Fictional nightmare becomes Congo reality

John le Carré's latest novel, The Mission Song, describes an MI6-backed plot to mount a coup in the eastern Great Lakes region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). An anonymous business syndicate, eyeing the mineral riches of North and South Kivu provinces, encourages rival militia leaders to join forces under the auspices of a sinister populist, Mwangaza the Enlightener.The fictitious plotters' idea is to throw off the authority of the "fat cats" in the far-off capital of Kinshasa, weaken Rwandan influence, and set up some sort of autonomous, ostensibly democratic state. But ethnic and personal rivalries, spiced with incompetence and rank treachery, ultimately reduce the plan to chaos.

Direct comparisons between Le Carré's story and current, real-world, North Kivu are problematic. But there are striking similarities. A charismatic rebel general, Laurent Nkunda, is fighting President Joseph Kabila's government in Kinshasa. Supporters say he is the indigenous Tutsi population's only defence against Hutu Interahamwe fighters spawned by the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Critics dismiss him as an opportunistic warlord.

Nkunda is opposed by an alliance of the Congolese army, the Rwandan FDLR and Patriotic Resistance militias, and local Mai Mai groups. After a ceasefire collapsed this autumn, detachments of the UN peacekeeping force, known by its French acronym, Monuc, have also backed up government forces around the provincial capital, Goma.

But to the dismay of the UN, the EU and aid agencies, Nkunda is not merely holding out. In the past week, he has decisively routed Kabila's 20,000-strong army. The conflict, now lacking any obvious military or other solution, suddenly threatens to rekindle the civil war that in theory ended in 2003, and spark a new regional free-for-all for land, oil and minerals.

The chaos Le Carré conjured in North Kivu is now a cruel reality. António Guterres, the UN refugee agency chief, warned during a visit this week of an accelerating humanitarian catastrophe.

Forty thousand people have fled their homes in the Goma area in the past month and unknown numbers have died. More than 400,000 have been displaced in the past year; nearly a million overall are in need of assistance. Supposedly non-permanent UN refugee camps are already overcrowded, and are used for recruiting by both sides.

Both government and rebel forces are accused of the worst excesses against civilians. "Every time these belligerents fight each other, they have killed, raped and looted civilians," said Anneke van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch. And both sides are using child soldiers. "Hundreds of boys and girls continue to be sent to the front line by armed groups in North Kivu ... Others are used for logistical tasks or as sex slaves," a UN statement said. Meanwhile, diseases including cholera, meningitis and measles are taking a growing toll among the uprooted.

"We know how much you have suffered. Members of your families have been killed, your homes have been burned and you have lost your harvest," Guterres told refugees near Goma. As UN officials reported it, a one-eyed woman replied: "I was not born with one eye. The rebels attacked us one night, tied us up and beat us. They gouged out my eye and raped me."

As the crisis deepens, Monuc, with 4,500 of its 17,000 troops in North Kivu, is facing familiar criticism for failing to protect civilians. The related failure to disarm and deport Hutu militias in Kivu - a key rebel demand - and the collapse in May of a so-called "mixage" process to integrate Nkunda's troops into the regular army have speeded the descent into darkness. More broadly, the crisis threatens the western-constructed edifice that finally produced democratic elections last year and security and economic reforms.

Regional analysts fear prolonged fighting in North Kivu could provoke another intervention by Rwanda's Tutsi-led government and trigger a wider conflagration. So far that repeat nightmare has been avoided. But peacekeeping troops are needed in Darfur and Monuc's security council mandate expires on December 31. The mission is costing an estimated $3m a day. By now, the international community had hoped the Congo would have calmed down. Instead it is boiling over.

The likelihood is the UN will stay. It will have no choice. But if the Congo is ever to be truly fixed, a brand new mission song may be needed.

Simon Tisdall