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Malemba-Nkulu is a small town on the upper reaches of the Congo River. Since late last year, the town has swelled with the arrival of some 18,000 refugees who left their villages to escape fighting between government troops and a vicious rebel outfit known as the Mai Mai. Most arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Sitting outside a modest house where they rent a room, Ngoi Banza Leontine, 45, and her husband Monji Banza, 47, say they fled the fighting with their nine children just before Christmas, after the Mai Mai came to their village and burned many of the houses. The Mai Mai, who believe in magic and occultism, began cutting open people's stomachs even before killing them to take parts of their bodies for fetishes. Leontine says she is haunted by the memory of one friend's death. The woman was killed by a machete and then beheaded. "Her head was put on a stick on the edge of the village. I was very, very sad because it was someone I knew," Leontine says softly, holding her 7-month-old baby boy to her chest to keep him quiet. "Whoever could flee ran as fast as possible. They raped women and burned the houses ... Sometimes people were still inside them." Says her husband, who works for local farmers for about 25¢ a day: "They took tongues and thumbs and the genitals of women and men. We want to have a normal life. We need clothes and mosquito nets."
For millions of Congolese like Esperance Live, every day seems to bring a fight for survival. TIME met her last year in a rundown government hospital in Bunia, a dusty town in Congo's northeast. Her son Jonathan, 2, was propped up on a tangled wad of clothes atop a rusting bed; he hadn't moved his limbs or spoken for weeks. Live had already endured a lifetime of sorrow. She lost two children to treatable illnesses. Her sister, her father and an aunt were all murdered in attacks by one of the ethnic militias that terrorize this corner of Congo. Doctors at the hospital determined that Jonathan had meningitis, a life-threatening but treatable inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. Françoise Ngave, a nurse in the children's ward, said, "If he stays here, he can live," but his mother had little hope left.
Congo's history often seems like an uninterrupted tale of woe. After decades of often brutal foreign rule, first as the private possession of King Leopold II of Belgium and then as a Belgian colony, Congo won its independence in 1960. But within months its first elected Prime Minister had been killed by Belgium- and U.S.-backed opponents because of his growing ties to the Soviet Union, an assassination that eventually opened the way for army general Mobutu Sese Seko to grab power. A U.S. favorite during the cold war, Mobutu presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in African history, siphoning off billions from state-owned companies and allowing most of the country to languish. In 1996 neighboring Rwanda and Uganda jointly invaded Congo to eliminate the Hutu militias, known as the Interahamwe, that had been responsible for the Rwandan genocide and were hiding in Congo's eastern forests. As the invading armies advanced across the country, Mobutu fled, and the invaders installed a small-time rebel leader named Laurent Kabila as President.