Democratic Republic of Congo: Peace a distant and naive dream as PM Kabila refuses to resign

“Red zone, red zone”. There’s a ripple of sound around our truck as they cock their weapons ready.

The two-truck convoy we are in is entering one of the areas in the north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo identified as a ‘hotspot’.

Village after village in parts of Ituri province appear to have been attacked.

Many of the homes have been set alight and are destroyed through fire. Some are smashed to the ground, leaving just a pile of gravel.

On some of the walls still standing, there’s graffiti scrawled by various rebel groups. Many of the communities have been deserted, leaving behind the shells of vandalised buildings and the scraps of lives scattered around the dust.

There have been repeated attacks directed against residents. In Kafe village, which sits on Lake Albert, many have fled in boats across to Uganda which now houses the most number of refugees in Africa.

The UN Uruguayan contingent we are with set about fortifying their position in Kafe, laying out barbed wire, filling sandbags, setting up lookout posts surrounding our camp.

Peacekeepers have been killed and aid workers kidnapped elsewhere in this country, so they are under strict instructions not to take any chances.

:: Militia attacks displaced children with machetes in war-ravaged DR Congo

Few areas are considered safe in the restive DRC right now. There are more than 16,000 UN peacekeepers in the country – the largest peacekeeping operation in the world – but peace seems a distant naive dream here right now.

The upsurge in violence which is threatening to engulf the DRC is being put down to the political instability amid increasingly strident calls for President Joseph Kabila to step down.

His second mandate expired in December 2016, but so far he has resisted calls for him to resign and hold elections.

Various government statements from ministers have insisted recently he will respect the constitution – and elections will be held in December but it has done little to quell the unrest or halt the violence.

It has all added to the growing humanitarian crisis leaving swathes of the country desperate for food and huge numbers of the population displaced – having been frightened away from their homes and communities and moved to other areas of the country.

They are now living in large crowded, squalid camps under tarpaulin bamboo tents where disease is festering and where despair is the only commodity not in short supply.

Aid agencies say the humanitarian situation in the former Belgian colony is reaching breaking point with more than 13 million people needing help – that’s the same number as in Syria.

Yet there is little worldwide awareness of what is going on in this mineral-rich country. DRC should be rich, her people should go to sleep with full stomachs every night.

The country is Africa’s largest producer of copper and has more than half of the world’s stock of cobalt under its soil.

Yet it is pitifully low on the UN Human Development Index and hasn’t experienced a peaceful transition of power since independence in 1960.

The increasingly autocratic DRC authorities have denounced the mounting humanitarian concerns as exaggerated.

The President and his administration are deeply unpopular and his army, of which he is Commander in Chief, is much feared.

Many suspect the Congolese soldiers are somehow involved in stoking the unrest.

The President has used it as an excuse not to hold elections in the past. And his administration has said it won’t attend an aid donor conference in mid-April which was due to raise billions for the country’s struggling people.

The UN convoy rolls into another village. They stop to chat to the residents. Their presence, they hope, instils some calm amongst the population and acts as a deterrent to the multiple militia groups doing the attacking.

In the crowd of hungry people, many of whom have fled their homes in Tche, we spot a small baby on the back on a child who herself only looks about eight years old.

The baby is crying. It’s a sick, hungry, wailing cry. It turns out Novita has been surviving here with her baby sister and four-year-old brother for three weeks now.

The three of them have been on their own for three weeks. They’ve somehow survived by begging for scraps from strangers.

They got separated from their parents when their village was attacked. They have no idea where their parents are or even if they’re still alive.

They look dusty, noticeably thin and terrified. They tell us the last time they ate was a couple of days ago.

The surrounding adults appear somewhat embarrassed at our questions about who is looking after them. Everyone here is hungry. Everyone. The UN Captain turns to me. “Yes. It’s awful. Truly, truly tragic.”

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