KIWANJA, Congo -- Julienne Kyakimwa, 34, was picking beans in her family garden when a man emerged suddenly from the jungle with a gun in his hand, a machete on his belt and a menacing look in his eye. The wild-looking man spoke in Kinyarwanda -- the language of terror to many people here -- as he roughly demanded she turn over the beans.
According to Kyakimwa's husband, Alfajiri Kaposo, the attacker and an accomplice -- most likely ethnic Hutus, originally from neighboring Rwanda -- slashed her across the face and arms and left her for dead under a pile of branches before fleeing back into the dense equatorial forest.
Nyota Ndivito, 16, holding her 4-month-old daughter, says members of a feared Hutu militia fatally stabbed her brother in November.
(Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
"The big problem here is people with guns," Kaposo, 38, said just after visiting his wife in a hospital, where she was recovering from her wounds. "I don't feel safe."
A decade after the genocide in Rwanda, as many as 15,000 Hutu guerrillas are still hiding in the forests of eastern Congo, according to U.N. peacekeepers. Remnants of the militias and security forces that carried out the mass slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994 and fled across the border live off the fertile land, steal from villages and wait for the next opportunity to attack Rwanda.
In places such as Kiwanja, a village in North Kivu province 10 miles west of the border, their presence, along with a volatile mix of Congolese soldiers and local militia groups, has kept the border region embroiled in war or on the verge of it for more than a decade.
As local inhabitants describe it, the people with guns are repeatedly attacking civilians, raping women and looting supplies. The most feared and mysterious of the groups is the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia from Rwanda whose name means "those who fight together."
"They have two names: Interahamwe and bandits," said Nyota Ndivito, 16, holding her 4-month-old daughter on her hip. She recounted how three uniformed men emerged from the forest in November and stabbed her brother to death. Asked how she knew the attackers were Interahamwe, she clicked her tongue impatiently. "They are the same," she said.
But the Interahamwe are more than just marauding gangs. According to local and foreign analysts, they are the key to a puzzle of tribal and territorial conflicts that nobody has found a way to resolve.
During the Rwandan genocide, the Interahamwe led the killing of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The slaughter ended when a Tutsi-led rebel force took control of the government and the Interahamwe fled into eastern Congo, entrenching themselves mostly in the large border provinces of North and South Kivu.
They have been there ever since, bolstered by members of Rwanda's former Hutu-led military and evading repeated incursions by the current, Tutsi-led Rwandan armed forces, who seek to destroy them. Congo's two most recent wars began as attempts by Rwanda to eliminate the Interahamwe.
According to groups that monitor them, the Hutus have survived by cultivating land, raiding villages and trading with the Congolese. Over the years, some Interahamwe have married Congolese women, recruited Congolese youths and, in remote areas, revived some of the functions of a withered state bureaucracy by collecting taxes and controlling river crossings.
Although many members act more like brigands than soldiers, analysts said they remain a well-armed fighting force united by a political cause: driving out Rwanda's Tutsi-led government.
Yet their presence also has kept much of the population in fear -- not only of the violent Interahamwe but of further cross-border attacks by Rwanda. As a result, the Congolese government maintains a heavy military presence near the border -- adding more men with guns to the volatile mix. There are also reports that Congo has helped arm the Interahamwe to provide a first line of defense against Rwanda.
The cross-border attacks developed into full-scale war in 1996 and 1998, leaving bitter memories of slaughter, rape and flight. In November, Rwanda again threatened to send troops to finish off the Hutu militants. And in December, two factions of the Congolese military, cobbled together from pro- and anti-Rwanda militias, began fighting each other in North Kivu, driving more than 100,000 people from their homes. Only the intervention of U.N. peacekeepers ended that battle.
"As long as there is Interahamwe, there is always a threat from Rwanda, and as long as there is a threat, there is fear," said Hans Romkema, a consultant in Amsterdam who spent three years in Congo dealing with Hutu militants on behalf of aid groups.
Other analysts said Rwanda had used the Interahamwe as a pretext for maintaining a powerful military that also protects its extensive commercial interests in mineral-rich Congo.
The continuing turmoil is threatening Congo's plans to hold national elections in June, a crucial element of the 2002 peace accord that ended Congo's last war. When the head of the electoral commission suggested several weeks ago that the vote might have to be delayed, riots erupted in Kinshasa, the capital.
A decade of living with violence has taken a physical toll on this lush region. The paved road leading into Kiwanja has crumbled into a rutted dirt track, and a nearby tourist attraction, Virunga National Park, has lost most of its elephants, lions and other wildlife to hungry Hutu poachers. Nowadays, the U.N. force camped in an adjacent town advises against traveling through the park without armed escort.
In addition to aging militiamen, the region's forests contain younger Hutu fighters who did not participate in the Rwandan atrocities or were recruited into the Interahamwe from Congo. Thousands of women and children are also among the nearly 30,000 people that the United Nations estimates are members of the jungle militia.
In April, the United Nations began a voluntary disarmament program that has attracted 60 to 90 Interahamwe a month. Their guns are handed in and destroyed, and the men are turned over to a Rwandan reeducation camp before being sent to their home villages.
"Most of the low ranks, they want to go back," said Maj. Christian Vera, a U.N. official from Uruguay who is involved in the demobilization. He was interviewed in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. "They are tired of living in the bush, eating whatever they can find. They want to find their families and live in their own country."
But many Interahamwe, especially senior members, could be prosecuted for murder if they return to Rwanda. As a result, many residents of eastern Congo are convinced the Interahamwe will leave only if they are forced out.
Justin Atongwe, a Congo government environmental official who lives in Kiwanja, expressed little hope that the Interahamwe or the other militiamen would leave any time soon. If he had the money, he said, he would move away.
In 1998, Atongwe recounted, he was traveling on a road south of town when a group of 20 armed men with disheveled clothes and overgrown beards emerged from the forest. "They looked like animals, like somebody who lives in the bush," he recalled. The men stole his clothes, shoes, luggage and $30 in cash.
That was nearly seven years ago, but little has changed, Atongwe said, laughing softly and looking at the ground.
"In North Kivu," he said, "the war is still there.."