In 1998 war broke out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Within weeks six other countries had been drawn into the conflict and scores of militias had sprung up in a battle for resources and regional power.
By May 2003 most foreign troops had been withdrawn but scores of armed groups remained.
Countless millions of people have been displaced, denied an education or access to health care. As many as four million people have lost their lives.
Those left behind have no one else but God to call on for help.
“Congo has fallen into the hands of the Devil! But if we return it to the hands of God, magnificent things will happen. Gold help us. Amen.”
At Mongbwalu mine, in the northeastern district of Ituri, beneath the soils and hard labour of these young men and boys, lies Congo’s curse – Gold.
Rich in natural resources way beyond the dreams of most developing countries, these specks of yellow dust should be Congo’s saviour.
But instead, these riches have spelt its ruin.
In the last 8 years alone Mongbwalu and its miners have at different times been under the control of two foreign armies, and two opposing militias – all drawn here by the chance to enrich themselves at the cost of others.
Ngabu Adirodu, has been mining here since he was 14. For him, Ituri’s gold just isn’t worth the trouble. (50 SECONDS)
“This is the reason why every year, every day, we have war and rebellions here in Ituri.
Because of this, we have war and suffering”.
But with no other job to turn to, and no other means of supporting their families, these men have little choice but to keep turning the clay of Mongbwalu in search of a lucky strike.
No group has suffered more in Congo’s wars than her women.
This local NGO runs programmes for women widowed or otherwise brutalized by the conflict.
Here they are taught to sew and when finances allow, given material to work with.
But despite their best efforts, the fabric of Congolese society is still being torn apart.
Violence against women is now so commonplace in Ituri, that rape has become not only a weapon of war, but an everyday fact of life.
This woman was brutally gang-raped just a few days before giving this interview.
As a counselor of rape victims herself, she thinks that she was deliberately targeted by men who don’t like the idea of women’s rights.
On a dark moonless night at the end of May she and her children had just settled down to sleep when five armed men kicked down the door and burst into their house.
Demanding money, they looted her property before tearing off her and her children’s clothes.
Then they forced her outside - and although she tried her best to muffle her screams - her young children could hear only too well, the terrible sound of their mother being raped. (1.30)
“I know this is painful but you must be strong. With our help, little by little, you will feel better.
“It can happen to any of us – in fact, we are all waiting our turn.”
That the women of Ituri enjoy any security at all in and around the capital Bunia, is largely due to the presence of United Nations peacekeepers.
But these forces, operating under the banner of MONUC, the UN peacekeeping operation in the Congo, are spread thin on the ground.
Here in Ituri, their efforts have been largely focused on breaking the control of the militia’s over local populations.
Beginning in 2005, MONUC forces started combing the countryside to find, and disarm militia members.
Supported by a government amnesty, large numbers of fighters gave themselves up and surrendered their weapons.
Hundreds of ex-militia have been assisted through reintegration programmes – some now drive motorcycle taxis on the streets of Bunia.
But many more simply went back into the bush after receiving compensatory payments, and rejoined the militias.
These militias started out as self-defence groups, but have evolved over the years into groups motivated not by politics, but by economic gain.
Much of Ituri remains under their control.
As a consequence, danger levels for aid workers are high and bulletproof jackets a wise precaution.
And with many roads considered too dangerous to travel without military escort, UN helicopters are a common mode of transport.
This mission is headed to the village of Aveba, recently recaptured from the militia by Congolese Army soldiers, or FARDC, acting with the support of MONUC troops.
The aid workers want to know more about the condition of the civilian population in the area and fearing the worst, they’ve brought boxes of high-energy biscuits to feed the hungry.
But on the ground, a different reality sinks in. Aveba is deserted.
All around, houses lie empty, abandoned by a population fleeing one armed group after another.
Irene Schmid works in Ituri for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. (2.15)
“Well, a year ago here in Aveba, this place was teeming with people that had come back. So less than 12 months later, the place is abandoned - you can’t find a single civilian.
“It’s pretty typical for this area, because things shift very quickly with military operations.
And as if to prove her point, gunfire suddenly rings out from the nearby hills.
“There is some firing going on.”
So the Pakistani commander scrambles some APCs to try and find the source of the shooting.
Across the valley on a nearby hilltop, the peacekeepers can see smoke.
