Thousands of Ordinary People Are Dropping Everything to Fight a Brutal Militia

Members of the M23 militia have the regional capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo surrounded. Now, 3,000 young people have volunteered to fight them.

GOMA, DR Congo – “I am angry. We've suffered a lot because of M23.”  

30-year-old Esperance Betande is one of 3,000 of young Congolese men and women frantically mobilising to join the army in the fight against hundreds of M23 rebels, who have encircled Goma, the regional capital.  

M23 is an armed group that has committed summary executions, and is accused of raping dozens of women and forcibly recruiting hundreds of men and boys in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

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Esperance Betande. ​PHOTO: Srdjan Stojiljkovic​/VICE

When VICE World News met Betande, she had walked over 60 miles from her village to Goma to volunteer in the army. This was in response to an appeal made by the country’s President Felix Tshisekedi, who called on young people to enlist in the army or join vigilante groups to fight the advancing M23 rebels.

Esperance said that signing up was a tough thing to do. “I was pissed off. I told myself I'm leaving the land, children, I'm leaving everything, because everyone in the city is crying about M23,” she said. 

The president’s call for young people to join the army or form vigilante groups, kicked off a scramble, with many joining pro-government rebel coalitions in a region that’s already overrun by more than 120 such groups. Army officials say more than 3,000 applicants aged between 18 and 30 have so far registered across the province.

The M23 group, which is widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, rose to prominence more than a decade ago when they seized Goma, which is the largest city in DR Congo’s east and sits along the border with Rwanda. After an 18-month insurgency in 2013, the group was defeated by the DRC’s army with the help of a special United Nations 3,000-strong unit , established within the United Nations peacekeeping force, MONUSCO. But then a year ago, the group re-emerged saying the government had failed to live up to its decade-long promises.

The rebels claim to be fighting for the implementation of previous political agreements with the Congolese government, which provided for the safe return of Congolese refugees who have been in Rwanda for two decades. It is also fighting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan rebel group that was established in eastern DRC in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.


Tensions have mounted as the M23 rebels have advanced in recent months, seizing large swathes of territory in North Kivu province, which borders Rwanda and Uganda. Renewed fighting has displaced over half a million Congolese people according to UN figures. A recent report by Amnesty International released on Friday, also accused the group of ​​killing at least 20 men and raping at least 66 women and girls in Kishishe last November. Amnesty interviewed 23 rape survivors and 12 eyewitnesses in December 2022 and January 2023, who said that groups of M23 fighters went house-to-house, summarily killing every adult male they found and subjecting scores of women to rape, including gang rape.

“From a human rights perspective, what we documented cannot be justified in any way, this constitutes war crimes,” Jean-Mobert Senga, Amnesty International’s DRC’s researcher, told VICE World News. According to Senga, the killings and rapes appears to show these acts were part of a campaign waged by M23 to punish and humiliate civilians suspected of being supporters of rival armed groups, including the FDLR and Mai-Mai, a community based militia group. 

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A recruit is shaved. ​PHOTO: Srdjan Stojiljkovic​/VICE

Senga has called for accountability and justice for the victims. “Militants are operating with total impunity and this has to stop. There is also an urgent need for medical and humanitarian assistance for the survivors in Kishishe and surrounding villages three months after the attacks”.

M23 has rejected the accusations. In a statement issued on the 18th of February, M23 spokesperson Laurence Kanyuka said: “Amnesty International's investigators never went to the scene of the events to compare the testimonies collected with the evidence on the ground but are quick to draw hasty and unverified conclusions.”

The significance of the fact M23 has taken over Kishishe's cannot be understated. The area has been an FDLR stronghold since 1994. M23 and its predecessor groups have claimed to defend interests of the Tutsi ethnic group against FDLR, an ethnic Hutu militias whose leaders participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. 

But this war is also about DRC’s minerals and who controls them. 

With the Congolese government unable to deal with lawlessness in the east, DRC’s neighbours have for decades used militias – Congolese and foreign alike – as proxies to  settle scores over Congolese territories and minerals. A leaked UN investigator’s report seen by VICE World News accused Rwanda of arming and funding M23. Aerial photography shows evidence of Rwandan troops crossing into DRC territory as well as photographs of M23 fighters in Rwandan army uniform.


Additionally, the UN has long implicated DRC’s neighbours of quietly fueling instability here in order to continue illegally extracting minerals, including coltan and gold. 

