Heart of Africa: From bullets to the ballot

Emerging from a conflict that has killed at least four million people, the Democratic Republic of Congo is going to the polls in its first free elections. Steve Bloomfield reports
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In the oppressive and humid mid-afternoon heat, Lokana Butso, a 35-year old carpenter, stands and waits. He has been here, outside the offices of the electoral commission in the town of Bunia, since early morning. He was also there yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. He will probably be here tomorrow as well.

Mr Butso, like the hundreds of other men and women who stand here, has lost his voting card for the upcoming elections. He is prepared to wait as long as it takes to get a new card because only then will he be allowed to vote. "I came 70km to get my card," said Mr Butso. "And I am not going until they give it to me."

When Mr Butso and about 25 million other Congolese go to the polls on 30 July it will be the first time the Democratic Republic of Congo has actually been democratic. Carved out as the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium, it achieved independence in 1960 under the leadership of the charismatic and popular liberation leader, Patrice Lumumba.

Within six months Lumumba was dead, murdered on the orders of Belgium and the United States. A coup in 1965 brought Joseph-Désiré Mobutu to power. Mobutu, who later "Africanised" his name to become Mobutu Sese Seko, was helped by the CIA, who thought Mobutu would be a strong, pro-West leader.

Over the course of 32 years, Mobutu plundered his country's vast mineral wealth, building himself luxurious palaces and stashing billions into Swiss bank accounts. Meanwhile, his people starved.

A rebellion in the east, led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila and backed by Congo"s neighbours, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, rode a wave of dissent in 1997, eventually sweeping Mobutu from power. Kabila promised elections, but they never came. After four years in power, most of which was spent fighting a new war in the east against his old allies, Kabila was assasinated. His son, Joseph, then just 29, became the world's youngest head of state.

Now, after more than a decade of fighting, which has cost the lives of an estimated four million people - the equivalent of the entire population of Ireland - the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will finally get to choose their leaders.

The UN-run operation is the most expensive and logistically-complicated election in Africa's history. It is costing an estimated $500m (£271m) to register more than 25 million voters, print and deliver ballot papers, and organise 53,000 ballot boxes, many in remote jungles that are several days of precarious travel away from the nearest administrative centre. There are 33 presidential and more than 9,500 legislative candidates for about 269 registered political parties.

Part of the UN process involves teaching people what an election is. Mobutu was officially elected three times during the 1970s and 1980s. At the last election, in 1984, voters were given the choice of publicly picking a green card or a red card. Green meant a vote for prosperity and Mobutu; red was a vote for total destruction. At many polling stations there were not even any red cards available. Mobutu won more than 99 per cent of the vote.

Already in this campaign candidates have bought beer for young men or simply handed out money. Joseph Kabila, who has been the unelected president for the past five years and is the runaway favourite, has a complete monopoly on state television. His campaign rallies have been televised while his opponents struggle for air space.

In the area of Ituri in northeastern Congo, close to the Ugandan border, more than 80 per cent of the population has registered to vote - the highest proportion in the country. The area also saw the largest vote in December, when the DRC overwhelmingly approved the new constitution.

The grey dust in Ituri's administrative capital, Bunia, coats everything, from the fresh mangoes carried on the heads of women walking down the main street to the motorbikes, or "moto-taxis", used by former militia men to ferry people around the town.

Like much of the rest of the country, there are no roads in Bunia, just tracks littered with rocks and three-foot-deep potholes. In a country the size of western Europe, there are just 300 miles of paved road.

Away from Bunia's main streets, families live in mud huts, framed with sticks. There are no doors, and the windows are mere gaps. In a region swamped with malarial mosquitoes, the only bed nets are reserved for the hotels for visiting foreigners. Even then, they are riddled with holes.

Running water is a luxury, and at night the only places lit up are the hotels and the UN compounds.

Armed militia groups stalk the town and its surroundings. Once, the fighting here was tribal. Now, it is more about power and money. Every day brings news of fresh attacks on villages or along stretches of road. On 19 June, two people were killed 38km from Bunia when a bus was attacked. Two days later, one person died after a vehicle was attacked on the same road. The day after, 15 people were abducted when a village was looted 105km from Bunia. No one knows what has happened to the 15 that were taken off into the bush.

The UN forces, made up of troops from the likes of Morocco, Bangladesh and Pakistan, are stretched. There were 17,000 UN troops in Sierra Leone during the 1990s. Ituri, which is the same size, has just 3,000.

For the people of Bunia, there is no chance of forgetting that they live in a war zone. UN troops patrol the town in tanks, while soldiers armed with machine guns sit in look-out posts surrounded by sandbags and barbed wire at every major junction.

