In late 2007, government and rebel fighters resumed fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, struggling for control of hills in the eastern part of the country and forcing hundreds of thousands of Congolese from their homes. With a political solution seemingly untenable, the situation risks turning into an international conflict, bringing in neighboring countries. Selah Hennessy reports for VOA from the regional capital Goma.
Two weeks ago, government forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo launched a major offensive against renegade troops based in the eastern province, North Kivu.
In the latest outbreak of fighting in a decade of violence, the rebels have repeatedly defeated the largely undisciplined and untrained government soldiers and now hold a stronger position than before the offensive began.
For the past 10 years, the civilian population here has been the main victim of the fighting. Many cannot count the number of times they have been forced to flee, with their worldly possessions on their back, their homes and farmland left behind.
Like ants, they walk in rows miles long, fleeing the violence, looking for safety.
Some find refuge in displacement camps, others with host families. But many are forced to sleep outside, in the cold, without food or shelter. Many are robbed by roaming fighters; many are raped.
The conflict goes back to neighboring Rwanda's genocide, in which almost one-million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred. The Hutu perpetrators of that genocide, including a group known as Interhamwe, and more than a million Hutu refugees fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1994.
Two years later, Rwanda's Tutsi-led government supported a rebel movement in Congo determined to wipe out the former Interahamwe and other perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.
The rebel movement kicked off the first of two civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Both wars have revolved around the Hutu refugees living in Congo. Both have also revolved around Congo 's extensive supply of rich mineral resources. The potential to exploit those resources has brought many of Congo 's neighbors into the conflict.
The last civil war officially ended in 2003 and elections were held in 2006, but ethnic tensions remain.
Researcher Aloys Tegera of Goma's independent Pole Institute, says the rebels, led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda, want to bring home about 40,000 ethnic Tutsis who fled Congo between 1994 and 1996, when the Hutu refugees arrived.
"What happened in northern Kivu? All the Tutsi elements of northern Kivu were chased away by ex-Interahamwe who arrived in July 1994," he said. "Since then most of these people have been living in camps in Rwanda . We estimate between 40,000 to 60,000 official refugees [from Congo] are in camps in Rwanda ."
Tegera says the rebels also want to disarm and deport Rwandan Hutu militiamen, known as FDLR, who include ex-Interhamwe and leaders of the genocide. A 2006 peace agreement called for the rebels to join the national army and together both forces would push the FDLR out of Congo.
"An entire community was ethnically purified. In the end, the Tutsi community here does not trust anyone," he said. "Part of the negotiation was, 'Let us have a joint force that can fight this FDLR. Once the territories of Ritshuru, Masisi, northern Kivu have got rid of this FDLR, who is a danger to our population, we will be ready to go somewhere else.' Before then I do not think so."
In August, the agreement fell apart.
The government wants Nkunda's men to integrate fully into the army, which means some would be deployed outside North Kivu. The government also says Nkunda only wants to exploit the mineral and farmland-rich eastern province.
Nkunda says he wants his men to stay in North Kivu to fight the FDLR.
Congo President Joseph Kabila says he will not negotiate, but his army of 20,000 troops does not appear able to defeat the insurgency.
The United Nations has 4,500 peacekeepers in North Kivu and a mandate to protect the population, but they have not taken part in direct combat. Congo's government and many civilians say the U.N. force is not doing enough to fulfill its mandate.
U.N. aid representative Louis-Etienne Vigneault says Congo's population is suffering more now than since the civil war officially ended four years ago.
"We have now reached 437,000 new IDPs [internally displaced people] in a year. That is concerning numbers. Already this year we have more new IDPs than Darfur had in one year, so it has really gotten worse," he said. "Back in August we were at 225,000. So in roughly four months we got more than 200,000 more."
Vigneault says the displaced are facing serious security risks.
"These new IDPs face serious protection issues, because there is very little presence to ensure security and basic protection for these IDPs; so they face lootings, recruitment for forced labor, sexual violence, all those sort of protection issues that are caused by various armed groups that are present in the area," he added.
Vigneault says the numbers now exceed the capacity of aid organizations and local communities to take care of the displaced.
The U.N. Security Council is voting this month on whether or not to renew the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo.