Violent Rebels Are Taking Swathes of the Congo

The feared M23 group is active again, displacing thousands of people and stoking fears that fresh violence could engulf the country.

13 April 2022, 3:01pm

Fighting between a notorious rebel group and government authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo has sparked fears that large parts of the country could see a fresh escalation in violence for the first time in a decade. 

Baraka Mwaore fled his village in Bunagana, a small town in the northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), nearly a week ago. He trekked for hours with hundreds of his neighbours and strangers. They were running from M23 — a violent rebel group that has waged war in the region for the last decade. 

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“The fighting started in the middle of the night, I just ran,” Mwaore told VICE World News over the phone as he registered with authorities in the Nyakabande transit camp, western Uganda. 

Uganda's Nyakabande transit camp. PHOTO: Joshua Moturi

It is not the first time Mwaore has had to flee an M23 assault. In 2012, he fled Bunagana for Uganda where he stayed for over a year as a refugee. 

“I am tired of always running from the conflict and I pray that the government will bring all the help they can get to solve this conflict once and for all,” says Mwaore. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, 10,000 people have crossed into Uganda in the past week to escape the fresh fighting. 

Now, hundreds of army troops have gathered in the eastern DRC to deal with M23 fighters who have taken large swathes of territory in Rutshuru - the epicentre of this resurgence. The fighting started on the 28th of March when M23 rebels attacked Congolese army positions, claiming the government has failed to honour a 2014 peace deal it signed that would allow the group and its fighters to re-integrate into civilian society. 

A United Nations helicopter on a reconnaissance mission was downed over Rutshuru, killing everyone on board. The Congolese military has accused M23 of downing the chopper, though the faction denies the charge and instead blames the Congolese army for carrying out the attack in order for UN peacekeeping troops to be given a mandate to directly fight against the rebels again. An M23 spokesperson told VICE World that the group will “soon” share evidence proving that they were not involved in the helicopter accident. The UN mission has not said who it blames for the crash, saying investigations were underway. 

Congolese Army soldiers in in Tchanzu, eastern DRC. PHOTO: Austere Malavika

On Sunday, M23 leadership released a statement announcing their intentions to withdraw from territories they had captured in the recent fighting - as well as “hand over all (soldiers) from the national army captured on the frontline to the International Committee of the Red Cross for proper care” saying they are giving dialogue a chance. 

Who are the M23? 

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The M23 movement started as an ethnic Tutsi Congolese rebellion in North Kivu supported by Rwanda and Uganda. Its fighters were largely drawn from the Tutsi group, which has close ties to neighbouring Rwanda. 

The name comes from a peace agreement signed on 23 of March, 2009, between the Congolese government and an armed group called the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) led by Bosco Ntaganda, who was nicknamed “the terminator”. As part of the agreement CNDP fighters were integrated into the Congolese national army, FARDC. 

M23 members in 2014. PHOTO: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP via Getty Images

However, in April 2012, General Ntaganda and 300 Congolese soldiers mutinied, claiming that the Congolese government had not held up its side of the March 23, 2009 peace agreement. The movement was born on the premise of protecting the Congolese Tutsi population but infighting quickly saw the group disintegrate into two factions and this eventually led to Ntaganda fleeing and surrendering to the US embassy in Kigali, from where he was extradited to the Hague. He’s awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

But that has not slowed down M23. Colonel Sultan Makenda, who took charge of the group in early 2012 is still the man leading these fighters back into battle yet again. Makenga fought alongside Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame’s Tutsi rebels who took power in 1994, ending a genocide in which 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis, died. He later joined Rwandan backed forces on their march on Kinshasa where they toppled long-serving leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko. 

Makenga’s strong military skills came to the fore during his tenure as M23’s military leader. In all, the rebellion lasted 19 months, and saw the rebels momentarily capture Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, in November 2012. Congolese armed forces, backed by the UN Intervention Brigade, finally defeated the group in late 2013 following intense fighting. M23 fighters fled to Rwanda and Uganda where they surrendered and were put in military holding centres. Human rights organisations blamed the group for widespread war crimes, including summary executions, rapes, and the forced recruitment of children. As many as 800,000 people were displaced and hundreds more killed. 

