Democratic Republic of Congo: Crying freedom

After years of conflict that claimed at least four million lives, the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo are preparing for the country's first ever free elections. But can they rid themselves of their tragic history?
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Esther nonchalantly takes a drag on her cigarette, while her friends do her hair. Sat on the muddy grass in the Matonge district in central Kinshasa, she is preparing for another night working the streets of the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital city as a prostitute.

Esther is just nine. In her short life, she has known nothing but war and conflict. Even now, three years after a peace agreement was signed between Congo's warring tribes, armed militia groups stalk the country.

While Kinshasa is relatively calm, the effects of war - and the diseases and famine which continuous conflict bring - are still widely felt. More than half of Kinshasa's eight million people are under the age of 15. Many of the poorest girls, like Esther, are forced into prostitution, making barely enough to feed themselves. While a fortunate élite enjoys western-style luxury, the majority need humanitarian aid to make it through the day.

But for once, Congolese people believe they have reason to hope. Right now, the country is in the grip of election fever. Campaign posters for presidential candidates adorn kiosks and homes from Kinshasa, in the west, to Goma on the Rwandan border, 3,000 miles to the east.

In a country ripped apart by a series of bloody tribal and ethnic conflicts that have cost more than four million lives in the past 10 years, the Congolese people are finally united over one thing - the desire to vote, and with it the hope that democracy may bring peace.

On 30 July, more than 25 million registered voters will head to the polls to choose a president and elect a national assembly. The last time elections took place here, in 1965, the result was overturned by a US-backed coup which brought Mobutu Sese Seko to power.

After 32 years of kleptocratic rule, which did a lot for Mobutu's bank balance but little for his people, he was forced to flee. A rebellion in the east, led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila and backed by Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda, swept the country. When Kabila was assasinated in 2001, his son, Joseph, became the world's youngest head of state at just 29.

Joseph Kabila, now portrayed by Congo's state-run media as a strong yet benevolent leader, is the overwhelming favourite, mainly because he is the only candidate with name recognition - particularly useful in an election with 33 presidential candidates and 9,500 legislative candidates from 269 parties. f

Any country that feels the need to put the word "democratic" in its name tends to have rather shaky representative credentials - and the DRC's history suggests it will not be easy. But the international community has invested much time and money ($500m at the last count) on ensuring these elections take place.

The eventual winner will be faced with an enormous task. Infrastructure here is non-existent. In a country the size of western Europe there are just 300 miles of paved road. A UN peacekeeping force of 17,000 patrols Congo's towns and dense jungle trying to keep a lid on the actions of the armed militias.

But the challenges for the new president are not necessarily impossible. No country in the world has as much untapped potential as Congo. Its vast natural resources have been used and abused for centuries by both the West and its central African neighbours. Portuguese explorers, who first arrived at the mouth of the Congo River in 1482, were soon kidnapping men and women in their thousands and shipping them off to plantations in Brazil and North America to work as slaves.

The plunder of Congo has continued unabated ever since. Under Mobutu, western mining companies were given unfettered access to gold and diamonds, paying workers a pittance and exporting the wealth for a criminally low price. While the Congolese population suffered in squalor, Mobutu stashed billions into Swiss bank accounts.

The country's enormous gold and diamond reserves are well documented. Now cobalt, used in mobile phones, remote controls and computer-games consoles, is proving more lucrative than any stone found here before. But as with gold and diamonds, the wealth that cobalt creates never leaves the pockets of the international mining companies and the ruling classes who handed over the contracts. If they can finally be used to benefit the people instead of the élites, the DRC could become the richest country in the whole of Africa.

It is a big "if". Meanwhile, the election debate threatens to be about little more than which candidate is the most patriotic. Militia groups in the east continue to attack towns and villages, and there are fears that violence may even increase after the election result is known.

And every day in this beautiful but troubled land, children like Esther turn to prostitution just so they can afford to eat.