I have been in the Democratic Eepublic of Congo for only five days, yet I cannot bear to listen to the stories of horror I am being told everywhere I go.
The country’s East is going through another of its convulsions of violence, and as ever, civilians are being systematically attacked on a scale rarely seen before.
The sheer numbers of deaths, the wholesale brutality and the culture of impunity are appalling.
The situation is so bad that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gutteres was forced to liken it to the 2004 Asian Tsunami. After visiting camps for the displaced, he told me that the conflict in Congo is taking more human lives than the Tsunami every six months. Difficult to believe, but it’s an accurate representation of the situation on the ground.
Every day in the DRC, 1,200 people die from conflict-related causes. More than 20 per cent of children die before their fifth birthdays, and one in 10 die in the first year of life.
But Rwanda, which had been accused of backing Gen Nkunda, did not arrest him for nothing.
It requested the flushing from Eastern DR Congo of Rwandan Hutu rebels, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
The FDLR, a gang of mainly dreadlocked fugitives, are notorious for burning babies, kidnapping women and literally hacking up anybody who gets in their way. They are believed to have caused the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.
Since the start of military operations against the FDLR militia in January, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed, 7,000 women and girls have been raped, and over 6,000 homes burned down in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu alone.
I met the effects of this operation face to face in the village of Shasha, 50 kilometres outside the city of Goma, where those displaced by the operation live side by side with those uprooted by past bouts of fighting.
Living 'like birds'
Congolese pygmies (they call themselves Batwa) are the majority of Shasha’s displaced. These are people who for centuries lived in Congo’s rain forests, where they led a life of hunting and gathering to feed themselves.
The village headman told me they now live like birds, with nothing to eat and no proper shelter and help from any quarter.
Like the pygmies at Shasha, nearly 900,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and live in desperate conditions just this year.
Many of the recent killings have been carried out by the FDLR militia who I was told are deliberately targeting civilians to punish them for their government’s decision to launch the operations. Congolese government soldiers themselves are also accused of targeting civilians through killings and widespread rape, looting, forced labor, and arbitrary arrests.
In a bleak calculation by a coalition of Humanitarian Agencies operating in Congo, for every rebel combatant disarmed during the operation, one civilian has been killed, seven women and girls have been raped, six houses burned and 900 people have been forced to flee their homes.
Yet the carnage continues, despite the presence of the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world, with more than 17,000 troops. The tragic irony is that the UN is fully backing the operation with logistical support to the tune of $6 million.
I leave the Congo with a heavy heart and a deep sympathy for the millions caught in a conflict they have no role in, and can do little to stop.