KITCHANGA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Each day Joyce goes out into the bush and assembles five tiny bundles of wood for sale, only to have one taken from her by former rebels now in the ranks of the national army.
“I have to submit as I don’t want to be raped,” she said, her baby wrapped to her back in a camp for thousands of displaced people in Kitchanga in Congo’s troubled east.
Congo’s 1998-2003 conflict was known as Africa’s World War, in which more than 5 million people are estimated to have died from violence, hunger and disease.
Joyce is just one of over 1.27 million in Congo’s east unable to return home due to violence that continues despite the presence of the world’s largest U.N. peace force and a March 2009 deal meant to bring peace to this central African country.
“Attacks against civilians increased ... Human rights violations were also perpetrated by elements of the security forces,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council in a report this month.
The causes of Congo’s insecurity are legion. Analysts blame poverty, the failure of President Joseph Kabila to impose the rule of law, the poorly organised army, myriad rebel groups and the constant battle for resources including everything from charcoal and grazing land to tin ore and gold.
Even a ban on mining in Congo’s east, which exports gold and minerals including 5 percent of the world’s tin, has failed to bring security or stop smuggling, including by the army, according to mines minister Martin Kabwelulu.
“PEOPLE DIE VERY FAR AWAY”
While Congo’s mineral-rich east is beset by dozens of armed groups -- many of which spring up in the hope of securing resources, rank or revenue rather than any political bent -- its greatest threat to peace may come from within the army itself.
“(The U.N. mission) MONUSCO has an almost impossible task -- to protect citizens but support an army where elements of it are abusing those citizens,” Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in Congo, told Reuters in an interview.
Ban said the army was recruiting children and had perpetrated human rights violations so serious that the U.N. mission had to suspend support from one operational zone. It had also lost several areas to largely Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels.
He added the peace deal was at “near standstill” and that reform of the army, into which Rwandan-backed Tutsi-led former CNDP rebels have been patchily integrated, was largely stalled.
U.N.-backed operations meant to end in March have once again been extended, as Congo’s intractable conflict takes its toll, largely hidden in remote, jungled areas unreachable by road.
“Two years ago the people displaced by conflict were more accessible, but now...people die very far away,” said Stoessel, emphasising the unseen human cost and remoteness of the war.
One sticking point is the refusal of integrated former CNDP rebels to redeploy outside the east, laid out in a September memorandum seen by Reuters, making army reform impossible and leaving swathes of territory prey to abuses.
“It is flagrant CNDP is still collecting taxes,” one UN official told Reuters of the widespread practice in the east of fighters taking illegal taxes on virtually everything.
The CNDP is fighting for the return of Congolese Tutsi refugees and the defeat of the FDLR -- neither likely soon.
Nearly 159,000 Congolese refugees are registered in Congo’s eastern neighbours Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, according to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, which does not make public how many of these are Tutsi.
Rwanda and Uganda both have rebel leaders from Congo under house arrest, and some argue that ending the conflict cannot be achieved in Congo alone, suggesting Rwanda should negotiate with FDLR rebels implicated in perpetrating its 1994 genocide.
“Many people have been pushing for the Rwandan government to be more forthcoming in their dealing with the FDLR,” said Congo expert Jason Stearns, characterising Congo’s conflict as a free-for-all for those intent on securing power.
“I don’t think Rwanda is really ready to negotiate with the FDLR,” China’s ambassador to Congo, Wu Zexian, told Reuters.
The atrocities continue unabated. In the latest example, rebel militiamen held the town of Luvungi between July 30 and August 3 and raped at least 303 civilians.
For Kabila, while continued violence undermines the credibility of his promises to bring stability to the region, analysts doubt it will be enough to jeopardise his bid for re-election in November 2011.
The insecurity means that prospective investors on Congo have two choices -- either they steer well clear, or they enter in full awareness of the risks and additional costs involved in securing their business interests.
“If you want to hunt elephants, you have to go to elephant country,” Randgold Resources CEO Mark Bristow, whose company is developing a $1 billion (628 million pounds) gold mine in the northeast, told a news conference in Congo this month.
While some see riches despite the troubles, for Joyce and millions of Congolese like her, the misery is set to last.
“If current trends are not reversed ... efforts may prove insufficient to stem the violence,” warned Ban.