Rape. Death. War. Congo on the brink.

By Greg Nicolson 28 January 2013

Peace negotiations in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are in peril and aid groups are preparing for a repeat of last year’s conflict. While the region appears stuck in a Dantean hell, the United Nations is set to announce a stronger military presence. But the road to peace requires a solution closer to home. By GREG NICOLSON.

They came, they saw, they conquered. Then, after nine days, they left. In November 2012, the M23 rebel group stomped over the Congolese army to take Goma, the strategically vital capital of North Kivu Province. After months of lurking in the villages and forests, they took the city, throwing the region into chaos and seeking retribution against enemies. They proved their military dominance and agreed to withdraw and negotiate a peace deal with the region’s stakeholders.

The eastern DRC provinces of North and South Kivu are now on tenterhooks during a stint of relative calm. Grace Tang, the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) head of mission in Goma, says the risk of violence has increased as peace negotiations have stalled. “There’s still a lot of tension and uncertainty with the armed groups… It changes day-to-day.”

Both M23 and FARDC, the government army, agreed to move out of Goma during the negotiations, but the DRC’s minister of foreign affairs, cooperation and Francophonie, Raymond Tshibanda, last week accused the rebels of remaining in the area. “M23 did not withdraw up to the distance of 20kms in northern Goma as demanded by the heads of state from countries of the international conference on the Great Lakes region (CIRGL),” he told media.

MSF, which offers health services across eastern DRC, has prepared a contingency plan for fresh conflict. Tang said the group must be ready to deal with displaced persons, the war wounded and cholera outbreaks.

Both rebel groups and FARDC took strategic positions after M23’s withdrawal from Goma and are both likely ready to strike. “It’s anybody’s guess,” said Tang when asked when violence might erupt again. The coming weeks and months are likely to be “very volatile”, she said.

The Congolese government and M23 have agreed on an agenda for the negotiations in Uganda’s capital Kampala, but so far have made little progress. M23 this week said there is a “standstill” and warned, “We are telling the Congolese government that either you talk or you fight. You can’t do both at the same time.” Human Rights Watch said the talks have made little progress and local civil society groups want the negotiations scrapped and moved to the DRC, where a broader discussion can take place.

The negotiations deal with a 2009 peace accord that integrated the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a political armed militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, into the national armed forces. About 300 government soldiers mutinied in April last year, claiming the peace accord was not honoured, and formed M23. DRC President Joseph Kabila escalated the tension by calling for the arrest of M23 leader General Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court.

Ida Sawyer, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, lists some of the abuses committed by M23 while it was in Goma and the surrounding villages. “The rebels targeted perceived opponents, including activists, government officials and their family members. Many of those people went into hiding after receiving personal threats.”

She says there was “killing, rapes, looting and other violence.” “M23 fighters shot a 4-year-old girl in the head after she asked why they were taking her father away. An 18-year-old woman said M23 fighters broke into her home and demanded money and cellphones. They beat her and she gave them what she had, but it wasn’t enough. One of the fighters loaded his gun and told her, ‘If you don’t have sex with me, I’ll kill you.’ He proceeded to rape her while her year-old daughter lay next to her.”

The UN estimates that since November 130,000 people have been displaced around Goma. MSF says it is still seeing cases of sexual violence related to armed groups, as women are raped in and around refugee camps, often when they go to the forest to collect firewood. Tang says MSF is on high alert for outbreaks of cholera and other communicable diseases.

While conflict appears imminent, the UN has suggested it may intervene. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (Monusco), the world’s largest peacekeeping force, was heavily criticised for choosing not to fight off the M23 advance in November. But senior officials say it will soon recommend an intervention force. “It is not simply peacekeeping, this is peace enforcement. It’s a much more robust stance,” a UN official told Reuters. A few thousand troops from the current force of 22,000 would be transferred to the intervention unit and would have a wider mandate to engage rebel groups in combat.

If the Security Council passes the resolution, it might reduce the impact of conflict. But until a regional solution is found, conflict is likely to continue. Rwanda has continued to intervene in east DRC after the 1994 genocide and the Congolese war in 1996. Both the UN and Human Rights Watch found Rwanda had funded and supplied M23 for its own stability and access to the DRC’s resources.

International pressure has helped. M23’s withdrawal from Goma coincided with an announcement by the UK that it would withhold £21 million in aid from Rwanda. However, Rwanda has staunchly denied being involved in the conflict and has exacerbated tensions with its rhetoric. Last week a minister said that troops would be deployed in the DRC if the UN goes ahead with a plan to monitor the border with drones.

Rwanda shows no signs it wants to stop meddling across the border and as negotiations stall, another M23 attack on Goma looks imminent. The DRC’s government is unable to control the area (which features multiple rebel groups), but nor is it willing to let go. M23 has been biding its time, trying to prove its legitimacy over Kabila’s deplorable leadership. Unless we see a breakthrough in discussions, soon M23 will be back in Goma – and this time it will stay longer than nine days. DM

Photo: Sake, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the M23 rebel fighters walk as they withdraw near the town of Sake, some 42 km (26 miles) west of Goma November 30, 2012. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

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