The three World Food Programme (WFP) trucks laden with 34 tonnes of cornmeal, salt, and flour bound for 20,000 displaced civilians in Masisi, a town in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s embattled North Kivu province, had just begun to snake up a steep mountain pass when the convoy ground to a halt - yet again.
Armed peacekeepers from the UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) quickly fanned out across the narrow road, eyeing the dense jungle to the south and waiting tensely for an explanation for the delay.
It soon became clear that one of the trucks was stuck in the mud. A rather mundane setback, it seemed, given that North Kivu is the theatre of clashes between forces loyal to dissident General Laurent Nkunda and the regular Congolese army.
Then the shooting began. A battle had broken out just a few kilometres away.
The convoy had come across clear signs of fighting earlier that morning, when it encountered a stream of villagers fleeing the town of Karuba, most with little more than the clothes on their backs. The lucky ones had managed to grab a bag of cassava plants, a few goats, an umbrella.
Fura Nyamuriha had only her children, scurrying to keep pace with her brisk clip down the mountain. “Fighting began the day before yesterday,” Nyamuriha told IRIN. “The soldiers of Laurent Nkunda are looting food from people’s houses. I have nine children. If this keeps up, I’m finished.”
She and the others were headed for the squalid, teeming camps that have sprung up on the outskirts of Goma, North Kivu’s capital.
The UN estimates that 370,000 people in the province have fled their homes since fighting began between Nkunda’s forces and the army in December 2006.
However, many have decided to brave it out and stay in their villages, a choice that further complicates the delivery of food aid.
At Mushake, a village sympathetic to the Nkunda rebellion, the WFP convoy was stopped by a posse of young men in sunglasses.
They demanded to know why the village had not been given food aid.
After an hour of tense negotiations with various elders, Theodore Kapuku, head of programmes with the WFP in Goma, assured residents that a consignment of food was scheduled to leave Goma for Mushake the following day.
The beleaguered convoy continued on its way, until the soggy, cliff-clinging road brought it to a standstill. After toiling to the sound of gunfire for nearly three hours, mud-spattered truck drivers managed to free the vehicle.
Later that same day, another truck blew a tire, bringing yet another delay.
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“The road condition is very bad and the security situation is very bad,” said Kapuku, summing up the problems that have so hampered humanitarian aid in North Kivu since fighting resumed in earnest in late August.
The WFP estimates as many as 150,000 vulnerable people may be cut off from assistance because of the clashes and rain-sodden roads.
As drivers struggled to change the flat tire, MONUC peacekeepers received more reports of fighting along the road to the west. It began to look like the convoy would not make it before nightfall.
Just outside Masisi, one of the lumbering trucks got stuck in the mud again. A small group of MONUC peacekeepers settled in for the night to guard the food.
The following day, the sacks of aid finally delivered to a distribution centre in Masisi, the convoy was preparing to head back down the mountain when fighting broke out anew, making it impossible to return to Goma.
Five days later, with the convoy still trapped in Masisi, an anti-UN riot erupted in the town centre.
Children streamed out of their homes and schools, shouting and pelting MONUC and WFP trucks with rocks. Several young men wielding machetes roamed the streets.
“MONUC is giving ammunition and uniforms to Laurent Nkunda,” protester Kibanga Kibuya told IRIN, before rushing off to join a crowd of irate youths streaming up the hills towards MONUC local headquarters.
The Congolese police fired into the air to quell the riot but not before the mob reached the MONUC building and demanded to speak to officials.
After tense discussions punctuated by gunshots, most residents returned home.
MONUC peacekeepers in Masisi declined to comment on the incident. But they said the riot was the first of its kind and that relations between peacekeepers and townspeople were generally cordial.
Officials said it was unclear who incited the riot, but suggested it might have been a militia group known as the Mayi Mayi, one of numerous armed groups of shifting loyalties active in North Kivu. Mayi Mayi units are organised around small communities and describe themselves as a sort of civil protection force.
Amid such a confusion of combatants, MONUC, whose UN Security Council mandate includes providing logistical support to the Congolese army, is often accused of taking sides. Nkunda’s followers claim the peacekeepers have fought alongside the regular army, while the dissident general’s foes claim MONUC has given Nkunda military supplies.
MONUC strongly denies any involvement in activities that go beyond its mandate: to prevent violence and promote security; protect civilians and aid workers; monitor military activity; and help to disarm and demobilise foreign and domestic fighters.
Six days after the convoy set off from Goma for a planned two-day round trip, the fighting eased and the trucks made their way down the mountain and back into the provincial capital.
WFP’s Kapuku, displaying a talent for understatement, summed up the task of delivering humanitarian aid in a province riddled by sporadic eruptions of violence and awful roads: “It’s a big job,” he said.