Deceptive calm on DRC front line

Just a few hundred metres of scorched earth separate the army and the rebels near Kibati in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) volatile east, where hundreds cross the front line daily.

The area north of Goma, the provincial capital of the Nord-Kivu province, is a key front in the war between the Congolese army and cashiered general Laurent Nkunda’s rebels.

A checkpoint near the Nyirangongo, one of Africa’s most active volcanoes, has a deceptively placid air with hundreds of people traversing it every day under the watchful eyes of fighters on both sides.

“Good day,” says one of the Congolese army officers in Portuguese, grinning from ear to ear and explaining that he hails from Katanga, a frontier region near neighbouring Angola, which was a former Portuguese colony.

“Here, I am on the front line, I can see the rebels every day,” he said as his comrades—dressed in immaculate olive green uniforms—looked on.

Months of fighting pitting Nkunda’s rebels against government troops and various militia groups have displaced about 250 000 people in the eastern DRC and triggered a humanitarian crisis that has sparked international concern.

The Tutsi-led rebels claim the Hutu militia—some of whom participated in the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda—back the Congolese government in the tangled conflict that also involves the pro-government Mai Mai militia.

A single branch across the road marks the final barrier. The soldiers check the cargo of all trucks and go through the identify papers of all bus passengers as the white four-wheel drive vehicles of humanitarian organisations slip through into rebel territory unhindered.

The soldiers have set up camp in an area where lava once flowed but is now a verdant field that stretches into nearby Rwanda.

The Congolese officers haven taken up several positions in the undergrowth and nearby farmland. Just a few stones and a camouflage tarpaulin provide shelter from the incessant rain.

The men seem at ease, even relaxed, as they eat their meals, barely looking at the passing cars and two-wheeler taxis. Their weapons are laid on the ground or even hung on branches.

Cigarette butts and empty and milk cartons litter the area.

Sporadic gunshots, meanwhile, break the still of the night. Laurent Nkunda’s men are just a few hundred metres away and there is a risk that fresh violence could explode into a fresh war anytime.

The United Nations mission in DRC describes the situation on the ground as “tense and volatile”. It has been trying to come to an agreement with the rebels on their withdrawal for several weeks but so far in vain.

“A lot of people come through here as the other paths are cut off,” said one young soldier, who identified himself as Justin. “But in the evening we close the barrier.”

Armed men patrol both sides of the checkpoint, sometimes trading banter.

“We catch a glimpse of the rebels and sometimes they insult us. They tell us they plan to celebrate the New Year in Goma. We tell them we will be following right behind them, kicking them in the rear,” Justin said.

Despite the current ceasefire, there is no love lost between the two sides—they do not mingle together and there is no bartering between them. The Congolese Red Cross, meanwhile, takes care of removing corpses from the area.

“There might be a ceasefire, but there are still rebels here,” Justin said.

After the final army outpost, there is a small area of land separating the two sides.

It’s the same story on the other side: the relaxed atmosphere as three rebel officers sit on wooden benches—walkie-talkies in hand—talking calmly under the shade of a clump of bamboos.—Sapa-AFP

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