Congolese soldiers pose after a successful advancement in Kibati. Photos by Theo Anthony
The Congolese army drove M23 rebels from positions overlooking the city of Goma last week, scoring its biggest victory since the uprising began 16 months ago. The rebels who had terrorized the area retreated after an offensive by the Congolese military and a new United Nations combat force. The fighting resulted in a meeting of the presidents of Congo and Rwanda last Thursday. They called for peace talks to resume within three days’ time between the Congolese government and the rebel movement that is widely believed to be backed by Rwanda.
Goma, a Congolese city bordering Rwanda, is the flashpoint at the heart of the conflict ravaging eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The fighting between the Congolese army and the M23 rebels erupted two weeks ago. It marked a decisive turning point in the conflict, but once again, civilians were put in the direct line of fire. The city now faces bombed-out schools, a stalled economy, and a climate of fear.
After a week under attack, with blasts and falling bombs throughout the city, several civilians were killed and a 15-meter section of the UN barrier had been destroyed, with houses completely leveled by the explosions. Congolese victims and authorities were blaming neighboring Rwanda.
A man and his two children stand in the wreckage of a bombed-out house in the Majengo district of Goma
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo reported that a total of 34 bombs and rockets had been fired into Rwanda, including one that struck a crowded marketplace, killing a woman and injuring her young child. Rwandan authorities immediately accused the Congolese military of direct involvement in the strikes.
Rumors spread like a bush fire through military and civilian populations, and it is hard to tell exact numbers, locations, and culprits. The facts are that after a week of bombings on both sides of the Rwandan-Congolese-border, seven Congolese and one Rwandan civilian are dead. As a result, tensions reached a climax one week ago, when Rwandan soldiers and tanks moved into position along their border, sparking fear of a full-on invasion.
Despite the fact that war between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo officially ended in 2004, Rwanda has been widely accused of fighting a proxy war through support of the M23 rebels in the North Kivu region, of which Goma is the capital. M23 is a relatively new rebel faction. It started when Tutsi soldiers defected from the Congolese army after ongoing disagreements with the local government. In the three and a half years since their inception, M23 has terrorized the local area, invading the city of Goma last November and holding the city hostage for two weeks.
A bombed-out car now serving as a drying rack for soldiers
Although the UN has its largest and most expensive peacekeeping force in the world stationed in Goma, they have previously been prohibited from engaging in tactical conflict with the rebels. However, after last November’s invasion of Goma, the UN issued the first ever mandate explicitly allowing the UN to use offensive force. The Intervention Brigade consists of 3,000 soldiers from nearby Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi, as well as smaller contingents from India, Nicaragua, and other allied nations. The recent clashes have been the first time that the Intervention Brigade forces have been directly involved in ground combat. After a week of heavy fighting, the military backed by the UN forces successfully pushed M23 away from Goma.
The M23 rebels had to take heavy losses. Sources on the ground report scenes of abandoned M23 helmets and AK-47s on the roadside, indicating a rapid retreat.
In the days since the withdrawal of M23 troops last week, it has been relatively calm on both the Rwandan front line and in Goma. There is renewed hope that the long road to peace and rebuilding may finally start with the peace talks beginning within this week.
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