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"C'était beau ici," says a Congolese, on entering the little town of Nyakunde. It is easy to see how the town might indeed once have been beautiful. The town nestles amidst soft green hills. Banana trees and oil palms, acacia and eucalyptus grow in profusion.

Now, though, to enter Nyakunde - which once had 20,000 inhabitants - feels like entering a ghost town, a kind of Congolese Mary Celeste. A few thousand inhabitants have returned. But this is indeed a place of ghosts. The survivors, meanwhile, are waiting for justice.

On the once-bustling main street, buildings have partly vanished beneath the creepers that have enfolded them in the past three years. There are no obvious signs of the nightmare that engulfed Nyakunde. Instead, a terrible emptiness remains.

The once-admired hospital, whose fame and reputation spread well beyond the immediately surrounding district, is deserted except for a few chickens clucking their way through the wards. In the former operating theatre, a few pieces of remaining equipment, now broken, hang forlornly.

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has had a higher civilian death toll than any other conflict since the Second World War. More than three million have died, in massacres and from disease and starvation because people were too frightened to return to their homes.

The events of Nyakunde were horrific even by the standards of the Congolese war. The killing spree began on 5 September 2002. From the hills above the town, militias descended on Nyakunde. The attack lasted for 10 days, including a door-to-door operation which the militias called Operation Polio - mass murder as social vaccination. The hospital was a particular target for looting, burning and slaughter.

A woman described watching her eight-month-old daughter killed in front of her. A group of 14 hid in the ceiling of the operating room for several days without food or water, until the militias discovered them and dragged them out. Some were taken to a nearby house which served as a makeshift prison for those who were of the wrong ethnic identity or who opposed the killings. One woman later remembered: "In the room where we were, a two-week-old baby died. His body was thrown into the latrine." Another survivor, who helped to bury hundreds of bodies, described: "We broke the latrines to put them in there, as there was no time to dig proper graves."

At least 1,200 people were murdered during those days. Most in Nyakunde believe the numbers of dead to be closer to 3,000; two ethnic groups, the Hema and the Bira, were especially targeted. Rape was widespread - one survivor remembers how she and two other women were repeatedly raped for an hour and a half. "There were about nine fighters. Four of them had guns, others had machetes, spears and axes. They made us strip and then they raped us." With insane courage, somebody in the hospital sent an e-mail, even as the killings were still under way. The e-mail was headed "Nyakunde - on fire and in blood". Church groups forwarded the message to the United Nations mission in Congo. The UN did not respond.

Two obvious factors motivating the Congo conflict have, as ever, been power and greed. North-eastern Congo contains some of the richest mineral deposits in the world. That should be a blessing. But as one gold miner said: "We are cursed because of our gold. All we do is suffer. There is no benefit to us."

Greed and violence are constant twins in a country where gold, diamonds and other precious minerals are found in abundance. The brutal Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country (Zaire, as he renamed it) from 1965 until his overthrow in 1997, helped to ensure that the word "kleptocracy" gained international currency. Following the spectacular example of King Leopold of Belgium a century earlier, Mobutu diverted Congo's wealth into his many bank accounts.

Western companies - though less obviously cynical than in Conrad's day- have continued to let the desire for mineral riches trump considerations of human rights. Last year, Human Rights Watch documented the relationship between AngloGold Ashanti, one of the world's largest (and most respected) gold companies, and a murderous warlord in the muddy gold-mining town of Mongbwalu, in the rainforest 30 miles from Nyakunde. As the (now-jailed) warlord in Mongbwalu boasted: "If I want to chase [AngloGold Ashanti] away, then I will." (In the wake of the publication of Human Rights Watch's report, The Curse of Gold, AngloGold pledged not to support such militia groups in the future.)

There are glimmers of hope on the horizon, despite the renewed violence that continued in eastern Congo in recent weeks. National elections are due in April which could pave the way for long-term peace. The International Criminal Court has made the crimes committed in Congo the subject of its first investigation. Those who bear ultimate responsibility for the killings of Nyakunde and elsewhere may yet face justice.

The mayor of Nyakunde, Jean Gaston Herambo, certainly hopes so. Scattered through the town, there are mass graves - bodies were thrown down a well, buried in latrines, and elsewhere. Mr Herambo wants to build a monument to the dead. At the side of his house lies what appears to be a macabre memento - a box containing 20 skulls. The violent deaths are all too clear; the skulls are marked with jagged gashes from the killers' machetes. But Mr Herambo's intentions are not macabre. He hopes this and the mass graves can yet yield valuable evidence for investigators: "It is important that [the killers] should be judged and brought to justice so that this can't happen again."

Previously, such hopes might have seemed mere fantasy. No longer, perhaps. The ICC investigation means that everything could change. The court's chief prosecutor has said that, after two years of investigations, the first Congolese arrest warrants will probably be issued soon.

A number of the most feared warlords are already behind bars in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. If the ICC brings charges against them, they are likely to be transferred to the Hague. So far, so almost simple. But the court faces a challenge, in Nyakunde and elsewhere.

The machete-bearing young men and their leaders who came whooping down from the hills into Nyakunde, intent on killing men, women and children, committed criminal acts. But they did not act alone. Those who bear the ultimate responsibility for these and other massacres remain in high places - including in the Congolese government in Kinshasa and senior military commanders in neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda.

It remains to be seen whether the court is ready to grasp this crucial nettle, or whether the belief in a putative "stability" will mean those who bear ultimate responsibility for some of Congo's bloodiest crimes remain untouched by the law. There are unhappy precedents for this eagerness to prosecute lesser crimes, while the worst crimes remain unaddressed. Thus, after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, it was initially suggested that the former Serb leader might go on trial in Belgrade on charges of corruption - while the most deadly crimes of his regime would be ignored.

In Congo, those who have argued hardest on behalf of the ICC hope that justice will not pick and choose according to the political comfort zone, but will not hesitate to put those who bear ultimate responsibility for the massacres of recent years in the dock. Joel Bisubu of Justice Plus, a Congolese NGO, which has played a key role in documenting human rights abuses across the region, argues: "People are forced to choose between peace and justice. But you can't have peace without justice. The people who are dead are dead. But if you try to compromise peace for justice, that doesn't help."

At least now there is the chance that justice may be achieved. The massive loss of life at Nyakunde and elsewhere in eastern Congo went almost unremarked by the rest of the world at the time. But prosecution of those responsible could send a message that, finally, the determination to turn a blind eye to evil has changed.

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