KITCHANGA, CONGO — The road to Gen. Laurent Nkunda's latest territorial conquest was lined with signs of the rebel leader's growing power, but also of the devastation his insurgency has wrought.
Rebel fighters in stolen government jeeps patrolled past deserted army camps. A column of traumatized civilians, many of whom have been displaced three times in the last week, filed past decomposing bodies of government soldiers in the road.
In one village they captured from the government, Nkunda supporters threw a victory party. Beleaguered residents of Rutshuru dutifully showed up and had the good sense to cheer for the new sheriff in town. But many acted as though they were living under occupation rather than liberation.
From his headquarters here in the steep, remote hills of eastern Congo, the tall, wiry rebel leader can survey the fruits of a two-month military campaign, which last week brought his forces to the doorstep of the regional capital, Goma. Many fear the insurgency is reigniting decades-old ethnic tensions that culminated in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
Nkunda, dressed in military fatigues and grasping a trademark eagle-headed walking cane as he received a group of foreign journalists, seemed to relish his standing as the latest African rebel to bomb his way into the international spotlight.
"The international community is now coming to us," Nkunda told the journalists, who traveled through the jungle to interview him Sunday in the village of Kitchanga. "Today we are strong because now the international community understands."
A military man who occasionally preaches as a part-time pastor, Nkunda has nearly doubled his territory since August and restocked his arsenal with antiaircraft guns and armored carriers looted from army bases. Some fear that his military strength and strategic position, including about 5,000 fighters, pose a threat to United Nations peacekeepers in the region. Goma is headquarters for a 17,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force, the largest in the world.
Congo's northeastern region, which in recent days saw thousands of panicked families flee displacement camps in fear for their safety, has been ravaged by unrest, disease and starvation for more than a decade, resulting in an estimated 5 million deaths. Rebels announced a unilateral cease-fire Wednesday.
Some diplomats and U.N. officials are urging Congolese President Joseph Kabila to hold direct talks with Nkunda, whom Kabila previously dismissed as a terrorist. Nkunda complained that the Kabila administration and the international community had ignored his demands for face-to-face peace talks, lumping his rebel movement with dozens of other militias that signed a January cease-fire agreement. At the time, Nkunda reluctantly signed, but in the aftermath of his military victories, Nkunda said the deal must be renegotiated.
In addition to direct talks, Nkunda said he wanted more control over government funds in the North Kivu region and replacements for the governor and regional military commander.
One aide hinted that Nkunda might like to be prime minister. But Nkunda's ascent has come at a high price in a region that was already one of Africa's worst humanitarian crises.
While Nkunda fights in the name of protecting ethnic minority Tutsis, nearly 200,000 people in the last two months have been driven from their homes in a region where aid officials say more than 1 million already had been displaced. Most of the latest victims are Hutus. More than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in Rwanda in 1994 during a three-month slaughter in which ordinary Hutus, armed by the government, turned against Tutsi neighbors, friends and even spouses.
Over the last 50 years, many Rwandan Tutsis and Hutus have immigrated to the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire.
Nkunda's recent campaign, which is aimed at crushing Hutu militias that crossed the border after carrying out the genocide, is fueling a backlash against Tutsis. As Nkunda's forces moved toward Goma last week, hundreds of Tutsis fled the city and sought temporary refuge in the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi.
"It's gotten so much worse," said one Tutsi government official in Goma.
Over the last week, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, received three anonymous phone calls, one of which ended with a flurry of obscenities and a death threat.
The official said some government operatives might even be laying the groundwork for a Rwanda-style genocide. A recent city questionnaire, used to issue special curfew-identification cards, included data about ethnicity. "I fear it's being planned," the official said.
North Kivu Gov. Julien Paluku Kahongya dismissed such fears as exaggeration and paranoia.
"Tutsis want to make attention for themselves," the governor, who is neither Hutu nor Tutsi, said in an interview. "There is no possibility of genocide here."