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War Causing Humanitarian Crisis In Congo

Congolese refugee's arrive on the back of a truck, Monday, Oct 29, 2007 at the Nyakabanda transit camp near Kisoro, a reception centre in Uganda, 10 miles from the Congo border, set up by the United Nations Refugee Agency.
AP Photo/Glenna Gordon
Mani Fosten's wife and three children are missing after the 35-year-old was separated from them amid the surging violence behind Congo's latest refugee crisis.

Now the farmer has only the clothes he wears and a small, battered Bible where he has scribbled his family's phone numbers - but there is no phone in his refugee camp.

Some 13,000 refugees like Fosten have fled into Uganda in the past 10 days amid one of the worst spates of fighting in Congo since elections last year. They're arriving with tales of rape and murder and looking set to stay permanently after years of deadly strife in eastern Congo linked to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

"The worries can never stop now," said Fosten, looking at the sea of makeshift tents and bonfires at the U.N.-administered refugee camp. "Things are just that way now."

CBS News' partner network in Britain, Sky News, has a correspondent in eastern Congo reporting on the crisis. Emma Hurd reports that in recent years 250,000 people have abandoned their homes in Congo. That's one fifth of the country's population left homeless.

The latest fighting in is pitting government forces and allied militants against forces loyal to a renegade army commander, Gen. Laurent Nkunda, who split from the Congo military after the official 2002 end of a four-year civil war that displaced millions of Congolese.

Nkunda says his fighters are protecting the Tutsi people, who were the main victims in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw Hutu extremists slaughtering more that 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Nkunda says he'll drive out the Hutu militants who fled to Congo after the genocide, but his predominantly Tutsi forces now stand accused of atrocities they claim to want to stop.

Hurd reports a contingent of Congolese soldiers are preparing to head into the mountains in a push to end the latest uprising.

Elections last year overseen by some 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers were meant to knit the country back together. But President Joseph Kabila's re-elected government has yet to stabilize the east.

In recent weeks, the government has moved forcefully to neutralize Nkunda and fighting has spread, the refugees in Uganda said.

Fosten said Nkunda's fighters abducted him and 18 other people from their church in Congo's Nyanzae village. After being badly beaten, the fighters forced their hostages to carry supplies for the dissident forces. He said fighters killed a 12-year-old boy, striking him in the head with a hoe for being too slow. Fosten and his friend decided to attempt an escape - running as soon as the rebels' backs were turned.

His friend was shot in the head. Fosten, a Hutu, made it to the safety of Uganda.

"They don't want any Hutu in Congo. They want to exterminate us," says Fosten shrugging his shoulders, unable to offer a better explanation of the cycle of violence that has torn his life - and family - apart. "Nobody can protect us. The Tutsi want Congo so the Hutu must run."

Fosten told The Associated Press that the rebels had been terrorizing his village for two months, killing 47 men, raping girls and committing atrocities such as cutting open the bellies of pregnant women. Nkunda wasn't immediately reachable for comment.

Nkunda's forces aren't alone in bearing accusations of human rights abuses. New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that loyal Congolese troops and a Rwandan militant group were operating in the area.

And the refugees are drawn from many of the region's ethnic groups, not only the Hutu. More than 300,000 people have been driven from their homes since late 2006, Human Rights Watch says.

Along with abductions, beatings and killings, most of the armed groups in eastern Congo use sexual violence as a weapon of war. Human rights activists say that there has been more rape here than in any other conflict.

Beatrice Mamy, 21, says she and her two cousins were raped by six Nkunda fighters while working in a field. After seeking medical help, the three returned to their village in Jombe district, only to find it abandoned.

The trio came to this refugee camp near the Congo border last week, hoping to find their relatives among the refugees. So far they have not.

Mamy's medical card shows that she was hemorrhaging when she arrived at the hospital and she has wounds on her head, arms and legs. The AP generally does not identify victims of sexual assault but Mamy allowed her name to be used.

"There is a lot of stigma around rape in our community," she said, pulling her sequined headscarf around her face. "The people who know of our problems are now neglecting us. We have been spoiled."

Mamy said after her ordeal, she will not return to Congo. Instead, she plans to resume her studies and start a new life in Uganda.

"There is no way this problem will be resolved," she says. "There's too much hate. There's no future for me in Congo, there's only violence."

Officials at the United Nations' refugee agency say that although there have been similar influxes of refugees into Uganda as a result of the spiraling conflict in Congo's eastern North Kivu province - this is the third the agency has seen since August - there are indications that this time, the refugees will stay rather than return.

"This is the first time that such large numbers of refugees have moved to the reception center rather than staying at the border," says Adan Ilmi, the U.N.'s coordinator for emergency response in Kisoro. "Many have come with luggage suggesting that they are preparing to stay. For these people enough is enough."

For people like Fabien Nkeramihigo, his wife and eight children, going back is simply not an option anymore. This is the third time in a year they have had to run for their lives.

"I'm tired of moving now," he said outside the small tarpaulin-covered construction they now call home. "Here we have nothing but peace of mind. We can sleep well knowing that at least we will all be alive in the morning."