Children, women newest victims of Congo rebellion
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 July 25, when rebels retook the strategic town of Rutshuru, 75 kilometers (50 miles) north of Goma from their former comrades in the army. The rebels now control the route north from within 25 kilometers of the eastern provincial capital of Goma.
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 (shell)," she said at Rutshuru government hospital, which is supported by the French branch of 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.
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 U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo.
"They were using the displaced people as a human shield, and fighting alongside the FDLR," he claimed.
Congolese army officers have repeatedly denied that they collaborate with the FDLR, or Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda, though previous U.N. 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.
The organization's Dr. Louis Albert Massing said only 10 of the 90 were soldiers. The rebels treat their own wounded. Massing said combatants comprised 70 percent of the wounded treated at Rutshuru hospital until last week.
One of the youngest victims is 8-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 nurse Jacinthe Milonde, who asked Mireille to stand up to show that she understood and has no brain damage.