online http://center4research.org/wp-admin/includes/class-wp-upgrader-skin.php sans-serif; font-size: small;”>As I walked towards the heavily-guarded border point, I smiled and waved to the DRC police officer at the guard post.
I had planned to spend a night inside the rebel M23 territory a night before only to be cautioned against being a victim of heavy gunfire across the Ugandan border.
“Crossing the border at this time is suicidal. Spend a night here with us and meet the rebels in the morning. Why cross into their territory at night? What if you are mistaken for an enemy?” a UPDF soldier cautions me.
Time check: 3:00 am. The well-built, amiable UPDF soldier manages to secure a jacket to cover my body from the wrath of Kisoro’s heartless chilliness. I coil my arms around the chest to generate more heat. The weather is chillingly brutal.
The sweet sounds of the birds in the Congo forests soothe my mind and slowly I drift into a deep slumber.
Suddenly, soldiers grasp their guns. Some take positions. The clatter of the AK47 assault rifles and thuds of heavy boots interrupt my beautiful sleep – the only 30 minutes I have managed to put my head down after over 10 hours of a grueling journey from Kampala.
Women fleeing the fighting in Eastern DRC
I try to locate the corner where my laptop, camera, books, modem, extra shirts, smart phones and First Aid kit are placed. There is confusion. If we are in the Uganda territory, what would be the cause of alarm? Are M23 rebels moving towards the Ugandan border?
I am later informed that a group of UPDF soldiers is arriving soon to pick the M23 delegation to Kampala for peace talks. I return to my mat where I enjoy the sleep till morning. No brushing teeth. No breakfast.
M23 leaders: Makenga (L) and Bertrand Bisiimwa at a recent function
At the Congo border, with my PRESS identity card strapped around my neck, the Kiswahili-speaking guard directs me not to move an inch. I oblige. Hundreds of Congolese women are pouring into Uganda.
Barefooted children as old as 5 years carry heavy luggage on their shoulders, walking miles on blasted hot earth – in fear of their lives. A woman, Luck Kahindo is carrying her two children – one in the back and another on her chest – running away from the insurgency.
As mucus flows steadily from her child’s nose, Kahindo tells me in Kinyarwanda that she is running away from FDLR militia which had slaughtered three women the previous night.
“The women were simply cut into pieces. The FDLR used machetes to kill our neighbors, we are next,” says a frightened Kahindo, who unfortunately, is not willing to spend more time with a journalist as she has to rush to a refugee camp in Kisoro.
The frustration, exhaustion and anger in Kahindo’s eyes; and the sight of her knackered, hungry and miserable children, speak volumes of the endless and terrifyingly unbearable suffering of the people of Congo –particularly women.
A boy carrying his belongings from DRC to a refugee camp in Kisoro, Uganda
This is DRC – the central African country producing major quantities of tin and tungsten, about half of the world’s cobalt output and about three percent of the world’s copper and gold.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, DRC supplies multinational consumer electronics makers with columbite-tantalite, commonly known as coltan —a mineral ore used to manufacture capacitors for mobile phones, tablet computers, laptops and all mobile devices across the world.
Experts estimate that the value of DRC’s mineral wealth at over $24 trillion yet three-quarters of the population live in abject poverty.
The leader of the M23 delegation to Uganda, Rene Abandi, later tells me during a meeting in Kampala that there is need for decentralization whereby 40 percent of mineral wealth is used to develop Kivu.
Makenga (in jacket) under heavy protection
“According to the Constitution, 60 percent of the resource wealth should go to the central government in Kinshasha and the rest used to develop the areas which are rich in minerals. This will put an end to conflicts over resources,” says Abandi.
In most rural areas, Congolese live in grass thatched houses. Inside a makeshift ‘restaurant’ in Bunagana, flies hover over cups and plates as the business owner prepares chapatti and dry tea.
M23 soldiers sit on benches to enjoy the breakfast. Abandi tells me that “M23 soldiers are not paid because they have a cause for which they are fighting. Why are FARDC (Congolese army) fighting?”
If the M23 are not paid salaries, what’s the source of their money? I remind Abandi that M23 is accused of looting the Provincial town of Goma last year. It was reported that M23 robbed $20m from the national bank.
Chimp war reporter, Giles Muhame in Bunagana playing with Congolese kids
“Looting people’s property? No way. They say we looted the national bank but the manager said no money was stolen from their treasury. But we managed to take away army machinery. If you were a rebel, would you leave those guns and ammunition there? We use them in our defence when attacked by FARDC,” says Abandi.
He adds that the corruption of the Congolese army, right from the commander-in-chief, President Joseph Kabila, has always been at the heart of mutinies that have since rocked the armed forces.
“Kabila simply looks on as soldiers’ salaries are stolen. The Minister of defence takes one dollar from every soldier’s salary. Then the Army commander takes another dollar followed by senior army officers and even the Company commander. So by the time the soldier gets his money, it is just peanuts,” says Abandi.
“Sometimes some soldiers get salaries while others don’t. This is why FARDC continue to loot and even rape women. They are just a militia not a professional army. Whenever Kabila wants to attack M23, they come with sacks of money and give them to soldiers to attack in the morning. When we kill them, our soldiers find money in their pockets.”
He says Kabila should agree to sign a peace agreement with the rebels.
“We are not demanding for anything new. All we want is decentralization; release of political prisoners accused of supporting our cause; declaring eastern Congo a disaster area to allow room for rehabilitation and equality in sharing national wealth,” says Abandi.
