Following the departure of tens of thousands of Rwandan and Ugandan troops from eastern Congo in recent weeks, humanitarian and human rights groups are worried about a sharp increase in the numbers of ethnic clashes and massacres in various parts of the country.
The thick green forest that forms the boundary between Ituri and North Kivu Provinces is teeming with frightened men, women, and children. Half-starved and dressed in little more than rags, they jump out on the road as vehicles drive by, pleading for rides. Most of them are Lendus, who say they have fled their villages in Ituri to escape a bloody campaign being waged against them by their traditional enemy, the Hemas.
One man named Jabu describes how the Hemas have formed militias and are gaining strength in areas around northeastern Congo.
Mr. Jabu says all Hema men, and even young boys, are being forced to join the militias and fight. He says the Hemas and the Lendus have been fighting for a long time over issues like land and water. But in the old days, fights that broke out between communities rarely lasted more than a day. Now, Mr. Jabu says, the Lendus are facing an army of well-armed soldiers.
In the nearby village of Eringeti, the U.S.-based Christian aid organization, World Vision, is trying to register people displaced by the renewed fighting as quickly as it can. More than 2,000 of them are at this food distribution station. Dozens more are arriving by the hour.
But the suffering is not limited to just one side. At another aid station 35 kilometers away, hundreds of Hema refugees tell stories of being viciously hunted down by angry Lendus and their tribal ally, the Mungiti.
Ernest Biaruhanga is a Hema farmer who says he hid in the forest for a month to avoid being killed.
The Lendus and the Mungiti began attacking our villages with machetes and pangas, Mr. Biaruhanga says. They even came looking for us in the forest. He says he has seen fighting between the groups before, but it has never been like this.
Last month, a U.N. panel of experts investigating the illegal exploitation of resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo blamed neighboring Uganda for inciting the latest ethnic strife in this region.
Uganda recently pulled most of its 2,000 troops out of the country ending a four-year military occupation of the northeast. But several Ugandan-backed Congolese rebel factions remain active in the region.
Among these factions are newly-formed Hema militias. The United Nations believes the Ugandan army has given the Hemas large quantities of weapons to help operate and protect the army's vast economic interests in the area. The world body alleges the Hemas are working as truck drivers and exporters, facilitating the transport of Congolese resources, such as timber and gold, across the border into Uganda.
The U.N. panel also accuses the Ugandan army of providing weapons to some Lendus in an effort to stir up enough ethnic trouble to justify a new occupation of eastern Congo, so officers can expand their plundering of the country's resources.
Other countries, including Rwanda, are also reported to be involved.
The human rights group, Amnesty International, says it fears the grab for Congo's mineral wealth by its neighbors will continue to destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
Godfrey Byaruhanga is a researcher for the London-based organization.
For example, there have been people targeted and killed by combatant forces who have been trying to seize those minerals. There have been numerous cases of torture and disappearances, so this is even more worrying than just simply the plunder.
The U.N. plunder report names Uganda's military intelligence chief, Noble Mayombo, as one of several high-ranking military leaders involved in illegal commercial activities in Congo. Mr. Mayombo says the allegations against him and other Ugandan leaders have not been proven, and he denies arming ethnic groups.
"Our army has been around for sometime and it has an impeccable record," he noted. "We had a directive from the president of Uganda never to involve ourselves in any business in the Congo. No doubt the Lendus have been killing people. Some Hema militias have also killed people. We have done our best to contain that situation."
Humanitarian groups, like World Vision and the U.N. World Food Program, say they are dismayed to see the cycle of violence continuing in eastern Congo, despite intense international efforts to mediate a peace deal to end Africa's biggest and most complicated war.
The conflict started in 1998 when Rwanda and Uganda accused then-President Laurent Kabila of harboring Hutu militiamen who carried out the Rwandan genocide four years earlier. The war has involved the armies of six neighboring countries and has left the population prey to a host of competing armed groups. More than two million people have died and another two million have been displaced throughout the country.
World Food Program official Robert Dekker says the humanitarian crisis is most critical in eastern Congo, where an estimated 620,000 people, about 16 percent of Congo's entire population, are displaced because of warfare. The WFP estimates about 100,000 are from the Ituri region and Mr. Dekker says he fears the situation there could get even worse.
"The situation in Ituri at the moment is so complex, I can only see the top of the iceberg. If nobody intervenes, this could be a genocide," Mr. Dekker said.
Refugees at the feeding station in Eringeti say the killings in Ituri are becoming more frequent and brutal as the Hemas and the Lendus acquire more modern weapons.
A local church pastor says he is taking care of one Lendu family whose village, near the city of Bunia, was attacked by Hema fighters in August. The family told him 110 people in the village were shot and hacked to death within a matter of minutes.