It’s not clear what M23’s current firepower and troop numbers are. But analysts agree that any resurgence of the group is worrying. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called reports of the group’s re-emergence  “alarming”.

PHOTO: Austere Malavika

Resurgence

The latest attack is not the first by M23 rebels since their defeat by Congolese national and UN forces in 2013. The group was co-opted by President Joseph Kabila to squash any dissent after he refused to quit the presidency at the end of his two-term mandate. 

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In 2016, Human Rights Watch accused senior Congolese security agents of recruiting hundreds of former M23 rebel fighters from refugee camps in Uganda and Rwanda, their bases since the November 2013 defeat.

M23 fighters were given new uniforms and weapons before being integrated into police, army and some into the presidential guard units, according to the HRW report. The report further adds that fighters were given explicit orders to use lethal force, including at “point-blank range” if necessary. At least 62 people died and hundreds more were arrested across Kinshasa, Goma and Lubumbashi cities during the unrest . 

In late January 2022, the fighters targeted a Congolese army post in Rutshuru territory, a few kilometres north of the town of Goma killing nearly thirty Congolese soldiers and displacing over 2000 people.

State of Siege

Makenga’s M23 is by no means the only source of conflict here; the region has remained unstable since independence from Belgium. According to the Kivu Security Tracker (KST), a joint project of the Congo Research Group and Human Rights Watch, there are over 120 active armed groups and localised militia in eastern Congo. Many of these groups are responsible for ethnic massacres, rape, forced recruitment of children into their ranks as well as conflict over control of valuable minerals resources that have displaced millions of people. 

A man injured by fighting in Rutshuru. PHOTO: GUERCHOM NDEBO/AFP via Getty Images

In their quest to end conflict, different Congolese governments have unsuccessfully tried to integrate some of these rebel fighters into a unified army, with very little success. The latest attempt by President Felix Tshisekedi’s government to implement an effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme for several thousand fighters from various armed groups failed with many of the fighters returning to their rebel groups. M23’s fighters are demanding to be collectively re-integrated into the Congolese army and their ranks recognised as promised during talks in 2013 and 2019 — however, this is not a possibility under the new disarmament programme. “M23 are still very unpopular in DRC and so it would be hard for any government to accept their demands as this could see other armed groups demand the same,” Reagan Miviri, a conflict analyst at KST, told VICE World News. 

A two-decades-old UN peacekeeping mission with over 18,000 strong peacekeeping force, has also had very little success in stabilising the region or keeping civilian populations safe. “There is an urgent need for civilian protection as the people of this region have been the biggest victims of this conflict and this should be a priority for all the actors; DRC army, UN Monusco, M23 as well as regional actors such as Uganda and Rwanda,” says Miviri. The presence of additional armed forces like the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) only complicates the situation, human rights groups warn. Last December, Uganda sent more than 1,000 troops to Congo to undertake joint operations against the ADF – a Ugandan-Muslim group active in DRC that has been linked to ISIS – following deadly attacks claimed by the group in Uganda.

It is this continued violence that led President Tshisekedi to declare a “state of siege” in North Kivu and Ituri provinces last year, replacing civilian administration with military and police authorities, but critics say it has largely been ineffective as killings and displacement continue unabated. 

“For the population in this region fear is ever present, families have been displaced time and time again and these populations are paying the price for endless cycles of violence”, Thomas Fessy, a senior researcher on Congo for Human Rights Watch, told VICE World News. 

Fessy warns that the conflict situation in eastern Congo only seems to be getting worse, with the number of displaced people as well as armed groups at a record high. “What’s clear is that military rule has not provided civilians with adequate security as we are seeing attacks even on displaced communities in camps which should be safe spaces in these two regions.” 

However, according to Fessy, DRC needs a proper justice and accountability system that holds to account those who commit crimes. “Until we have justice that addresses years of impunity in Congo, it's difficult to see how the cycle of violence will ever end.”

Baraka Mwaore, the man who fled his village, said he has lost hope that the war will ever end. “The war has taken a long time and it keeps on re occurring,” he told VICE World News. “People are getting killed and the government is not providing adequate security.”

Tagged:

Uganda, africa, M23, worldnews

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