Mother tells of heartbreak as Congo violence claims most vulnerable
RUTSHURU, CONGO // The little girl who miraculously survived the bullet that narrowly missed her eye and exited through the top of her head. The mother whose arm was blown off as she rushed to help the child whose head was blown away.
Most of the newly injured in Congo's latest eastern rebellion are, for the first time, civilians, and the majority are the most vulnerable — women and children.
A plethora of foreign rebel and local militia groups has operated in eastern Congo since 1994, but the worst violence in years has erupted since hundreds of soldiers began deserting in April, demanding that the government renegotiate a March 23, 2009, agreement that integrated their former Rwandan-backed rebel group into the national army.
The most violent confrontations took place on July 25, when rebels retook the strategic town of Rutshuru, 75 kilometres north of Goma, from their former comrades in the army.
The rebels now control the route north from within 25 kilometres of Goma, the eastern provincial capital.
On July 25, when the shells started exploding, Penina Mukandaysenga was playing in her back yard with her three children in Kiwanja, a small town five minutes' drive from Rutshuru. Her husband had gone to Goma for medical treatment.
"I just saw my child's head blown away by the first bomb," she said at Rutshuru government hospital.
The hospital, although still under the control of government authorities, is kept running and supplied by Doctors Without Borders.
As she ran toward 18-month-old infant Noelina Kisubizo, her youngest child, she said a second shell exploded in the garden. It tore away half her right arm — she is right-handed — and shrapnel cut into her left arm, leaving it momentarily useless.
Mukandaysenga barely opened her swollen lips as she listlessly described the nightmare.
Other injured people at the hospital said the shells were fired from a hillside above Kiwanja, from M23 rebels attacking Congolese soldiers.
Biyemba Bahati, 35, a former employee at the University of Kiwanja, said M23 fighters mistook him for a government soldier and shot him during their successful attack on the town. He was injured in his right arm.
Four-year-old Raphael Kinawa, was also lying injured on a bed with his mother at Rutshuru government hospital.
He is recovering from bullet wounds in his abdomen and his right arm. After a shell landed next to his house in Kiwanja 10 days ago, he and his mother tried to escape, but Raphael was injured by two bullets when M23 rebel fighters attacked the town.
Rebel spokesman Col Vianney Kazarama said it was not clear who was shooting where that day.
He said the rebels were responding to fire from the Congolese army, whom he charged were firing from behind an impromptu camp of about 2,000 refugees who had gathered around a military base at Kiwanja of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo.
Kazarama claimed the Congolese army were using the displaced people as a human shield, and fighting alongside the FDLR, or Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda.
Congolese army officers have repeatedly denied that they collaborate with the FDLR, though previous UN reports have indicated certain army officers do.
The FDLR is led by some of the people who committed Rwanda's 1994 genocide of some 800,000 Tutsi people and moderate Hutus.
The M23 is the latest reincarnation of a group of Congolese Tutsis who first deserted the army in 1998, charging that Congolese soldiers were fighting with, instead of against, the Rwandan Hutu rebels.
At Rutshuru hospital, the constant wail of children in pain serves as a background for doctors and nurses who have treated some 90 people wounded in last week's battle — nearly one-fifth of the total of 500 victims treated there since the rebellion began three months ago, according to Doctors Without Borders.
A doctor for the organisation said only 10 of the 90 were soldiers. The rebels treat their own wounded.
He said combatants comprised 70 per cent of the wounded treated at Rutshuru hospital until last week.
One of the youngest victims is eight-year-old Mireille Iduhaye, who has become something of a mascot at the hospital. She squinted up at a report through an eye swollen by stitches to cover a bullet wound that struck just beside her left eye and exited through the top of her head.
"She's something of a miracle amid the horror," said a nurse, who asked Mireille to stand up to show that she understood and has no brain damage.
Updated: August 6, 2012 04:00 AM