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UN envoy visits scene of Congo massacre

Monday, February 09, 2009

By MICHELLE FAUL, Associated Press Writer

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DOROUMA, Congo — 

Massacre survivors here are so traumatized it is difficult to talk to them.

Marguerite Animbwefwo managed to escape the onslaught by Ugandan rebels with her 7-year-old son. But she is wracked with guilt, despairing that she couldn't save her 13-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son, killed in a Christmas Day rampage on her northeastern Congo village of Nawangu.

"They killed everyone else in the village. We are the only ones living," she said Monday.

Her simple, stark words framed the situation. While the top U.N. diplomat for humanitarian affairs visited the area Monday and promised to do all he could to protect those who survived the "truly diabolical" massacre, the reality on the ground indicates those pleading for help in this remote area remain very much alone.

U.N. envoy John Holmes joined critics who blame the latest slaughter in eastern Congo on a joint military operation by troops from Congo, Uganda and Sudan to fight the rebels of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. The rebels _ known for their brutality, their use of child soldiers and their kidnapping of girls for sex slaves _ have carried their predatory violence into southern Sudan and northeastern Congo.

"The humanitarian consequences of the operations against the LRA have been catastrophic," Holmes told reporters in Dorouma, a village in northeastern Congo near the Sudanese border.

Hundreds of people were killed in Dorouma _ hacked, clubbed, bayoneted and shot _ by Ugandan rebels who went on a three-day bloodletting spree beginning Dec. 24. The rebels have slaughtered some 900 civilians since Christmas, the U.N. and humanitarian agencies estimate.

The onslaught came after the Ugandan air force bombed five Ugandan rebel bases in northeast Congo in December. Now the rebels have scattered across 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) of dense forests and plains, according to Holmes _ five times the area they operated in before.

One U.N. official described the bombings as throwing a rock at a hive of bees.

A spokesman for the Ugandan army, however, defended the strategy. Spokesman Capt. Deo Akiiki said Monday the attacks succeeded in destroying the rebels' base camps and their source of food.

Akiiki said rebel leader Joseph Kony's deputy was ready to surrender and the rebels have been scattered into smaller groups that has destroyed their coordination.

"That's why (the deputy) can now talk of surrender," he told reporters. "Because if he was with Kony and he talked of surrender, Kony would slaughter him."

Holmes, the U.N. deputy Secretary General for humanitarian affairs, came to the area to talk to survivors and see how the U.N. could help.

"We are here because we want to express our sympathy and compassion for what you have suffered and also because we want ... protect you from these undeserved and totally diabolical attacks," he said.

Among victims at Dorouma hospital is a 3-year-old girl whom rebels tried to kill by twisting off her head. She is paralyzed from the neck down and both her parents were killed in the attacks.

The rebels left very few wounded, noted Serge Pfister, the emergency field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders.

"It's clear their intention was to kill," he said.

Some of the first U.N. aid to reach the people of Dorouma _ blankets and medicines _ came aboard the helicopter that carried Holmes to Dorouma. Tarpaulins to shelter the homeless had been sent earlier.

But village leaders told Holmes their biggest need was food.

"It's like a famine," district administrator Jules Nzerie said. "We live off the land. But we can't go into the fields because these groups of rebels ... continue attacking."

Every day there are reports of attacks, aid workers said.

"One person killed here, women abducted there," said Avril Benoit, spokesman for Medecins Sans Frontieres, the only international agency operating in Dorouma. Caritas, the Catholic charity, has delivered some small food packages including beans and rice. But Dorouma's population has exploded from 3,500 to about 12,000 as refugees poured in to escape the rebels.

The paucity of food and shelter was striking when Holmes visited two convent dormitories given over to refugees. People sleep on the cement floor, or on mats, if they were lucky enough to bring them. The only furniture was a table. The only food was a basket with a couple of cups of pounded yam and three sweet potatoes.

Medecins Sans Frontieres has accused the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo _ the biggest in the world at 17,000 strong _ of failing to protect the people slain in recent weeks.

Holmes admitted in an interview with The Associated Press that there were significant logistical issues blocking aid and limiting protection.

The road to Dorouma, for example, is impassable in this rainy season. Bangladeshi peacekeepers have carved a small landing strip out of the bush, but it can only take small planes and helicopters.

Holmes said officials were discussing how to ship aid in, possibly through south Sudan, but up to now the area has been too unsafe to send in U.N. aid workers.

As for the lack of protection, Holmes couched all his promises by noting he would do the very best he could. Still, he is not responsible for peacekeepers and Congo's vast, sprawling territory often defies their best efforts. Making matters worse, several other militia groups are terrorizing civilians just in eastern Congo alone.

"We can do the best we can to provide the securest environment possible _ but that's not very safe," Holmes admitted.

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Associated Press Writer Eddy Isango contributed to this report from Dorouma, Congo.

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