KIBATI, Congo – A 12-vehicle U.N. aid convoy set off Monday to go behind rebel lines in eastern Congo, carrying medical supplies for clinics looted by retreating government troops. It was the first humanitarian aid delivery behind rebel lines since fighting broke out in August.
U.N. peacekeepers escorted the trucks from the provincial capital of Goma, and both the Congolese army and the rebel leader assured the convoy's safe passage, said Gloria Fernandez, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in eastern Congo.
She said medical supplies and tablets to purify water were the priority in this shipment. Another convoy on Tuesday would be bringing food for some of the 250,000 refugees displaced by fighting in this central African nation, she said.
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Food, however, was the critical issue for most people.
"Everybody is hungry, everybody," said Jean Bizy, 25, a teacher.
Rebels were allowing farmers to reach Goma, the provincial capital, in trucks packed with cabbages, onions and spinach. And an Associated Press reporter saw the U.N. convoy stop to deliver a sack of potatoes to U.N. troops in Rugari.
Bizy, who watched as the U.N. troops collected their food, said he has been surviving on wild bananas for days.
Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda went on the offensive Aug. 28 and brought his fighters to the edge of Goma last week before declaring a unilateral cease-fire.
The conflict is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda's 1994 genocide and Congo's civil wars from 1996-2002. Nkunda claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter a half-million Rwandan Tutsis.
All sides are believed to fund fighters by illegally mining Congo's vast mineral riches, giving them no financial interest in stopping the fighting.
Tens of thousands of people in Kibati have received little food aid since they fled their homes a week ago. Fernandez said families here have been forced to move four or five times in the past 10 days.
"They go around in circles ... fleeing the movement of troops and the lines of combat," she said.
Since Thursday, the day after the cease-fire, streams of refugees have thronged the roads around Goma trying to get home, lugging babies and bundles of belongings, and guiding children, pigs and goats.
The aid convoy traveling Monday was headed past Kibati to Rutshuru, a village 55 miles north of Goma. On its way, it drove past the body of a dead soldier that has been in the middle of the road for days.
The priority is to take pressure of Rutshuru hospital, the only operating medical facility in a region of hundreds of thousands of people, Fernandez said.
She said clinics there have been "looted and completely destroyed."
Nkunda began a low-level insurgency in 2004, claiming Congo's transition to democracy had excluded the Tutsi ethnic group. Despite agreeing in January to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, he resumed fighting in August.
Nkunda wants direct talks with the government. He has especially complained about a $9 billion agreement in which China gets access to Congo's valuable minerals in return for building a highway and railroad.
Nkunda's rebellion has threatened to re-ignite the back-to-back wars that afflicted Congo from 1996 to 2002, drawing in a half dozen African nations. Congo President Joseph Kabila, elected in 2006 in Congo's first election in 40 years, has struggled to contain the violence in the east.
Congo has charged Nkunda with involvement in war crimes, and Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda's command in 2002 and 2004.
Yet rights groups have also accused government forces of atrocities and widespread looting.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo is its largest in the world, yet only 6,000 peacekeepers of the 17,000-strong U.N. mission in Congo are in the east because of unrest in other provinces.