Major Obeid is MONUCs commanding officer on the ground - what does he think is the cause of the fire? (0.36)
“ FARDC has reached there. They are there. They might – I’m not sure - have come across some militia who fired those rounds. And now they are burning those bushes which might have been the hideout of that militia.”
|FILM: Congo's Curse
Photo: Khristopher Carlson/IRIN
|In 1998 war broke out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Since then, countless millions of people have been displaced, denied an education or access to health care. As many as four million people have lost their lives. (July 2006)
View the Film
Congo’s fate now lies in the hands of its new army, but FARDC soldiers are constantly accused of human rights abuses and the evidence all around suggests that something more than bushes might be burning.
Modibo Traore runs the United Nations coordination office in Ituri.
He says that the FARDC represents almost as big a threat to the civilian population as do the militias. (0.28)
“They are misbehaving, harassing people, looting things from the population, raping women, and killing people in different places. This is part of the problem here in Ituri.”
With night closing in the mission makes its way back to Bunia.
A few kilometers south of Bunia, civilians who have fled the area around Aveba, listen out for news of home.
Some were displaced to this makeshift camp by militia, others fled FARDC reprisals.
This man used to be a schoolteacher - now he spends his days tending a tiny plot of land.
The war, he says, has left civilians with nowhere to turn. (0.40)
“Your are right. We are as afraid of the FARDC as the militia. If we face the militia we face death.
“If we fall into their hands they will not hesitate to execute us, accusing us of collaborating with the army.
“‘You have good relations with the FARDC.’ ‘Therefore, you are traitors,’ they say.
“But if you fall into the hands of the FARDC, then they accuse us of being militia.”
“That’s why the population is terrified.”
Ex-president Mobutu once asked his soldiers why they needed salaries when they had guns, and in this regard, his legacy lives on.
The international community has provided money, materiel and expertise to the FARDC, but the army remains poorly trained, under funded and badly equipped.
For the FARDC in Ituri, a lot of time is spent out in the villages and forests trying to flush out militia members, often indistinguishable from the general population.
Back in Bunia, FARDC troops and police units gather for evening parade before heading out on night patrol.
Today the police chief has come to issue a few words of warning to his men. (0.45)
“Do you understand?
“You are here for the security of the population, and their property. OK?”
Measures are afoot to boost the image and morale of the Congolese security forces, but it is not clear to what extent these efforts have been effective.
Residents of Bunia still complain that meeting a policeman or soldier after dark will lead to a certain shakedown.
The FARDC command acknowledges that some elements of the FARDC have shamed the organization, but insist that they are getting to grips with the problem. (0.28)
“Cases have been brought against the FARDC, where we caught and punished them.
“Military justice is so active here in Ituri. You can go to the prison and you will see soldiers who have been accused and jailed for the raping and harassment of the population.”
But despite the best efforts of a handful of committed civil servants, the almost total collapse of the state means that justice in Congo is all-too elusive.
Laurent Episini is the director of Bunia prison, which now houses hundreds of criminals, militia members - and FARDC soldiers.
Episini says that trying to run the prison with so few resources is the catalogue of one problem after another. (0.28)
“The number one problem is overcrowding. At the moment we have 309 prisoners, but the capacity of the prison is only 102.”
For Episini, the list of problems seems endless.
The health and nutrition of the prisoners is poor, and those inmates without nearby family members to support them, can literally waste away.
In the children’s cell, prisoners are taking a break from morning school. Why have so many children been imprisoned? (0.20)
“Because they were press-ganged into the militias, or they have committed murders.
“Others are here for possession of weapons, and for rape as well.”
As a shocking indication of the extent to which the children of Ituri have been brutalized by this conflict, and how violence has moved from a military to a domestic setting, prisoners as young as ten stand accused of rape.
Child soldiers are nothing new in the Congo and for many militias the ease with which they can be manipulated makes them perfect recruits.
Little chance of a normal childhood in Ituri.
In the prison kitchen, women serve up a meal of maize and beans.
Many of these prisoners have been here for years waiting trial but the justice system in Congo only functions to the extent that it is supported by the international community who pay the salaries of most of these civil servants.
But this support is limited, and until the world learns to care about Congo and until local politicians learn to care about the population, then the Congolese people have little chance of escaping their nightmare. (0.50)