A mutiny in the Congolese national army metamorphosed into full-scale civil war and, in November 2012, the Banyamulenge-dominated M23 led by Brigadier-General Sultani Makenga captured Goma city.
The rebels celebrated their military victory and the Kinshasa regime was stunned. A humanitarian crisis ensued, as civilians were killed and thousands fled their homes.
We found Victorine, a mother of four, at the Sotraki Stadium, which hosted a refugee camp a few kilometres outside Goma, pondering how she would raise her children after her husband was killed in the four-day orgy of violence leading to the fall of Goma.
“Bombs were dropped on our houses,” said the former resident of Kibati suburb north of Goma town. Victorine and her children were among millions of civilians who were forced out of their homes in South Kivu Province.
The M23 rebels overran the province before capturing Goma as the UN peacekeeping forces — the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco) — watched helplessly.
Goma, a provincial capital with a population of one million people, fell on November 20, 2012, forcing more than 140,000 people to flee their homes. Many more were languishing in refugee camps. There were killings, rapes and looting.
Goma has witnessed many wars in the past 20 years.
“We have known no peace since 1994, when the rebellion against the Mobutu regime started here,” said James Mukakizima, a 54-year-old resident of Goma. “We thought the UN peacekeepers would keep us safe, but things keep worsening every year.
“I thought I wasn’t going to survive this war,” said the father of five in broken Kiswahili.
The fighting left devastated people, homes and infrastructure and a legacy of arms.
It was alleged that as Congolese soldiers withdrew from the frontline after being overpowered by the rebels, they started attacking those they considered M23 sympathisers, especially women. Minova, a satellite town 50km from Goma, bore the brunt of the sexual violence.
The UN said more than 200 women were raped, and more than 60 were from Minova.
Some 39 soldiers have been charged in court over these crimes.
But the mass rape in Minova was not isolated. The American Journal of Public Health said 1,152 women are raped every day, or 48 women every hour, in DRC. This rate is 26 times more than the previous estimate of 16,000 rapes reported in one year by the United Nations.
Data shows that 12 per cent of the female population of the DRC has been raped at least once.
The report published in June 2011 said that sexual crimes were rampant not only in conflict areas but also in homes.
The study, carried out by three public health researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute at Stony Brook University in New York, and the World Bank, was partly financed by the US government and based on figures from a nationwide household survey of 3,436 Congolese women aged 15 to 49 in 2007.
Michelle Hindin, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who specialises in gender-based violence, named Congo the worst place to be a woman. The UN did not dispute the findings by Prof Hindin, which she released in May 2011.
Between 1999 and 2012, when the UN peacekeeping force was deployed in DRC, about 5.4 million people died from war-related causes. The majority died from non-violent causes such as malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition — easily preventable and treatable conditions if people have access to health care and food.
The UN peacekeepers were deployed in the DRC in 1999, after the UN Security Council, alarmed by the bloody war, adopted Resolution 1279 establishing the Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known by its French acronym, Monuc.
It was aimed at protecting civilians and UN staff, monitoring ceasefire agreements and cross-border movements of military forces and arms, facilitating humanitarian assistance and the return of refugees.
It would also protect and promote human rights, co-ordinate mine removal and support national dialogue.
Monuc’s mandate was widened in 2013 to neutralise armed groups through an intervention brigade and help to establish a rapid reaction force within the Congolese national army (FARDC) to eventually take over the responsibilities of the UN Forces Intervention Brigade.
Neighbours alarmed, divided
But, while the UN sees the mission as a success, the Congolese people and regional leaders see it as a failure.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, while attending a Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting in Dar es Salaam a few weeks after M23 captured Goma, referred to the UN forces as “a bunch of tourists,” alluding to their inaction in the face of the escalating violence in eastern DRC.
In December 2012, Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi agreed to deploy their forces in eastern Congo under SADC.
