GOMA, Congo – Elections on Sunday are supposed to herald the birth of a new Congo, but that future is threatened by old soldiers who won't give up their habits of looting, raping and killing.
Disgruntled men with guns have dragged countries back into war before, after peace treaties were reached and implemented. The problems of Congo's army are a textbook example of why that happens, with former militiamen and rebels integrated into a little-trained and poorly paid force led by former warlords.
The army has been accused of looting villages and raping and killing civilians, even during joint operations with U.N. peacekeepers.
Ministry of Defense spokesman Delion Kimbu sought to play down the problem, though he acknowledged soldiers have burned homes and attacked civilians. "Even U.N. soldiers have been accused of crimes and abuses," he said. "Our army also has its problems."
Some 17,600 U.N. troops are in Congo to help the army secure Sunday's vote, the first democratic presidential and parliamentary elections in four decades.
Congo's eastern provinces are particularly worrisome. Here, militias from Congo and Rwanda kill, loot and rape despite a 2002 peace agreement that ended fighting elsewhere.
A pastor in the eastern province of Ituri said a family of five was shot Saturday by militiamen or soldiers who then burned their bodies. Pastor Marrion Udongo said those killed were a woman, her son and daughter and two grandchildren under 10. He said the family had left a camp for displaced people to look for food.
Some 50,000 families have fled their homes in the east's North Kivu province due to fighting between the army and rebels, said Aya Shneerson, head of the U.N.'s World Food Program in the area.
But people say they fled the army, not militiamen.
"The soldiers come to loot. If you don't have anything to give, they rape you," said 19-year-old Deborah Anuarite as she waited for a sack of flour and a tin of oil in Rutshuru, about 40 miles north of Goma, the main city in North Kivu.
Clarice Kahindo, 28, said "even the rebels" were better than the soldiers. "These people are not soldiers, they are government militiamen."
Between 1996-2002, some 4 million people died in Congo, most from war-related hunger and disease. Peace deals gave rebels top government positions and brought thousands of militias into the army. The fighters received 45-day training sessions.
The U.N., which has tried to work with the army, knows it has a problem.
A U.N. report released in May said government forces committed about 1,200 of the 1,866 rapes investigated by the U.N. between April and December 2005 — up sharply from the year before.
A separate U.N. report in June said Congo's armed forces were responsible for the majority of documented abuses against children. It documented 29 abductions from July 2005 to May 2006, including five girls taken by an army captain as he moved through the volatile South Kivu area in eastern Congo.
"The routine use of physical violence against civilians by members of the security forces was observed everywhere the army or police had been deployed ... often motivated by the desire to obtain money, goods or minerals from civilians," the May report said.
Sonia Bakar, a senior U.N. human rights official, said the army's human rights violations have largely gone unpunished.
In June, a British journalist who wrote in the Sunday Observer and produced a TV documentary said U.N. troops stood by as government soldiers attacked and burned a village in Ituri, ostensibly in search of rebels.
The U.N. has said it is investigating those accusations and reconsidering its support of the army. However, it continues to supply government forces with ammunition and backs them on military offensives.
Last week, Human Rights Watch accused the government of failing to act against soldiers who allegedly tortured and killed dozens of civilians suspected of being militiamen in the southern Katanga province. The New York-based advocacy group also accused the government of ignoring criminal records of warlords who are now army generals.
The government has struggled to prepare the army for the vote, but peacekeepers say even the brigades meant to secure the elections are ill-equipped and poorly trained.
"They lack weapons systems, communications systems and basic transport facilities. To say they're ready to fight is wrong," said Maj. Ajay Dalal, the U.N. military spokesman in North Kivu.
A regular soldier earns $10 a month, meaning troops often take what they need from poor villages.
The troops still largely function along rebel chains of command, and their loyalty to Congo's government has been known to waver.
When renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda attacked a Congolese army base in Rutshuru in January, some 1,800 government troops defected and refused to fight. Dalal said some 4,000 government soldiers are loyal to Nkunda.
An operation in Ituri ended in disaster in February when some 30 soldiers opened fire on U.N. troops, the United Nations said.
"Maybe in 10 years, the army will be ready to defend its borders effectively," said Gen. G.V. Satya, the U.N. commander in North Kivu