RUTSHURU, Congo – Peace wasn’t sweet – it tasted like soggy crackers – when a warlord surrendered in Congo’s lawless east on Saturday.

Kasereka Kabamba, the shaved-headed chief of a militia known for dressing in animal pelts and invoking magical powers in battle, gave himself up “for the good of the people” at a United Nations military base. Indian peacekeepers in short pants offered bowls of cookies and saltines to the 29 sulky gunmen and one wide-eyed boy, aged about 9, who joined in Kasereka’s capitulation.

Congolese officers worked their cell phones to book hotel rooms for their erstwhile enemies. And a gray drizzle fell on all – including a crowd of hollow-eyed civilians. Not one of them cheered. They were among the at least 370,000 hapless people displaced by fighting in eastern Congo this year.

“It is a good day for Congo,” said Gen. Mayala Kiama, the senior government officer on the scene. “But it is just a first step.”

Indeed, four years after concluding a grisly civil war, and a year after its first-ever democratic elections, Congo – Africa’s frail colossus – has yet to exert control over its vast and exceedingly violent eastern frontier, where a rabble of warring militias, both homegrown and foreign, have carved out competing fiefdoms in the jungle.

The surrender of Kasereka, a warlord who commands some 1,000 mystically inclined fighters called the Mayi-Mayi, is the first positive news in a year of calamities in eastern Congo whose scale may rival the suffering of Darfur.

Today, most of the violence is centered in the nation’s beautiful and rugged North Kivu province, where a renegade general named Laurent Nkunda is waging a seesawing campaign against both the government and volatile militias such as the Mayi-Mayi.

It was a Mayi-Mayi attack on Nkunda’s forces that unleashed the latest fiasco: Last Saturday alone, about 30,000 villagers stampeded away from the fighting. Pregnant women gave birth on roads. Families scattered into the bush. The town of Rutshuru was swamped by a tidal wave of dazed and hungry farmers.

Such floods of terrified people are now a common feature amid the lush green valleys, glistening coffee plantations and jagged blue volcanoes of the region.

“About a third of the population here is displaced by war,” said Sylvie Vanden Wildenberg, a spokeswoman with MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo. “The Congolese people are suffering like never before.”

The roots of eastern Congo’s woes, experts long have noted, lie buried deep in neighboring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Thousands of Hutu extremists who butchered some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda later escaped into Congo’s forests. There they organized guerrilla cells that have morphed into the group of armed groups lurking in Congo’s wild east today.

More worrisome still, Rwanda’s toxin of ethnic hatred also seems to be poisoning Congo. Eastern Congo’s most feared warlord, Nkunda, is an ethnic Tutsi who says he is protecting his minority group in Congo from a repeat slaughter by Hutu militias.

“I am walking out of the bush, and so must he,” Kasereka, the hawk-faced Mayi-Mayi chieftain who turned himself in to the UN peacekeepers, said grandly. “Let all the factions join together in the Congolese army.”

Congo’s government has just such a plan. But pacifying eastern Congo, one warlord at a time, might take awhile. UN military sources estimate there are 40,000 militiamen under arms, loyal to at least four political or ethnic movements, in North Kivu province alone.

“I am trying to be happy,” said Bahati Hagumimana, 29, a displaced farmer watching the warlord surrender from behind a scroll of razor wire. “But I still don’t trust this enough to go home.”

Hagumimana’s pregnant sister-in-law was killed in the recent fighting. He doesn’t know who did it. They were just men in uniforms.

(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-27-07 2047EDT

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