May 30, 2012 / 4:22 PM / 5 years ago

Revival in eastern Congo town crippled by fighting

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 30 (Reuters) - After nearly two decades at the heart of one of Africa's bloodiest conflicts, the people of the eastern Congolese town of Goma had started to see signs of hope.

Fighting largely stopped, shiny houses sprang up and even a few tourists started to appear. But then, after three years of relative peace, the gunfire rattled out again from the surrounding volcanic hills.

"People are afraid, they're traumatised. Farmers don't know what the future holds," said Kasuku Wa Ngeyo, a member of the Federation of Congolese Enterprises for North Kivu province.

"If the fighting intensifies we could lose everything."

A 2009 deal saw Congo's largest remaining rebel group, the CNDP, pledge to integrate its fighters into the national army. The deal stemmed fighting and saw a thaw in relations with neighbouring Rwanda, long accused of backing rebels in Congo.

The lull led to a small economic boom in North Kivu - a vital break from the ebb and flow of refugees and war that had gripped the province since Rwanda's 1994 genocide spilled into Congo.

But, after President Joseph Kabila said last month he planned to arrest a top ex-rebel commander who is wanted for war crimes, hundreds of fighters took to the hills again and weeks of clashes have forced 100,000 people from their homes.

Congo's government, which has dispatched helicopter gunships and tanks to pound rebels positions, has said it is verifying reports that Rwanda is recruiting and training rebel fighters. Kigali denies the charges.

Soldiers have deployed heavily across Goma, a dusty town of 800,000, which lies in the shadow of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano.

These days, few residents dare to venture out at night. Roads further afield have become even more dangerous than usual, they say.

Congo achieved 7 percent growth in 2011 and the World Bank says the country's fragile but steady economic recovery has been largely driven by farming in areas previously affected by conflict. But Wa Ngeyo warned the resurgence in clashes risked crippling current output from North Kivu.

At risk too are efforts to clean up the trade in the region's minerals, which include tin, tungsten and gold and have long been linked to funding numerous factions in the conflict.

John Kanyoni, the head of mineral exporters association in North Kivu, said an industry already struggling under the burden of international rules aimed at stamping out "conflict minerals" was being further hamstrung.

"Traceability programmes were supposed to be starting in the coming days (but now they can't) ... This conflict now, it's jeopardising all our efforts so far," Kanyoni said of schemes to prove that minerals were not coming from rebel-controlled mines.

Kanyoni said that the combination of the new regulations and the clashes had slashed turnover for the sector from around $50 million per month to one tenth of that in the last two years.

"There's no more business, it's completely dead," he said.

In the Birere district of Goma, the city's chaotic market is busy but vendors say that business is down and cash scarce.

Anastasie Nsimire sells petrol in small plastic cans, but complains that many clients in the villages and towns scattered around Goma cannot reach the city because the roads are cut.

"I was doing well before. The children had enough to eat. But in recent weeks its been terrible," 61 year-old mother of ten Nsimire told Reuters.

The fighting has also spread into the Virunga National Park, home to some of the world's last mountain gorillas and the backbone for a fledgling local tourist industry.

Park director Emmanuel de Merode said a targeted doubling of tourist revenues to $2 million this year was at risk.

"(Also) the gorillas are in the combat zone, it's possible we may have had gorillas killed," he said. (Editing by David Lewis and Andrew Heavens)

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