Rwanda and Uganda have pulled most of their troops out of eastern Congo in recent weeks, fulfilling agreements intended to facilitate an end to Congo Kinshasa's four-year war. But the rapid departure of troops has created a power vacuum in the region that is igniting fresh fighting and instability.
At a small transit camp in the eastern Congo city of Goma, nearly two dozen boys, ranging from age 13 to 17, sit and wait in makeshift tents, dreaming of the day they can go home to their families.
They have spent the past four years as frontline soldiers for various rebel groups and armed militias in a war that has involved six countries and has so far taken more than two million lives. Some of the boys volunteered to become soldiers, thinking they would have a better chance to survive. Others, like 15-year-old Mboyo Wachodala, were kidnapped and forced to take up arms.
Mboyo says he was coming home from school one day. He was only 11-years-old at the time. A group of armed Congolese men asked him to help them carry some bags. He says the men then seized him and told him he had to join them in the fight to liberate the country from foreign invaders.
As part of an agreement reached in April between the government in Kinshasa and Congo's three main rebel groups, Mboyo and 5,000 other boys throughout the country have been given the opportunity to put down their guns and go home.
Hundreds of boys from the western side of Congo, where the situation is now relatively stable, have returned to their villages. But aid workers say it may be months before Mboyo and many others from eastern Congo can go home, because the security situation in most parts of the east is even worse now than during the height of the war.
Robert Dekker is the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nation's World Food Program in Goma. "The situation now is worse than ever. When we saw the Rwandans and the Ugandans pull back and there was no one to replace them, we were thinking already that there might be a security vacuum and what we see now is not a surprise for us," he said.
In northeastern Congo near the border with Uganda, ethnic fighting in the mineral-rich Ituri region began intensifying three months ago. The region was patrolled by the Ugandan army before most of those troops withdrew last month. Hundreds of people have reportedly been killed and up to 40,000 displaced from renewed fighting.
Recent U.N. reports have accused several high-ranking Ugandan military leaders of using the war to plunder natural resources from areas under their control.
Aid workers say there are reports that before Uganda withdrew most of its 2,000 men from northeastern Congo, it armed several rival ethnic groups in the region. Some Congolese believe Uganda is determined to create instability and use it as an excuse to send its troops back into eastern Congo and take over mineral-rich areas. Uganda denies the charge.
The head of intelligence of the Ugandan People's Defense Force, Noble Mayombo, says accusations of Ugandan efforts to stir up ethnic trouble are false. "We resist any statement that the UPDF (Ugandan People's Defense Force) has been fuelling it. On the contrary, we have a written request from the United Nations requesting our forces to remain in the Congo until another force can be found to fill that vacuum," he said.
About 350 kilometers west of Goma in Kindu, the withdrawal of Rwandan troops has sharply escalated tension. In that region, a loose coalition of Congolese fighters called the Mai Mai is fighting the rebel faction that controls the area, the Rwandan-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy, better known as RCD Goma.
The United Nations says it has received reports that both sides have targeted civilians. One report says after a clash in mid-September, the Mai Mai burned alive about 80 civilians, mostly women and children, for unknown reasons.
The Mai Mai claim to be fighting a patriotic war against foreigners in Congo Kinshasa. Their movement began prior to Congo's independence from Belgium in 1960 and they have long had backing from the government. But Rwanda and its ally, RCD Goma, say the men who make up the Mai Mai now are simply killers and bandits backed by the Congo-Kinshasa government of President Joseph Kabila.
The Justice Minister and acting-president of RCD Goma, Moise Nyarugabo says if President Kabila continues to send the Mai Mai to fight his forces, it could destabilize the entire country.
"The message is that it is not possible to destabilize the RCD without destabilizing eastern Congo. It is also not possible to destabilize eastern Congo without destabilizing the whole Congo," he said.
The RCD Goma also charges that President Kabila is trying to forge an alliance between the Mai Mai and the Interahamwe. The Interahamwe are former Rwandan soldiers and Hutu militiamen who conducted the 1994 genocide of Rwandan Tutsis and then fled into the Congo. President Kabila denies the charge.
Humanitarian and human rights groups say the government-supported Mai Mai pose a grave threat to eastern Congo's long-term peace prospects.
World Food Program official Robert Dekker says, "There are loads of Mai Mai groups everywhere. They are not a formal organization at all. Groups form around a local leader. You can not call them rebels because they are nationalists. But at the same time, they are a very destabilizing factor for the whole east."
One potential battle area is in south Kivu Province. RCD Goma says another major battle with the Mai Mai and its allies, the Interahamwe, could break out any day.
The complex web of local groups and their domestic and foreign supporters is continuing to foster instability and violence in Eastern Congo. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has threatened to send his army back into Congo if his allies inside Congo continue to be attacked by rival groups.
Meanwhile, former child-soldier Mboyo Wachodala waits impatiently for peace so that he can go home to his family. "I have been a soldier in a terrible war and it is not what children should be involved in," Mboyo says. Choking back tears, he says his greatest wish is to just be a boy going to school again.