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Eastern Congo rebels thrive on fear, chaos

To residents of eastern Congo, the M23 fighters who have taken control of their region are bandits, not rebels. A peace deal with the government is unlikely, and hope for justice is remote.

December 11, 2012|By Robyn Dixon
  • M23 soldiers patrol in Rangira, near Rutshuru, in eastern Congo. United Nations experts say neighboring Rwanda armed and commanded the group, which rebelled against the Congolese army in April.
M23 soldiers patrol in Rangira, near Rutshuru, in eastern Congo. United… (Junior D. Kannah / AFP/Getty…)

Los Angeles Times

RUTSHURU, Democratic Republic of Congo — The rebels materialized out of the moist, heavy air, startling the woman as she tended her crops in the lush volcanic hills near the Rwandan border.

They wanted a bag of salt. No salt, and they'd kill her.

"You just do what they say," said Solange, a widow struggling to support a family in the midst of war.

To people like her who live in eastern Congo's North Kivu province, the M23 fighters who have taken control of their region are bandits, not rebels. After they seized Solange's village of Rutshuru in July and plundered all her beans, she fled south to the provincial capital, Goma.

It would prove to be no refuge. The rebels and the violence followed her.

The awesome serenity of the cloud-swathed emerald hills, twittering with bird life, home to mountain gorillas, is almost deep enough to erase, for a moment, successive waves of gruesome violence.

The region, an important source of minerals used in laptops and cellphones, was swept up in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Since then, it has become the scene of one of the great tragedies of the last century: Wars fueled by a toxic blend of resource riches, ethnic hatred and interfering neighbors have killed 5 million people.

In recent years, the area settled into a fragile peace. But militias still drain the country's wealth. There now are fears that eastern Congo could spiral into another long and bloody conflict.

United Nations experts say Rwanda armed and commanded M23, which rebelled against the Congolese army in April, and directly supported the rebels' attack on Goma.

Rwanda has been accused of backing militias and fueling conflict in the region for years, but it denies interfering. It has a security interest because Hutu militias responsible for the 1994 genocide fled into eastern Congo, where they continue to mount attacks. And with few mineral resources of its own, Rwanda has a strong economic interest in the region.

Among M23's reputed leaders is Bosco Ntaganda, a commander nicknamed the Terminator who was indicted in July by the International Criminal Court on suspicion of atrocities including murder, rape, sexual slavery and pillaging.

The M23 political leaders wear shiny silk suits, with labels like "High Class" left ostentatiously on the sleeve. They made Rutshuru their base, imposed compulsory weekend cleanup brigades for the entire population, planted grass around the administrative building and put up signs condemning corruption. They made the town look like a miniature copy of Rwanda, a country so tidy that all plastic bags are banned and seized at the border.

They also looted villages and killed an undetermined number of people.

Solange is 35 and belongs to the Nande tribe, the main ethnic group in North Kivu. Her husband was a government soldier who earned $55 a month before his death three years ago from malaria. They had no children.

On the farm, she grew cassava and beans to sell in the local market and always had plenty to eat. "Life was good," she said. After her husband's death, she had to support not only her family, including her parents and a younger sister with children, but her late husband's family too. In all, there were 15 mouths to feed.

M23 disrupted all that.

After fleeing to Goma, she stayed at a friend's house. She registered with an aid agency, hoping to get food assistance, but never received any.

"It's very difficult. Sometimes we don't have enough food," said Solange, who preferred not to use her last name out of concern for her safety.

Goma's idyllic lakeside setting could be a tourist haven in a parallel universe. But in this one, teenage boys and grimy men push heavy loads of water, wooden poles or potatoes. Women pound cassava leaves or fry tennis-ball-size lumps of dough in bubbling oil.

Solange didn't outrun M23 for long. The rebels seized Goma in November, looting, killing their enemies, raping women and then retreating after intense international pressure 11 days later, vowing to take the city back whenever they wanted. Peace talks between the Congolese government and rebels began Sunday, but a scheduled meeting Monday didn't take place because the rebels failed to attend.

A week after the rebels took Goma, there was a pro-M23 rally in the city, a ham-fisted propaganda stunt that fooled no one. The signs were mostly written by one person, and onlookers sneered that the participants were all maibobo — street boys. And it was a little embarrassing at the end of the march when participants like David Umbeni, a cleaner who smelled strongly of alcohol, loudly demanded their pay for taking part.

"They promised to give us two dollars, and now they're not giving it to us," he groused.

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