July 28, 2006

Voters, candidates risk death in Congo’s east

By C. Bryson Hull

WALIKALE, Congo (Reuters) - Voters in Congo's east say they
will risk their lives to cast their ballots in historic
elections on Sunday as they run the gauntlet of marauding
rebels and militias.

"We live in fear. These people take from us, they kill us,
and they rape us," said Rita Mikindu, a resident of the remote
eastern town of Walikale in Democratic Republic of Congo's
North Kivu district.

United Nations peacekeepers are promising to protect voters
in Sunday's polls, the first open, multi-party presidential and
parliamentary elections held in 40 years in the vast,
mineral-rich former Belgian colony in central Africa.

But although a five-year war in Congo ended three years ago
in peace deals that set up the elections, large swathes of the
east have been terrorized by armed groups which kill, rape and
loot civilians.

Inhabitants of isolated eastern areas like Walikale, 105 km
(60 miles) northwest of Goma, say they live under constant
threat of attack by rebels hiding out in thick rainforests.

And the threat will be there on election day, residents

Mikindu said there were several villages -- many of them
two days' walk through the bush -- under control of the FDLR, a
Rwandan Hutu rebel group.

"Getting to these places will be difficult, because these
people, the Interahamwe, are there and control the roads," she
said, using a local term for the FDLR.

Walikale and its surroundings are iconic Congo, primeval
rainforests breathing thick white clouds that hug the tree

The turbulent east is still struggling to emerge from
Congo's 1998-2003 war, which involved six neighboring states
and killed nearly 4 million people mostly through disease and
malnutrition in one of the world's worst humanitarian

The FDLR has been in the Congo since 1994. Many of their
estimated 10,000 fighters took part in Rwanda's 1994 genocide.


The rebels have also hindered electioneering by candidates,
who have not been able to walk the streets of their districts
for fear of being shot.

Two campaign workers were shot dead by unidentified gunmen
in Virunga National Park on Thursday, sparking angry protests
in the North Kivu town of Kiwanja on Friday.

Many blame the rebels and militias for attacks that have
killed at least nine people in poll-related violence in the

"There have been candidates who have tried to get into
FDLR-controlled territories who have either been refused or
have had to seek authorization," Jason Stearns, an analyst with
the International Crisis Group think tank said.

Death threats have stopped some candidates from venturing
out from the relative safety of the North Kivu capital Goma.

"I don't want to meet anyone and I don't want to talk to
anyone," said Kiabantu Pilipili, a candidate for Sunday's
parliamentary elections.

The Congolese army and U.N. peacekeepers have deployed
across North Kivu and the rest of the east, along with national
police who are due to handle security at polling stations.

At Shabunda, an isolated town in South Kivu district, a
unit of Pakistani U.N. peacekeepers is preparing for Sunday's

"We are here to support the elections," said their
commanding officer, Major Alamgeer. But residents say the
protection goes little further than the town.

(Additional reporting by David Mwangi, Eva Gilliam, and
David Lewis.)