He says the DRC government does not exhibit seriousness during the peace talks and is now hell bent on “pursuing the military option which will never work.”
A house burnt down by a random selling of civilian areas by FARDC
Since early July, eastern DRC has witnessed intermittent clashes between M23 rebels and FARDC. “The alliance of FARDC, FDLR and Tanzania is fighting us. But we are committed to a political solution to the problems of Congo,” says Abandi.
He further elaborates that M23’s decision to respect the regional leaders who asked them to pull out of Goma last year has endeared the Movement to “so many people of goodwill.”
On the night of July 17, FARDC manages to attack M23 bases in Mutaho and others located in the southern part where large numbers of rebels are based.
Soldiers guarding Makenga’s vehicle
By taking over these areas near Kibati, FARDC’s plan is to squeeze the rebels from the west and Southern directions before crushing and overpowering them from the centre. It appears this does not not work out well as planned.
A day earlier, FARDC had launched a pre-dawn military operation after M23 fighters were reportedly seen remobilizing for an attack.
The fighting that lasts over four hours sees FARDC launch around 15 mortar and rocket rounds at M23 bases in Kibati. As all this happens, Congolese troops are seen tightening their control of several strategic points at Mutaho and Kanyarucinya.
With FARDC falling short of dislodging M23 from their positions, the latter’s senior commanders request Kinshasha for airpower reinforcement.
Three attack MI-24 attack helicopters subsequently bomb M23 spots at Kibati Triple Tower and Kibati Heights but fall short of achieving their objective.
FARDC soldiers torturing suspected M23 informers
On the third day (Sunday) of raging fire, FARDC deploys more soldiers to capture Mutaho from the rebels. Unlike in the past when M23 has maintained ground and fought through the FARDC defence lines, this way round, they pull out of the combat zone for unknown reasons.
Either M23 are overpowered or they are making a tactical withdrawal to dupe FARDC that they have been defeated so as to pull the Congolese troops closer to the former’s defence lines.
In the afternoon of Sunday, Kinshasha directs that FARDC advance deeper into M23 territory. Key areas in Mutaho are taken after heavy indiscriminate shelling. Scores of civilians are killed. The FARDC war strategy is absolutely baffling as civilians become players in a war they did not start.
Sunrise in Bunagana
“Kabila wants people to get tired of his army’s bombings so as to revolt against M23. But it is only in areas we control that people work freely without any harassment,” M23 publicist Amani Kabasha tells me.
Unfortunately for DRC, the absence of an impartial and strong civil society, the accurate figures of war casualties remain unknown or are largely based on speculation.
“Congolese forces continue dying whenever they attack us. But we consider them as our brothers. You can’t see an M23 cadre jubilating that we killed this number of soldiers. Today they are supporting a barbaric and corrupt regime but in future they will be on the right side of history,” says Abandi.
Happy at the results of the previous day in Mutaho, Kabila again orders for more assault operations against M23.
An entire battalion of soldiers including three tanks and MI-24 Hind attack choppers are dispatched which enable FARDC to capture the northern hill that overlooks Goma. This point is subsequently used to hit Kibati Three Towers with the view of sending M23 into disarray.
It is during this time that bombs from FARDC-controlled areas hit Rwanda, sparking fury from Kigali.
Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) spokesperson, Brigadier General Joseph Nzabamwita says the two bombs were shelled on Rwanda territory from BM 21 located at Carriere, in Mugunga, 12 kms from Goma.
“The BM 21 is manned by gunners of 41 Commando Bn of Col Didier, Commando Brigade commanded by Col Mamadou Ndala. The Commando Brigade is collocated with MONUSCO.”
He warns that future bombings will attract the wrath of the Rwandan army.
French and Belgium military attaches in Rwanda inspect areas bombed by FARDC
CONSEQUENCES OF M23 DEFEAT
A possible defeat of M23 by the allied forces is likely to plunge East Africa, if not the Great Lakes region, into a bloody regional war. This is because M23 provides a buffer against FDLR attacks on Rwanda.
Without this buffer, Rwanda might be compelled to enter DRC. “Should Rwanda feel that its security is threatened, it is going to be bloody,” warns a source in Rwanda.
Protracted clashes between rebels and FARDC could also be used as a source of arms for ADF in North Kivu, a situation that Uganda might not allow.
President Museveni maintains the presence of rebels in eastern DRC is nothing but a “terrorism conservation project.”
And should the situation spiral out of control, Uganda and Rwanda, whose security is threatened by the DRC-based rebels, are likely to form an alliance in DRC against Tanzania and the Kinshasha government.
This, sources say, could be the spark of war between Rwanda and Tanzania, considering the worsening relations between the two countries.
“Tanzania might decide to strike from the border in the west with Rwanda in revenge which will open the gates of hell,” the source adds.
Rwanda perceives Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete as a bully. “And because of the visits by US and Chinese Presidents, Kikwete’s ego has been massaged. But on matters of war, he knows nothing,” says the source.
Kikwete’s recent remarks that Rwanda should hold peace talks with FDLR, a group that draws its fighters and leaders from perpetrators of the 1994 genocide; and his relations with Kabila have since raised suspicion that the Tanzanian leader backs the Hutu militia.
M23 fighters disembark an army truck
With the ministerial conference for the Great Lakes leaders opening this Saturday in Nairobi, tempers are expected to flare.
But the bottom line is that as long as the Eastern region remains a habitat from militia groups which threaten regional security, DRC’s hopes of finding permanent peace, stability and economic development are limited.