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Conflict Casts Long, Lethal Shadow in Eastern Congo

In a region plagued by conflict, disease and hunger have become deadly enemies for the displaced people of eastern Congo.

"He would tell us we'd have a better life farming," said Amisi Tumusifu, 22, a neighbor. "He was a good man."

When the military operation began this year, soldiers chased the rebels from Busurungi but soon abandoned the village. U.N. peacekeepers mandated to protect civilians did not fill the void, and the rebels returned in a fury, burning hundreds of houses and shooting people as they fled. Mihigo saw his wife and children killed, but he managed to escape with about 20 others, including Tumusifu and Balaluka. He ran off only with the clothes he was wearing: a pair of jeans, a plaid button-down shirt and flip-flops.

The group spent days walking along muddy, rocky footpaths or clearing new ones through tangles of green, at times silently, afraid the rebels might hear. They crossed rivers and eased down slopes, scraping bare arms and ankles. At night, they often slept on leaves.

"We got bitten by so many mosquitoes," Tumusifu said. "When it was raining, we got wet and cold. We were eating like pigs."

If they were lucky, they ate roots and cassava leaves and drank river water. They came upon tiny villages where people would help with a meal, and some in the group would stay behind. After a while, the group dwindled to three -- Tumusifu, Balaluka and Mihigo. They were all getting thinner, especially Mihigo.

"He looked so tired," Tumusifu said. "He was talking about so many things: the war, his children, his wife. To lose your wife and children, it's not simple. I think that created pains in his heart."

Mihigo began complaining of headaches and fatigue, but the three pressed on, finally reaching the village of Ndjingala, about 25 miles from Walikale, in mid-June. A family offered them an 8-by-8-foot room, where they rested a few days. But with no money or family for support, Mihigo, who could not even afford aspirin, decided they had to find work quickly.

"We had no soap, no clothes -- nothing," Balaluka said. "We were tired, but we had no choice."

In this area, one of the few readily available jobs is hauling 100-pound loads of sugar, beer and other supplies on a two-day trek to a huge mining pit, and hauling out loads of the mineral cassiterite, used in cellphones, the illicit profits from which have fueled Congo's conflict for years. And so, for a few dollars per trip, the three exhausted men returned to the jungle as porters.

Mihigo managed for a week or so but was soon too sick to walk. His headaches worsened. He complained of pains in his chest and abdomen. His fever soared until he finally fell unconscious.

Tumusifu and Balaluka carried him to a local health center, which treated him for malaria. But his condition worsened, and nurses transferred him to the government hospital in Walikale. His friends pooled money for transportation and, around noon one recent Monday, carried his frail body into the tent annexed to the hospital: a one-story, whitewashed building shaded by palms and relatively unchanged from when it was built in 1977.

Since February, the hospital has been overwhelmed with thousands of displaced people pouring into Walikale from surrounding villages. They have been treated for free, but by the time Mihigo arrived, the hospital was nearly out of supplies.

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