Uneasy calm inside Congo's rebel-held territory

Rebel soldier on the Uganda-DRC border

The Democratic Republic of Congo is facing its most serious crisis for years, as a growing rebellion makes significant advances in the mineral-rich east of the country. The BBC's East Africa correspondent, Gabriel Gatehouse, has gained access to territory controlled by the rebels.

An uneasy calm pervades the frontier town of Bunagana. By day, impromptu markets spring up. There is a brisk trade in shoes, empty beer bottles and sacks of tiny dried fish.

Small groups of rebel soldiers patrol the main thoroughfare, a pot-holed mud-track that winds its way from the Ugandan border westwards into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

By night, residents say, Bunagana becomes a frightening and dangerous place, where armed men, often drunk, roam the streets.

Many prefer to walk across the border as dusk falls, crossing back into Congo in the morning. These people are dubbed "night-commuters."

"I lost everything," says Michel, a farmer.

At 65 years of age, he has seen more than his fair share of conflict. But he says the past few months have been some of the worst.

When the fighting reached Bunagana, Michel fled. When he returned, his crops and his farming implements were gone.

He says he can't be sure who stole his means of earning a living. Both the rebels and the regular Congolese Army have been accused of looting.

"They were soldiers, that's all I know," he says.

Fleeing rape

The rebel ranks are swelled by a steady stream of defectors.

In Bunagana we met two new recruits - Lt Col Justin Papy and Maj John Musinguzi.

Image caption Market traders work during the day in Bunagana, but many people cross into Uganda at night

Both had deserted four days previously. Both said they were motivated by the abysmal conditions in the Congolese army - salaries that amount to less than $100 (£65) per month for a senior officer - and which in any case often go unpaid - corruption, inefficiency, even a basic lack of accommodation for the men.

"One day we had to fight for four days in the bush with no food," said Maj Musinguzi.

"My men fought even though they had nothing to eat. But the Congolese army cannot win a war this way."

M23, as the rebel movement is known, do not appear to have huge numbers of men.

But they are growing in confidence. As recently as early July, Bunagana was home to a sizeable contingent of United Nations peacekeepers.

Now, the hill once occupied by the "blue-helmets" is a strategic rebel position overlooking the town.

The UN forces melted away in the face of the rebel advance.

The fighting has forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes. Some of these families now live in the Nyakabande Transit Centre across the border inside Uganda.

Recent arrivals tell horrific stories. Noelle came to the camp last week, with her husband and three children.

"We saw the rebels coming from the mountain," she remembers.

"First we wanted to stay in our village. But then we saw that husbands, men who were strong, were taken by force. Children too.

"Then some of the women were raped in our village. That is why we decided to come here."

Ethnic tensions

The rebels deny accusations of rape, of looting, and of forcibly recruiting young men and even boys to join their ranks and fight.

They deny, too, the growing evidence that their movement is being supported by neighbouring Rwanda. But many in the M23 movement are former members of another armed group, the CNDP.

In 1994, following the genocide in Rwanda, around a million ethnic Hutus fled across the border into DR Congo.

With them went some of the killers who had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis.

These former "genocidaires" formed themselves into an armed group called the FDLR. The CNDP was originally set up as a "defence force" to counter the FDLR.

There are fears that this latest rebellion could reignite old ethnic tensions.

Goma is the region's biggest town and it is still under government control.

We met Antoine, a Congolese Tutsi there. Recently he and some friends were attacked by a mob outside their university campus.

The attackers arrived on motorbikes, throwing stones and shouting at them to "go back to Rwanda".

Antoine believes the attack was ethnically motivated - being a Rwandan-speaking Tutsi, he says, he is automatically associated with M23.

"The police came but they didn't disperse the attackers. They simply rounded up the people who were being attacked and transported them to the border with Rwanda."

'People are dying'

Having retreated from Bunagana, UN peacekeepers have formed a "security cordon" around Goma.

The deputy commander of the force, Maj Gen Andrew Foster, says his men are working in conjunction with the Congolese army to thwart any attempt by the rebels to advance on the town.

"We are here to support the Congolese government and its army in dealing with the armed groups. Particularly where it is a threat to the local population."

But, with more than one rebel group to deal with and only 18,000 men to cover an area the size of western Europe, his force is stretched thin.

On the streets of Goma, life continues much as normal.

Many here are used to the looming threat of rebel invasion. But people are sceptical that the UN has what it takes to defend them and their town.

"We have no confidence in them," one young man says, as a UN convoy of white-painted armoured vehicles rumbles along the main thoroughfare.

"Congolese people are dying and they do nothing."

Many people, especially in the remoter villages, do in fact rely on UN forces to protect them when fighting breaks out, sometimes taking shelter in their bases.

But the reality is that the peacekeepers are perceived as ineffectual, both by the people they are mandated to protect, and by the rebels themselves.

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