The hills around Bunagana have been sporadically echoing the sound of gunfire over the past week, with occasional shelling and shooting in the early morning and late afternoon. Today, following an apparent offensive by M23 rebels on a Congolese army position near the village of Kinyamahura in the Jomba parish, the air was thick with the sound of pounding shells.
Many of the villages in Jomba have already emptied, but driving down the road from Bunagana towards Rutshuru, an eerie quiet reigned along the road; the displaced had already fled.
Columns of exhausted FARDC soldiers trudged towards Bunagana this morning, enervated from the fighting that began at around 4am. They were angry and dejected, having lost one of their forward positions. In the opposite direction, dark green army trucks sped past, filling the conflict zone with new fighters, hoping to take back their base.
Edging towards the fighting, the sound of heavy gunfire flooded through the thick, green vegetation. The rebels had captured the hill of Bugasa, occupying an advantageous position over the better armed FARDC troops.
From the narrow, dirt road leading towards Kinyamahura, a jeep took aim and opened up deafening rounds of anti-aircraft fire, trained on the rebels in the facing hillside. Around them, bullets zipped overhead.
Back in Bunagana, United Nations peace-keepers have set up a new mobile operating base, as twitchy troops from the Fourth Indian Battalion patrolled the main road adjacent to it. Lieutenant General Chandar Prakash, the UN Force Commander in Congo, visited Bunagana today to meet with community representatives in an attempt to reassure civilians that the peacekeepers would protect them here. Below where he sat with them, the cacophony of the unfolding battle rumbled up the hill, just a few kilometres from where they were seated.
Just before he got back in his helicopter, he greeted a crowd of people congregating around the landing site. “You don’t have anything to worry about whilst we are here”, he told them, encouraging them not to panic. But as the fighting around Bunagana reaches a new level of intensity, and with only around fifty peacekeepers in town, it is hard to say how reassuring those words were.