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3 Oct 2014
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Mike Thomson reports from Bukarvu in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Peace talks may be taking place in Kinshasa but nobody seems to have told the men with guns. Throughout the night the sound of gunfire echoed across the picturesque lake beneath my hotel in Bukarvu, eastern Congo. In the forests beyond various rebel groups continue to battle for control of this beautiful, mineral rich land.

Children from Burali crowd my car to talk about what happened to their village

By the road side soldiers, some not even yet in their teens, swagger by with machine guns looking menacing and bored. Others man road blocks. Anyone wishing to pass must pay tolls. This is a country where you're never more than a few steps from uniformed figures with hands out.

Me walking through smashed door of the looted Burali medical centre

But it's in the hills above Bukarvu that the military men have made their biggest mark. We drove past lines of civilians carrying heavy loads. Lugging tables, chairs and other household items on their backs they appeared to be taking orders from scruffy looking soldiers following close behind. Looting is widespread and it seems that those responsible can't even be bothered to carry their booty themselves.

Woman who was raped by a soldier only hours after I'd arrived in Burali

It gets worse when we arrive at the village of Burali, about two hours bumpy drive from Bukarvu. Locals surround our UN car and begin to talk of the atrocities they've witnessed. Some have had their homes burnt down, others have been raped and just about all have been looted. One woman told me how her middle-aged mother had been stripped naked and robbed in the street.

Riders on the banks of the Congo River in Kisangani

An elderly frail looking man took me to a patch of bare earth just outside the village where the bodies of more than thirty villagers had been found buried in a shallow grave. The soldiers, he said, had burst out of the jungle firing their guns. People had scattered and run as fast as they could but not everyone could run fast enough. Dozens were gunned down. When the soldiers had gone the survivors returned to discover the carnage. The UN, which has now launched an official investigation into what happened, says such massacres are common here.

Children accused of witchcraft and thrown onto the streets by their parents at a Kinshasa shelter with Ange Bay Bay, who runs it

As we left the village, just before sunset, a man wearing a large Red Cross badge on his chest flagged down our car. He told us that a woman had been half strangled and raped about an hour earlier and he needed to get her to hospital. We found the mother of six being cared for by relatives half a mile down the road. I recognised her bright yellow top. Only a short while earlier we had passed her on the road carrying some fire wood for her family. The village's medical centre had been trashed and then looted the week before so we set off for another hospital around fifteen miles away.

4-year-old Donas, who was abandoned by his father at the age of 18-months after his mother died. His father thought he was a witch and a spell was responsible for his mother's death.

That day, just outside the same village, another woman had been raped by around twenty renegade soldiers. She died several hours later.

As night falls in Burali its people head off to sleep in the bush to escape bands of militia men that come out of the jungle at night. In what resembles a macabre sort of shift system, rebel government soldiers who often loot and pillage by day vanish to be replaced by jungle based militia gangs who move in at night. One young mother told me: "I am like a guard now. I never shut my eyes at night because you never know when the next group of soldiers will come."

View the Congo photo gallery
Listen - Are claims of peace premature?
Listen - The high cost of war, plus Labour MP Oona King
Listen - Attempts to introduce a fully democratic form of government
Listen - We need four times as many troops to do our job properly: says UN Congo official

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