“If the UN mission were working effectively, there wouldn’t have been a need for an intervention brigade,” said Tanzania’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Membe. “The Congolese are suffering and that’s why we need to deploy neutral forces.”
The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo costs close to $1.4 billion a year, meaning in the past 12 years it has spent a whopping $16.8 billion, making it the second most expensive mission in the world. The most expensive force is stationed in Darfur, and spends between $1.5 billion and $1.8 billion a year.
According to the UN, there are 18,884 soldiers, military observers and police with a support staff of 3,941 in DRC.
In the 2010/11 financial year, Monusco was allocated $1.369 billion, of which $821,324,900 — or 60 per cent — went to salaries.
In the 2009/2010 financial year, the mission received $1.352 billion.
The $16.8 billion spent so far to bankroll the peacekeepers is more than 67 per cent of the country’s GDP.
The annual cost of maintaining the peacekeepers is equivalent to 17.5 per cent of the country’s annual budget, which in 2012 was $8 billion.
DRC’s neighbours have continued questioning Monusco’s role as the violence spreads.
“You have a UN peacekeeping mission in Congo spending $1.5 billion every year for the past 12 years. Nobody ever asks, ‘What do we get out of this?’” said Rwandan President Paul Kagame. “Why don’t you give half of this to the Congolese to build schools, to build roads, to give them water and pay these soldiers who rape people every day?”
In spite of Monusco’s presence in DRC, peace has remained elusive in the east. The result has been the mushrooming of rebel groups, who claim to be motivated by the poor economic and social conditions in the country.
Although the majority of these groups say they are fighting for the liberation of Congo, most of them operate in the mineral-rich areas, where there are easy pickings.
While M23 have been more in the news, there are more than 25 rebel groups that operate in just two provinces, North and South Kivu. They have shifting alliances and fluid control of their territories, but they try to hang around the lucrative tin and gold mines, and control certain routes, taxing traders, according to a report released by UK-based aid group, Oxfam.
Other rebel groups in the region are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) — Rwandan Hutu rebels who fled to DR Congo after the genocide in 1994 — the Maï Maï militias, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), Allied Democratic Forces/National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF/NALU), and the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri/Popular Front for Justice in Congo (FRPI/FPJC).
All these groups benefit from the war.
“The war is business — big business,” said a UN official who sought anonymity.
“Of the $1.37 billion budget, nearly half goes to international suppliers in US and Europe,” said the official of the Secretary-General’s Representative’s Office (SGRO) in Congo.
“There are people who would like to see this situation continue so that they can benefit from it, and there are those who are using this situation to make billions through the plunder of Congo’s natural resources.
“The FDLR has been making millions of dollars; M23 controls timber and mining businesses and taxes locals in order to finance its operations,” the official added.
Gen Makenga confirmed to The EastAfrican that M23 raised its money through timber, mining and “taxing locals.” This was also confirmed by the reports of the UN Group of Experts.
According to a 2009 report by the group, the rebel groups engaged in smuggling of gold from North Kivu and South Kivu.
A report of the DRC Senate published the same year estimated that 40 tonnes of gold worth $1.24 billion was smuggled out of the country annually.
The FDLR were allegedly earning close to $50 million annually from the illegal gold trade, which they used to finance their military operations in eastern Congo.
In 2009, the UN Group of Experts traced the flow of gold from mines controlled by the FDLR and other militias, through Uganda and Burundi to the United Arab Emirates.
Supporting the rebels
The UN also accused Uganda and Rwanda of supporting the rebels in Congo, allegations that Kampala and Kigali denied.
“They are making up this rubbish because on the ground in the eastern DRC there is the biggest number of UN peacekeepers with the largest budget in the whole world, yet they have failed to do anything,” said Ugandan State Minister for Foreign Affairs Okello Oryem.
“They are blaming their shortcomings on Uganda and Rwanda. They should get on with what they came to do in eastern DRC instead of blaming others.”
Part II next week: How illicit trade in DRC helped M23 leaders to finance the rebellion