KANYABAYONGA, Congo — On one side of this mountaintop ghost town, a line of black-booted rebels approaches on foot with rockets and tin boxes of ammunition, seizing new territory with each footstep despite promises of a cease-fire.
On the other side, government soldiers in flip-flops balancing portable generators and luggage on their heads have begun to flee.
In between, the vast Central African nation's deepening humanitarian crisis is laid bare: Thousands of desperate civilians who used to live in this eastern Congo town huddle against coils of concertina wire surrounding a base for U.N. peacekeepers, waiting nervously for the rebels.
"We are hungry and thirsty, but we don't want any aid. We want security," said 30-year-old Jeff Machozi, who built a makeshift tent three days ago with tree branches and bamboo he ripped out of the earth. "We want this war to stop."
Clashes between fighters loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and the army and its allied spear-wielding militias exploded in August and has displaced at least 250,000 people.
But those refugee figures do not include remote towns like Kanyabayonga, whose entire population has fled, or Kayna, another town just to the north, which was also virtually deserted Monday. Kanyabayonga is about 80 miles north of the regional capital, Goma.
Though Nkunda told U.N. envoy Olusegun Obasanjo on Sunday that he was committed to a cease-fire, his troops have been carving out more territory in the remote hills north of Goma.
Early Monday, the rebels took control of Rwindi, the headquarters of Virunga National Park, after a night spent trading artillery and mortar fire with army forces. Rwindi is 10 miles south of Kanyabayonga.
U.N. peacekeepers at a base in Rwindi that was between the two sides said rounds flew overhead for more than an hour. Some exploded nearby, and one Indian soldier in a trench was wounded in the head by shrapnel, U.N. commanders at the base said.
Two government vehicles full of ammunition burned in the night, though peacekeepers said it wasn't clear if soldiers destroyed them by accident or to keep rebels from taking them.
By Monday morning, peacekeepers said they woke to find rebels in the town.
Monday afternoon, rebel fighters were already marching single-file by the side of the road north toward Kanyabayonga, which sits on a hilltop. Wearing crisp military uniforms and black Wellington boots, they carried rockets, generators and Kalashnikov rifles.
Halfway up the road that zigzags to the top of the densely forested mountain, an army soldier waved a car of approaching journalists to stop — his presence marking the front line.
Kanyabayonga itself was virtually deserted, except for handfuls of people still fleeing with everything they owned. Women carried babies and plastic yellow jerry cans and rolled mattresses on their backs. Children, doubled over under heavy loads, trekked behind.
Hundreds of soldiers could be seen in apparent retreat, walking down the same roads pushing wooden bikes laden with sacks, and carrying ammunition and bundles of belongings.
Hundreds of other troops stayed behind, though, scattered across the town of empty straw huts, their dry-mud walls held together with sticks.
One soldier in flip-flops, Jerome Roger, said government troops had fled Rwindi on the orders of their unit commander. He said he did not know his army's plans or strategy — he and his colleagues had no radios to communicate with other units.
"We retreated from Rwindi; maybe we'll retreat from here," Roger said, shrugging and smiling wildly as marijuana smoke wafted through the air.
On a hill near the U.N. base in Kanyabayonga, fearful residents tethered plastic tents to the jagged coils of concertina wire surrounding it. Others jammed tree branches into the ground, trying to build shelters.
John Mbusa, 60, said he fled Kanyabayonga last week after an earlier round of fighting drew near. He moved north with his wife and eight children, sleeping outside. Returning four days later, he found soldiers pillaging the town. "We didn't even stay home one night," Mbusa said. "They took everything we had, mattresses, money. They were drunk. We left immediately."
His next stop: the U.N. base.
Many residents had mixed feelings about the U.N. mission in Kanyabayonga. Its mere presence offers a modicum of security in a lawless part of the world, but refugees are skeptical about what protection the peacekeepers offer.
"The U.N. does nothing," Mbusa said. "When there is fighting, they don't even come out. They stare at us."
Civilians crowded around the U.N. base farther south in Rwindi made similar complaints, but said peacekeepers had brought them rice and curry and had allowed them to sleep — outside — beside a U.N. shipping container during Sunday night's exchange of artillery.
Congo has the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, with 17,000 troops, but the peacekeepers have been unable to either stop the fighting or protect civilians.