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Congo's Ethnic Divide Hardens, Amid Chaos

In the wake of a rebellion led by Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda, in eastern Congo's North Kivu province, formerly peaceful communities have ruptured along ethnic lines. Congo's minority Tutsi population is increasingly the target of widespread contempt by other ethnic groups. Noel King has more in this report from Goma, DRC.

It is not easy to find an ethnic Tutsi in Mugunga camp, now home to between 25,000 and 30,000 displaced Congolese.

But that is not because Congo's Tutsis are remaining at home. They are simply fleeing elsewhere when fighting between General Laurent Nkunda and the Congolese army erupts.

Congo's communities are trying to cope with growing ethnic divisions that have deepened since Nkunda took up arms against the Congolese government, late last year.

Nkunda says he is trying to protect eastern Congo's Tutsis from Hutu militias, known as the Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), but his claims are widely disputed.

Clement Congo, an elected leader at Mugunga Two Camp, tells VOA ethnicity is a tense subject in North Kivu.

He says they do not have Tutsis or Hutus in Muguna. He says they are all internally displaced people. He says Laurent Nkunda keeps talking about protecting Tutsis, but that is not true. He believes the general has a political agenda.

Some analysts agree and point to the cyclical nature of violence against Congolese Tutsis.

"It's certainly true that the area Nkunda controls, Tutsi live with the kind of freedom and security that they could not find anywhere else in Congo," said Jason Stearns, an independent political analyst in the region. "What, unfortunately is also true, is that there is a lot of anti-Tutsi sentiment in eastern Congo."

Stearns says the problem is that Nkunda's military campaign has sparked even more anti-Tutsi sentiment.

"During his so-called protection of the Tutsi community, he has committed many terrible abuses against other communities that has does nothing but increase hatred toward the Tutsis," Stearns said. "He is a protector but he is also, to a certain extent, the largest threat."

Nkunda says he is trying to avoid a repeat of the Rwandan genocide, in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slain by Hutu militias and by ordinary Rwandans.

But Nkunda's rebellion is not only affecting Tutsis. And, it may auger badly for any attempt at peace in eastern Congo.

Last week, Congo formally agreed to pursue and neutralize the Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which includes in its ranks suspected perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.

Rwanda has repeatedly called on neighboring Congo to disarm the militias and has called Nkunda's rebellion legitimate.

But observers say the recent violence may only spur some Hutu militia members to fight harder.

Phillip Lancaster is the senior officer with the United Nations Mission in Congo Disarmament and Repatriation Program, which has aided in the demobilization of some 10,000 former Rwandan fighters.

He is concerned the violence will prevent militia members from disarming voluntarily.

"Whenever there's tension, collective identity hardens," he said. "And, people start to, out of legitimate fear of attack, they start to bind together and look very closely at each other. I think they start to protect their collective identities."

Humanitarian agencies say they are beginning programs to urge communities to remain cohesive.

Louis Vigneault is a spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Goma.

"We're trying to set up programs to improve interethnic relationships, whether its community radio, whether it's through education programs," he said. "Most of these people used to live side by side in relative harmony, until a few weeks ago. These divisions, we hope, will only be for a short period of time until the conflict is resolved."

But local people say advocacy programs can only go so far.

They say that, to avoid an all-out ethnic war, they may have to turn a blind eye to ethnic differences.