Don’t blink. If you look away for a moment here in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, everything changes.
The rebel force run by Laurent Nkunda (National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP), that just weeks ago was battling the Congolese government and poised to capture Goma itself, is no more. Its soldiers have been integrated into the same army they fought in the hills of North Kivu for years, the charismatic and once seemingly untouchable rebel commander arrested by his one-time ally, Rwanda.
Earlier this year Rwanda and Congo launched a surprise joint military operation to fight the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FDLR) and flush them out of the jungles, with some success in demobilizing – or killing – a portion of this rag tag rebel force that increasingly seems to lack a motivating political purpose.
Taken at face value these events are positive, suggesting a possibly fundamental turn in the stalemate that has long characterized the conflict in eastern Congo. But it is premature to state that the region is on the road to reclaiming its security and prosperity—or that it will be safe for Congolese to return from IDP camps to communities ravaged by fighting and pillaging.
The joint operation may be a sign of thawing relations between Rwanda and Congo, but is viewed here mainly as an opportunistic move, one that does not promise peaceful relations in the future. Some experts suggest Rwanda may have agreed to arrest Nkunda in exchange for Congo allowing them to fight the FDLR directly. A UN report released last December that alleged direct support by Rwanda for the CNDP, also increased international pressure on Rwanda to make a serious move towards dealing with Nkunda.
General Nkunda may be out of the game, but long time second in command Bosco Ntaganda, indicted by the International Criminal Court for atrocities against civilians and recruiting children to fight over the past decade, is on the scene with support from both Rwanda and Congo, and was even invited to help lead the joint operation against the FDLR.
Already the FDLR has struck back in revenge for the operation in recent weeks, attacking villages in Lubero in North Kivu, burning hundreds of homes and displacing up to 250,000 civilians since last September, wanting to prove to the world that they are still a force to be reckoned with. Nearly a million people remain displaced in North Kivu.
And while many sigh with the relief that the imminent threat of Nkunda’s CNDP in North Kivu has subsided, integrations of rebel groups into the army, processes with names like “brassage” and “mixage”, have failed spectacularly in years past, erupting into renewed violence. The fall offensive by the CNDP started just months after they, along with other armed groups, signed a peace deal at a conference in Goma earlier in the year. Loyalties to commanders – as well as arms caches – are not forgotten overnight, and the CNDP could be quickly revived if the calculation of power changes for Bosco or other leaders.
Finally, and most importantly, the tangled mess of former militias that is the Congolese army- unpaid, corrupt and completely unaccountable for its actions- still runs rampant throughout Eastern Congo, and along with the FDLR is responsible for the worst exactions against civilians, especially sexual violence. Eastern Congo remains one of the very worst places to be a woman, the rape capital of the world.
The all-too-real human consequences of a crisis going back 15 years are still easily apparent here in Goma.
Here in the capital of North Kivu, a city devastated by the volcano Nyarigongo in 2002 (which scientists suggest could erupt again in the coming months), hundreds of thousands of displaced persons still haunt the half dozen camps and shanty towns on the city’s outskirts.
The largest single camp, Mugunga, today with a population of 27,000, offers a sad illustration of both the change and constancy that has defined this area since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Just after the genocide millions of Hutu refugees, including the genocidaires who perpetrated the killing of Tutsis and moderate Hutu, fled Rwanda and gathered here in Mugunga and other camps. They would occupy this desolate land on the outskirts of Goma, between the volcano and serene Lake Kivu, for the next several years, organizing attacks into Rwanda from the camps themselves.
After Rwanda invaded in order to end the threat once and for all (and at the same time, some experts say, seizing vast mineral resources and indiscriminately exacting revenge in Hutu communities), the camps were destroyed, killers and refugees fleeing deep into the jungles of Congo. Today, the remnants of the genocidaires and others recruited here over the past decade, who formed what is today the FDLR, continue to loot, rape, torture and kill. The fleeing residents come here to Goma, where they live in the same camps once inhabited by their attackers.
Here in Eastern Congo, the only constant at times appears to be the misery inflicted on the population, yet there may well be light around the corner. The moment one believes the reality of this place is set in stone, Congo always has another surprise in store.
Posted By: Michael Graham | May 19, 2009 | Comments (0)