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Resurging violence in Democratic Republic of Congo forces thousands to flee

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, tens of thousands of people flee violence again. Clashes have intensified between the DRC army and the rebel group called March 23 Movement. It is believed to be supported by the government in Rwanda nearby. Now the so-called M23 group heads for Goma, a major city. Kate Bartlett has this report.

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: Home to some 2 million people, Goma sits on the shores of Lake Kivu and in the shadow of Nyiragongo volcano. Bordering Rwanda, Goma lies in mineral-rich North Kivu province. It has been at the epicenter of some three decades of resurgent conflict, involving over a hundred rebel groups. Brutal massacres and rapes have become commonplace. Now it's under siege once again, this time by a rebel group called the M23. The roads into the city are packed with people fleeing the violence in the surrounding area. Jules Muisa (ph) is amongst them.

JULES MUISA: (Non-English language spoken).

BARTLETT: "Many people have died," he says. "The M23 are still dropping bombs on us. We have no food, and we have nowhere to go." The United Nations and the U.S. say there's strong evidence that the M23 are backed by Rwanda, something the government in Kigali denies. Over all of this hangs the brutal legacy of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The M23 claim to defend the rights of the Congolese Tutsi community against the remnants of the Hutu killers who fled Rwanda after the genocide. But at the heart of much of the violence is greed. This is an area that contains some of the largest deposits of mineral wealth in the world, and everyone is vying for a piece of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

BARTLETT: This week, angry protests over the situation in eastern Congo broke out on the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, with demonstrators massing outside western embassies, torching U.N. vehicles and setting U.S. and European flags ablaze. Many, like demonstrator Fabrice Balumba (ph), blame neighboring Rwanda and its leader Paul Kagame, for the violence. And they say the West has not done enough to help.

FABRICE BALUMBA: (Non-English language spoken).

BARTLETT: "Why are the Americans, the French and the entire international community watching us getting killed but saying nothing?" he says.

MICHELA WRONG: The international community is well aware that the Rwandan government is supporting, arming, equipping, giving orders to the M23 rebel movement.

BARTLETT: Journalist and author Michela Wrong is an expert on the region.

WRONG: This is a proxy force, and it takes its orders from Kigali. And we know that in Brussels, in Paris, in Washington, government officials understand that.

BARTLETT: Governments have only imposed some minor sanctions, she says. Despite authoritarian tendencies, Kagame has long been a favorite of the West. And so Goma continues to be plagued by the brutal ebb and flow of war.

FERNAND AMBANI: (Non-English language spoken).

BARTLETT: "I don't know where I'm going to spend the night tonight because we are outside," says 22-year-old Fernand Ambani (ph), who fled heavy fighting near his home. "We are still afraid because we can hear the bullets." Adding to the uncertainty, the U.N. peacekeeping force that has been present in the DRC for over two decades is pulling out this year. The government accused it of being ineffective and asked it to leave. The risk of a wider regional conflict is a constant concern. But with international attention focused on Ukraine and the Middle East, the DRC will likely remain a forgotten war.

With Ruth Olonga (ph) and Sammy Mopfune (ph) in Goma, for NPR News, I'm Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kate Bartlett