secure in the strong arms of his father, playfully touches the man's mouth with an outstretched finger. Only the rough bandages swaddling the legs of the chubby infant tell a bigger story, the story of a war without end, and of those men, women, ordinary families, caught up in the fighting in eastern Congo.

The nine-month-old son of Ngarambe Rukambika, 49, was shot in the leg at the height of the fighting. These are just two individuals in a dramatic and worsening humanitarian crisis that has drawn the world's attention since their photograph, released yesterday by Médecins Sans Frontières, was taken outside a hospital in Masisi, North Kivu, in August.

With armed men in all directions, few refugee camps left standing and a handful of UN peacekeepers hemmed into their bases, far away from the fighting – recent weeks have offered no good choices for people such as Ngarambe and his boy.

Yet, three months after this baby was shot and – mercifully – survived, there is at last a sliver of hope for the people who live in the midst of a war with shifting lines of engagement that wash up and down Eastern Congo, driving thousands of the civilian population from their homes as they go. Last night, the UN voted to send more peacekeepers to help the victims of a conflict that has relentlessly denied families like this any respite. At the same time, British charities joined forces to launch an emergency appeal for medicines and supplies.

The UN agreement, unanimously voted at a meeting of the Security Council in New York means 3,100 more troops will be dispatched. The UN peacekeeping mission, Monuc, is already the largest of its kind in the world with 17,000 soldiers but that covers an area equivalent to much of Europe and amounts to only 6,000 in the warring zone between the lakes of North and South Kivu.

The theatre in which the extra troops will operate is one where the UN mission, to date, has won no supporters and made no obvious, positive impact. Yet, everyone agrees that they need reinforcement.

The southernmost line of the battle lies just outside the city of Goma. It is the entrance to the renegade General Laurent Nkunda's new realm and a steep climb out of the city, away from Lake Kivu and over fields of black lava rock.

All that divides the renegade general's forces and the remains of the Congolese army guarding the city below is a wooden roadblock. There are no UN peacekeepers in sight. Their final outpost sits on a rock shelf below where their white armoured personnel carriers are circled like wagons.

Only a strong stone's throw away are the lines of General Nkunda's forces. Their cleaner uniforms, shiny boots and the absence of a blue epaulette are the only signs of a change of armies.

At the first post, a young soldier slouches on a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, its explosive cased in plastic, giving it the appearance of a toy. Flowing past the soldiers in both directions is a human traffic. Some are heading back to their former homes, others braving this no-man's-land to bring food from the fields of Kibumbu to sell in Goma.

The extra UN troops – to be drawn mainly from the armies of Senegal, Kenya and Angola– will operate in a battlefield of warring acronyms: CNDP, the Tutsi forces of General Nkunda; FARDC, the Congolese army; FDLR, the Rwandan Hutu militia; and the Mai-Mai, another amorphous militia.

The current vacuum has been filled for now by the CNDP, who are determined to project a new air of calm. They are led by the Tutsi general who claims he is only acting to protect his people from Hutu extremists bent on continuing the fight that began with the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

Inside General Nkunda's territory the markets are starting to operate again, there are uniformed police and there are plans for an anthem and a flag. There are also – officials insist – no refugees or displaced people. Around the town of Rutshuru that recently sheltered nearly 15,000 refugees, there is little or no sign that they were ever there. Dumes camp which housed 4,000 people last month has been razed, its clinics dismantled.

Many of those who have fled are believed to be among the 50,000 people in Kibati camp, a bleak forest of tents pitched on the volcanic rock between the lines of CNDP and government forces outside Goma. No one is sure where all the others fled to.

But more are being forced to flee every day. Yesterday was the turn of the people of Kinyandoni, nine kilometres north of the village of Kiwanja.

The fighting started in the early morning. Hundreds ran from the advance of the feared Mai-Mai. In Kinyandoni, a crowd gathered around young men wearing filthy football shirts and carrying AK-47s. In the middle sits Paluku Djanks. He says he is their local leader and claims he is from Kiwanja. They are fighting the CNDP to protect the villages, he says.

They are "not the Mai-Mai" that the CNDP claim, they are local boys who rose up to fight, Djanks insists, after being abandoned by their own government last month. Then, many villagers scatter – little children running for their lives. More of the young fighters arrive, several of them dangerously drunk or high.

The fighters clutch their noses – a gesture to communicate that they are Hutus looking for Tutsis. Scared faces start to look for somewhere to hide and it is time to leave.

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