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The conflict is further complicated by the government arming and fighting alongside a new coalition of armed rebels, some implicated in human rights abuses. These militias have previously terrorised civilians as they fought each other for control of mineral wealth and smuggling routes. The coalition is led by self-proclaimed warlord, General Janvier Karairi of  the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo or APCLS, which draws support from the Hunde ethnic group and fought M23 in 2012. 

VICE World News met with Karairi in Kitchanga in November 2022, 15 kilometres from the advancing M23. Here the general and his dozen soldiers received a hero's welcome in the town square. 

“Our country has for a long time been controlled by Rwanda. And all of us patriots were not happy with that,” Karairi told the cheering crowd.

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Janvier Karairi. ​PHOTO: Srdjan Stojiljkovic​/VICE

APCLS, like many other armed Congolese rebel groups, is founded on the ideology of opposition to the Tutsi ethnic group who are seen by many in DRC as the main threat to the Congolese state due to the perceived Rwandan connection. When speaking to dozens of recruits lining up to join his militia, he promised to take the fight to Rwanda. 

“We will chase away all the exploiters out of our country Congo. We are ready to fight with them and we will go to where they came from,” he said.


However, despite the mobilisation, Kitchanga town was captured by M23 fighters several weeks later.

After months of requests from VICE World News, M23 finally agreed to a face-to-face interview.  To reach their territory, we had to leave Congo, and then the group facilitated re-entry to Congolese territory through Rwanda and Uganda.  

Betra Bisimwa, M23’s political leader, was holding a press conference defending the group against allegations about civilian deaths when we met him. He insisted Congo’s Tutsi people were facing a genocide. 

“The genocide acts that are currently going on in eastern Congo, started from messages of ethnic hate and xenophobia that were announced by authorities and leaders of the country. We have seen Congolese of other communities, marching in the roads of Kinshasa with machetes, searching for Rwandophones,” he insisted. “People are targeted and hunted down, just because of their ethnicity and their looks.”

M23’s continued violence has stoked ethnic hatred against the Congolese Tutsi community, who many Congolese in North Kivu believe to be supporters of M23. There are several documented instances on social media where Rwandans or people from an ethnic Tutsi background have been threatened or attacked in the DRC. None of these incidents have been investigated or led to any criminal charges.

When pressed on whether the group was receiving funding or any support from Rwanda, Bisimwa told VWN It is not true. “If we had support of Rwanda and Uganda, you think I would be here? I'm telling you, I would be in Kinshasa,” he said. 


After pressing him on Rwanda’s involvement in their rebellion, the interview cut short and VICE World News was escorted out of the country. Rwandan authorities denied our repeated requests for an interview but government spokesperson Yolande Makolo, said in a statement: “Rwanda has no interest in perpetuating a conflict on its borders or being drawn into an internal conflict in the DRC.” Makolo added: “The accusations of the UN Group of Experts are without basis” and that the evidence used by the UN came from “notoriously unreliable sources.”

The conflict has also sucked in the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo, MONUSCO. This mission is one of the largest and oldest in the world. It has a $1 billion annual budget and peacekeepers in bases across the country. Resentment against the blue helmets has been building for years, as poorly armed rebels continue to massacre civilians in towns with large UN forces. M23’s resurgence has only made things worse. In late July, 36 civilians and 4 MONUSCO peacekeepers were killed by angry protesters, who ransacked and looted UN facilities.


MONUSCO troops in November 2022. PHOTO: ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images

According to Jack Sinzahera, one of the organisers of the protests in Goma, the people see MONUSCO as their enemy number one. ”When MONUSCO arrived in Congo, 22 years ago, there were less than 5 armed groups, today we have more than 300. It means that MONUSCO is the base of our insecurity here,” he told VICE World News. “They say, ‘No war, no job.’ So, they incite troubles to justify their presence in the DRC. And that’s why we are saying MONUSCO must leave our country.”

Regional diplomatic efforts to stop M23’s advance and disarm all armed groups in eastern DRC – known as the Nairobi process led by the East African Community, and the related Luanda process led by the African Union – have stalled. Frustrated and angry, young Congolese people, like Batende, say this fight is the last straw in the endless violence they’ve experienced. 

“They'll not govern this country when we're still here angry,” she said. “They'll not govern this country. The fight has gotten into our mind. It’s the blood and we are already angry.”