Increasingly, the UN forces are carrying out patrols alongside members of the Congolese army, the FARDC. A major part of the preparation for the election has been the integration of the country's numerous militia groups into a single Congolese army. Leaflets have been dropped from UN helicopters urging militia men and women to come out of the sprawling bush land that surrounds Bunia and hand in the weapons. Entire militia groups have taken up the opportunity to join the army, while some individuals have decided to give up fighting and try to return to a normal life.

The disarmament process has not been without its difficulties. Until recently, soldiers were paid just $12 a month. That pay has now doubled, but it rarely arrives on time. Many do not even receive their daily army meal. Soldiers, used to making hundreds of dollars looting villages when in militia groups, find it easy to return to their former habits. It does nothing for the reputation of the new Congolese army when uniformed soldiers meant to protect civilians are instead raping and pillaging. The militias may be disbanding, but fear still stalks the towns and villages of Ituri.

At a disarmament camp to the north of Bunia a truckload of more than 100 militia men and women arrive to be registered. A rag-tag army, some have missing limbs, others look like they haven't eaten for weeks. All still stride and stare like any other soldier.

After registration, they receive new clothes and a hot meal. They will be given a one-off payment of $110, then a further $25 a month for the next year. $400 is awarded at the end of the year to be spent on a project that will, it is hoped, bring them employment.

But in this part of the world a brand new AK-47 can be picked up for as little as $30. No one knows how many men and women turn up with their old weapon, pocket the money and return to the bush with a new gun and a lot of change.

For Mbuchi Charlotte, though, the fighting is over. Her one-year-old daughter, Emani, is on her back, a dirty yellow shawl wrapping mother and child together. Mbuchi, part of the Hema tribe, was dragged into a battle against the region's other main tribe, the Lendu, in 2002. For the past four years she has lived in the bush, with an AK-47 over her shoulder. Even while pregnant, she continued fighting.

"I stopped when I delivered," she said. Mbuchi does not know what she will do for food now she has disarmed, but she is certain of one thing. "I will vote."

John Wapol, smartly dressed in a light blue shirt and cream chinos, has already disarmed. "Life in the bush was not good," he said. "It was difficult. We did not have any food. You have to ambush people and attack people - impossible things - to get food. I still have friends there in the bush. I hope they come out before it is too late."

But having left, he has not found work, nor been able to return to his studies as he had hoped. The situation is the same for his friends who joined him in disarming. Now he fears they may be tempted to return to the militias.

"My family do not eat as we need. I want to go back to school but how will I do that if I don't have a scholarship? People are tired of fighting, but they can go back there."

Mr Wapol's salvation, he believes, will arrive on 30 July. "Things will get better after the election. I will be voting for the first time. This is a big change and we will have a good future."

His hope is shared by those whose lives have been shattered by the tribal warfare and simple looting that has ripped Ituri apart. In the town of Eringeti in North Kivu, just south of Ituri, 65-year-old Samson Awuza, clutches his polling card to his chest. Alongside more than a hundred other people, he fled the village of Aveba four weeks ago after fighting broke out between a militia group and the Congolese army.

Mr Awuza, a pastor, saw at least 10 civilians die. Those who managed to escape fled to another village. Within a fortnight, more fighting forced them to flee again. It took them a further two weeks to reach Eringeti, a town whose population of 25,000 has swelled by an additional 6,000 in recent weeks as people try to escape the violence in Ituri.

Some of the displaced have been welcomed into already cramped homes, others are sleeping in the church or in the fields. There is precious little food and no work. But despite the hardships, Pastor Awuza, is full of hope.

"The election will change everything," he said, to nods and murmurs of agreement from those gathered around him. "The new president will change the country and bring happiness and peace. As soon as he is elected, he will bring peace."

While the UN invests huge amounts of time and effort in the elections, humanitarian groups worry about the aftermath. Not all militia groups have disarmed. There are fears, particularly in eastern Congo, that some political parties who do not do well at the elections will try to hold onto what power they have through their militia groups.

But outside the electoral commission office in Bunia, there is nothing but hope. "Everything will change," said Bosco Bashige, 28. "There will be more businesses, and schools will start again. Everything will get better. Civil servants will get paid, roads will be built. Insecurity still prevails here, but I will vote so that insecurity will end."

As Lokana Butso's long wait for a new voting card reaches the end of another day, his optimism is unbowed. "We are suffering. People don't have jobs - they only join militias for money. We need a president who can take care of the country and find jobs. I know we will get him. I know things will get better."