The October downpour had stopped but the imposing Mt Nyiragongo in the distance was still shrouded in clouds. As the sunshine increased in intensity, sending small plumes of smoke wafting skyward from nearby fields strewn with molten lava, the long line of SUVs screeched to a stop.
The occupants were members of the UN Security Council on a fact finding mission in the DR Congo and it had been decided that they would visit and hear firsthand accounts of the victims of the M23 rebellion.
Established to accommodate Rwandan refugees in 1994, the Mugunga camp held close to 160,000 internally displaced Congolese. The diplomats were soon ushered into a single-room wooden structure where a group of women, all victims of sexual violence sat. The women, who had been talking in whispers, shook their heads and wailed in unison when told that the visitors had come.
With the visiting diplomats and their retinue standing before them, the gathered women were told to talk about their lives.
“White people come here,” one woman said through a translator while others sobbed, “but it didn’t get any better. The last time white people visited, the camp was bombed.”
Another woman with outstretched hands knelt before Samantha Power, US ambassador and wept, saying, “We don’t know the names of you people, but we know you are powerful. Every time we move out of this place, we are raped by bandits.” Ms Power, seemingly moved, wrote something in her notebook as the woman resumed her seat.
“The Security Council for the past two years has tried to improve the situation from a humanitarian standpoint and a security standpoint too,” said Ms Power.
“We understand from what you said here that it’s not been enough. But we’re here because we care deeply about your suffering… What would it take for you to feel safe enough to go home?”
The women, all trying to speak at once, did not ask for more food, shelter, warm clothing, medicine or school fees for their children. According to one woman, “We don’t want Rwanda to take a single metre of our land.” Another knelt down and requested that the diplomats put sanctions on Rwanda.
Trouble in eastern DRC
The M23 mutiny within the Congolese army (FARDC) cannot be seen as a singular event and must be understood within its historical context.
The trouble in eastern DR Congo that persists to this day, can be traced to 1991 when Zairean authorities set up a commission to identify “non-Congolese” in North and South Kivu and Maniema.
In the wake of the introduction of multiparty politics coupled with fear of an incredible opposition to then president Mobutu Sese Seko’s Movement Populaire de la Révolution long grip on the country, tribal allegiances were revived.
The first large-scale ethnic massacres against Banyarwanda (Hutu and Tutsi) by the Hunde and Nyanga began in the village of Mtutu, North Kivu Province on March 20, 1993 in response to a speech days earlier by the governor of North Kivu Jean-Pierre Kalumbo Mbogho questioning the nationality of the former.
Mobutu, while secretly encouraging the ethnic conflict to undermine the burgeoning opposition, visited Goma in July 1993, promised the Banyarwanda citizenship and voting rights and sacked the provincial governor of North Kivu.
It is a historical truth that before the Belgians arrived in the late 19th century, North Kivu, parts of South Kivu as well as parts of Uganda were part of the Rwandan kingdom. Banyarwanda held customary power notably in Rutshuru, in the administrative sectors of Gisigari, Jomba and Bwiza, and therefore Zairean Banyarwanda did not need to be granted citizenship.
By January 1994, aid workers reported that tribal warfare between the Hunde, Nyanga and Banyarwanda (Hutu and Tutsi) had resulted in over 10,000 deaths and over 250,000 displaced persons.
Between July and August, 1994, eastern Congo experienced an influx of Hutu refugees fleeing Rwanda that included the defeated army and Interahamwe militia, many of whom were still armed. The refugees tilted the balance in favour of the Banyarwanda, but in the process split them and turned local Hutus against Tutsis.
Between March and April 1996, more than 2,600 Congolese Tutsis fled to Nkamira near the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi, joining thousands who had fled earlier. Others went to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, where they still live as refugees 20 years later.
The government of Zaire and later that of DR Congo under Kabila encouraged other ethnic groups to hunt and kill the Tutsi minority. These refugees mainly came from Masisi, Nyiragongo, Walikale, Lubero, and Rutshuru territories of North Kivu. It is when these attacks were extended to the Banyamulenge, the Tutsi of South Kivu Province, that Zaire’s history and name changed.
It is from these forced migrations and refugees that successive Congolese rebel groups have thrived and it is also due to fear of return of these refugees that many people in eastern Congo do not want peace with the rebel groups.
The issue of the return of refugees and access to their property, especially land, is the driving force in conflicts. The refugees cannot live in eastern Congo because of hostility from other tribes who see themselves as the true Congolese, and the threat posed by Rwandan rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a remnant of the defeated Rwanda government forces that has been operating in DR Congo since they were defeated in Rwanda 22 years ago.
In all the peace and ceasefire agreements, protocols and accords made in and over eastern Congo for the past 20 years, FDLR, characterised as a “negative force,” has featured and resolutions made to disarm and repatriate them to Rwanda, have been made. The group was next in the line of fire by FIB, Monusco and Congolese army but international and Congolese politics left it in place.
The latest Congolese rebel group — the M23 rebellion — was formed on April 4, 2012 and had its roots in earlier rebellions. All of the successive eastern Congo rebellions have recruited and solicited support from refugees with promises of repatriation and access to their grazing lands. But as they grow in strength, they regress into national politics of democracy and development before they are assimilated into the national army.
At the height of M23, over 30 armed groups operated in eastern Congo. After the defeat of M23, fighters in these groups simply disbanded and went home. Even the FDLR notorious for pillaging the Congolese kept a low profile.
The defeat of M23 was predictable when they held territory and established governance structures, paraded themselves in open view of the UN troops, failed to counter government and some non-governmental organisations misinformation on rapes, mineral trading and looting, made threats against Federal Bureau of Investigations and failed to articulate the refugee issue.
Operating in small units as a guerrilla army would have served M23 better. Many fighters in M23 are now refugees in Uganda and Rwanda, angrier and hungrier than before. They joined their parents and siblings who have been in other refugee camps for decades. The refugees who have lost trust in the regional and international efforts to repatriate them will rally around the next person to champion their cause.
Tribal and sectarian sentiments are still high in both Kivus fanned by different interests more than 26 years after Mobutu used them to shore up his collapsing dictatorship.
Considering the trend, the next rebel leader in eastern Congo will be less astute, more brutal, less inclined to respect regional peace initiatives and a more military strategist than all the previous ones. The leader will articulate the issue of refugees better and will not be yorked to DR Congo’s eastern neighbours. It is a question of when.
Emma Kabanda is a development economist based in Kigali.