Months of unrelenting militia attacks in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are driving more people from their homes, adding to the millions already displaced and threatening to spread insecurity elsewhere in Africa's Great Lakes region, observers warn.
This week, people fleeing the conflict lugged small children and possessions as they trekked across the DRC's eastern border into Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
They fault the Mai Mai, a general name for the scores of armed fighting groups that have engaged in ethnic clashes for decades. Since May, attackers have burned about 160 villages of Banyamulenge ethnic Tutsis, killed at least 200 people, stolen cattle that provide their livelihoods, and forced more than 200,000 to flee, according to Congo Today, a nonprofit group that promotes peace and reconciliation among Congolese tribes.
"They say they do not want to see people of our ethic background," a Congolese Tutsi woman told VOA on Monday as she tried to quiet her wailing children. She said they had walked for two weeks to reach safety in the southern Uganda town of Bunagana.
"We are innocent; we have done nothing against them," said the woman, who did not wish to disclose her identity. "They say that they do not want to hear us speak in this language; that we are not Congolese."
Uganda appeals for help
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 4.5 million people are displaced in the DRC's Kasai, Tanganyika, Ituri and Kivu regions, with "hundreds of thousands more" fleeing to Angola, Zambia and other neighboring countries.
Uganda harbors more than 1 million refugees — including 384,000 Congolese, some 48,000 of whom have arrived this year — according to a spokesman for the UNHCR's operations there.
On Monday, Ecweru Musa Francis, the Ugandan cabinet minister in charge of refugees, told VOA his country was exhausting its ability to adequately care for refugees. He appealed for more aid and relief supplies from the international community.
Meeting of military leaders
With an eye toward regional security, military leaders from Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda met last week in the DRC's eastern border town of Goma. They were expected to commit to a joint operation against rebel forces, but they didn't come to terms.
Some Congolese blame DRC authorities for their country's insecurity.
"It is the government that is finishing us," Muhire Meshach, an ethnic Tutsi chief of South Kivu's Mibunda area, told an Oct. 7 gathering of central and local government officials, the Congolese army and a representative of MONUSCO, the U.N.'s stabilizing force in the DRC.
Meshach's comments were captured by the Mulenge Press Channel, based in the DRC's South Kivu province, and shared on YouTube.
Inamahoro Inarukundo echoed the chief's sentiment. A nurse at the Mikarati Health Center in South Kivu, she told VOA's Central Africa Service as she was fleeing the community on foot: "We have realized that the government is our first enemy. They help and provide ammunition to those who are killing us. They stand by and watch instead of defending their citizens."
Warnings of more strife
A Congolese parliamentarian disputes that notion.
Speaking on VOA's "Straight Talk Africa" last week, Lambert Mende said, "If those allegations are true, I would say such an officer is not fit to serve in the government's forces."
Mende is a former DRC communications minister who is now a member of the United Congolese Convention, part of the ruling coalition. He warned that foreign influence could heighten instability in the region.
"When a domestic dispute occurred, some people who are not implicated locally trying to serve foreign interests joined in. If we do not clear these issues, it will become a real furnace that nobody will be able to extinguish," he said on the program.
Another "Straight Talk" speaker, Jean-Paul Ruhosha of Congo Today, also warned of an increasing humanitarian crisis if the attacks continue.
"We call upon the government and the international community to intervene immediately," he said.
This report originated with VOA's Central Africa Service. Geoffrey Mutagoma reported from Washington, with Vedaste Ngabo contributing from South Kivu Province in the DRC and Ignatius Bahizi contributing from Kampala, Uganda.