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War Refugees Return to Congolese Town

June 29, 2003|From Associated Press

BUNIA, Congo — Hundreds of people have returned to Bunia since international troops ordered tribal fighters out of the northeastern town, the scene of some of the worst atrocities in Congo's five-year civil war.

Tens of thousands of people fled Bunia in May as rival factions of the Hema and Lendu tribes fought for control of the town, the administrative capital of the resource-rich Ituri province. At least 500 people were killed in the clashes, which left Bunia in the control of a Hema militia of about 15,000 fighters.

The fighting subsided after a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping force began deploying in Bunia on June 6. But with thousands of Hema gunmen still in town, few people displaced by the fighting had dared to return.

Last week, the French-led force imposed a Wednesday-evening deadline for the Hema militiamen to leave town or be disarmed. Most of the Hema fighters withdrew, and since then, at least 1,000 people who had fled have returned, said Col. Gerard Dubois, a spokesman for the force.

"They want to come to their homes because the town is quieter now and there are no weapons," he said.

Mulimba Rober clutched a bundle of clothes and pots and pans as she walked back into Bunia with her five children.

Rober, from the Bira tribe, said she fled May 12 because she heard the Hema were killing people from other tribes.

She was returning because she had been told the town was safe now that French troops were patrolling.

Dubois said it was too soon to declare the emergency force's mission a success, but he added: "We are very encouraged by the reaction of the population ... children are playing football, shops are opening."

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