In Congo, Drunken Gunfire Ruptures a Tense Calm

Tens of thousands of refugees displaced by fighting in eastern Congo are desperate for food rations and other international aid.

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 10, 2008

KIBATI, Congo, Nov. 9 -- Separated by a bushy no man's land of about half a mile, rebels and government soldiers in this simmering part of eastern Congo spent a good part of Sunday bored and drunk.

Loitering along the edges of a muddy camp of 50,000 displaced people in this village, wobbly Congolese soldiers -- AK-47 assault rifles and bullets slung over both shoulders -- began shooting erratically into the air and into the ground Sunday afternoon.

"You have to capture them!" one commander yelled during a moment of panicked confusion, his speech slurred, his breath alcoholic, his two guns pointed in different directions. "If someone is drunk and shooting, you have to shoot them!"

As aid workers struggled to contain a cholera outbreak in the camp, soldiers who are supposed to be protecting civilians and facilitating humanitarian assistance were busy fighting among themselves.

A few villagers ran for cover. Most just sat in their tents or wood-slat houses, enduring what has become an evening routine of random shooting since their army retreated from a major rebel advance into this area just outside the provincial capital of Goma.

"They usually shoot every day like this," said Jean-Didier Hakizimana, 20, who watched from the side of the road as several soldiers began brawling in the street. "Just look at our army. They start drinking local beer. Then they start shooting."

A miserable calm has taken hold here since rebels fought their way to the doorstep of Goma less than two weeks ago, sending about 250,000 people fleeing their homes and reviving fears that this vast Central African nation could slip into all-out war again.

Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, who has close ties to neighboring Rwanda, has long said he is fighting to protect eastern Congo's minority Tutsi population from Hutu militias who fled into the region following the 1994 Rwandan genocide and have never been disarmed. More recently, Nkunda has vowed to "liberate" all of Congo, and following a major territorial grab, he is demanding direct negotiations with Congolese President Joseph Kabila.

But Kabila has refused. And despite calls by U.N. officials and other African leaders for the implementation of a peace deal struck this year, the situation remains tense.

Rebels and government soldiers fought on Thursday just north of here. On both sides of the no man's land, there appeared to be more soldiers than there were when Nkunda declared a cease-fire Oct. 29.

On Sunday, rebels in green berets patrolled their newly acquired territory just up the road from here. Guns on shoulders, they walked through villages they now administer, stopping to lean in the doorways of one-story shops or sit in front of vacant houses.

Many seemed on high alert. Others, apparently, were just high.

"When I saw how government soldiers were mistreating my people, I was obliged to join" the rebels, said Odinga Pascal, a commander who had taken shelter from a tropical downpour in a tented school. His eyes blinked slowly; his breath smelled toxic. "I want to liberate my people," he slurred.

Many villagers along the rebel-controlled corridor said they were happy to be rid of government soldiers who had menaced them relentlessly for months. But many also said they were unsure what new menace the rebels might bring.

"So far, nothing bad has happened," said Paul Buhatsi, a farmer who had just returned home after fleeing fighting last week. "But maybe in the future, that will change."

U.N. officials are investigating an alleged massacre of civilians in the village of Kiwanja, about 50 miles north of Goma, where Nkunda's rebels and local militias recently battled for control.

Residents there were first terrorized by a local militia known as the Mai Mai, whose members killed people they accused of supporting the rebels, according to U.N. officials. When the rebels won control of the village, they began to kill people accused of supporting the Mai Mai.

U.N. investigators say at least 26 people were killed, although the group Human Rights Watch is investigating reports of more than 50 dead.


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