The Complex Web of Violence Gets Messier in Congo

Congolese residents flee fighting in Eastern Congo amid fears that Rwanda is backing the mutineers (AFP/File, Junior D.Kannah)

Congolese residents flee fighting in Eastern Congo amid fears that Rwanda is backing the mutineers (AFP/File, Junior D.Kannah)

The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, particularly the provinces of North and South Kivu, has long had the reputation of being one of the most violent and chaotic places on the continent. Furthermore, recent splurges of mass violence mark a definite deterioration in the already critical humanitarian situation, especially with regards to troubled relations with Rwanda.

A leaked internal UN report seen by the BBC and Global Post on Monday accused neighbouring Rwanda of supplying weapons and soldiers to rebels linked to General Bosco Ntaganda in eastern DR Congo. UN officials interviewed 11 rebel deserters, all of whom claimed to be Rwandan citizens. They said they were recruited and trained in Rwanda earlier this year before being transported across the border to join a rebellion, dubbed March 23 Movement or M23, kick-started by Ntaganda, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. After training, some of the recruits said they were told they would be fighting the Congolese government while others were told they would be defending Congolese Tutsis against persecution.

“All those who have been arrested after the last fighting are telling the same story,” Lambert Mende, Congo’s communications minister said, adding that an inquiry was under way and Congo government itself was not accusing Rwanda of supporting the rebels. Rwanda is denying it, and we don’t have any reason to doubt what they’re saying at this time,” he said.

In turn, Rwanda has rejected the claims made by the recent UN report. The Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Louise Mushikiwabo, called the report as “categorically false and dangerous rumours.” She criticized the international community for “neglecting real issues of stability by limiting itself to symptoms instead of the root cause of suffering in our region.”

Mushikiwabo slammed the UN force in DRC (MONUSCO) stating that “the billion-dollar-a-year operation makes up one quarter of the UN’s entire peacekeeping budget, and yet it has been a failure from day one. Instead of pursuing its mandate to eradicate the FDLR menace and help stabilize the region, MONUSCO has become a destabilizing influence, primarily concerned with keeping hold of its bloated budgets and justifying its ongoing existence.”

Rumors of Rwandan support for the new rebel movement have surfaced for weeks, but the UN debrief of deserters offers the first evidence that will likely ratchet up already tense relations between Kinshasa and Kigali.

The two Great Lakes neighbors have a troubled history and now again it’s going to get even more messy. Rwanda in the past has accused Congo of harboring Rwandan Hutu fighters who fled across the border after carrying out the 1994 genocide. But Rwanda in turn has backed a succession of rebellions in eastern Congo over more than a decade of violence that has claimed the lives of over 7 million Congolese.

In 2008, U.N. investigators accused Rwanda of arming the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), led by renegade Congolese Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda and later Bosco Ntaganda, which after 2009 peace deal integrated the rebel troops into the Congolese army and made Bosco an army general. This brief period seemed to usher in a new era of cooperation between the two countries, but after international pressure to arrest Bosco spiked a few months ago, not only has violence exponentially started again but neighbor tensions between Rwanda and Congo have created more complexities to the already thorny causes and effects of conflict in Congo. It is extremely exasperating seeing the cycle of violence repeat itself while the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the DRC has now reached more than two million as of March 31, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Realizing the Gravity of the Situation in the Congo

A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo reacts to camera as she arrives at the Nyakabande refugee transit camp in Kisoro town 521km (312 miles) southwest of Uganda capital Kampala (REUTERS/James Akena)

A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo reacts to camera as she arrives at the Nyakabande refugee transit camp in Kisoro town 521km (312 miles) southwest of Uganda capital Kampala (REUTERS/James Akena)

 “There were so many of them. They came at 1:30 p.m. We were almost done with the school day. [The fighters] asked us to exit the room and then they took us behind the school building. They tied my hands with a rope. All of us were tied up. Then they marched us to the hill…. They told us we would fight for Bosco [Ntaganda]…. They informed us that we would liberate our country by giving our support to Bosco Ntaganda. We must support him so that our Congo would not be taken by others.” A 17-year-old student at Mapendano secondary school told Human Rights Watch.

A new Human Rights Watch report says Bosco Ntaganda’s troops, an estimated 300 to 600 soldiers who followed him in his mutiny, forcibly recruited at least 149 boys and young men around Kilolirwe, Kingi, Kabati, and other locations on the road to Kitchanga, in Masisi, North Kivu province, between April 19 and May 4. At least 48 were children under age 18. Human Rights Watch Senior Africa Researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg says much of the forced recruitment has targeted schools.

In mid-April, Ntaganda and fighters under his command told those living in towns and villages under their control that children and young men were needed for their forces. One woman from Birambizo told Human Rights Watch that Ntaganda personally came to her village and said, “Since you [villagers] have been with the government, you’ve gotten nothing. Why not join me?” The woman said: “[Ntaganda] asked us to give our children, our students, to him to fight. He came to our village himself, like [detained rebel leader Laurent] Nkunda used to do. But we refused and said our children should go to school.”

Now that the situation is exponentially getting out of control, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has decided to expand its charges on Bosco and also pursue the arrest of Sylvestre Mudacumura, military commander of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) militia.  ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Monday he wanted to add charges of crimes against humanity for murder, ethnic persecution, rape and sexual slavery. He also sought war crimes charges for “intentional attacks” against civilians that led to murder, rape, sexual slavery and pillaging. And for Mudacumura, military commander of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) militia, the prosecutor is seeking five counts of crimes against humanity — murder, inhumane acts, rape and torture — and nine war crimes charges. This is hopeful and encouraging news, but why did it take the ICC this long?

Both of these very dangerous men have killed millions over the past 20 years and they were charged with much less than what they commited, like Thomas Lubnaga. Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that an examination of the evidence collected during the Lubanga trial has led the Office of the Prosecutor to request an expansion of the arrest warrant against Ntaganda for murder, persecution based on ethnic grounds, rape, sexual slavery, attacking civilians and pillaging. Ntaganda was a close associate of Lubanga, who in March became the first person to be convicted by the ICC.

“The followers of Ntaganda and Mudacumura have to understand that it is time for them to demobilize and stop their crimes, even help in arresting the leaders,” the ICC prosecutor, whose term of office comes to an end next month, said.

War Criminal Bosco Ntaganda Stirs Never Ending Trouble in Congo- 5,000 Flee North Kivu

DR Congo rebel General Bosco Ntaganda is pictured in 2009 (AFP/File, Lionel Healing)

DR Congo rebel General Bosco Ntaganda is pictured in 2009 (AFP/File, Lionel Healing)

A few weeks back, I covered the story on General Bosco Ntaganda and his loyal soldiers’ defection and how it could shake DRC’s very fragile peace and lead to massive unrest. Regrettably that’s exactly what has happened this week. A BBC reporter in the Goma area says thousands of people are fleeing fierce fighting between government forces and soldiers loyal to Bosco. To  be exact, 5,000 people, mostly women, children and the elderly, have been displaced (src) in Congo’s North Kivu province, the United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday. The reporter saw a constant stream of families loaded with mattresses, kitchen utensils and suitcases on the road between Sake and Goma.

“There has been a lot of shooting, this is why we have fled,” an elderly man who fled Mushake told the BBC.

Bosco’s arrest warrant by the ICC was issued in 2006, but three years later Ntaganda and his fighters were made part of the Congolese army as part of a peace deal. President Kabila has previously refused to arrest him for numerous reasons but said Bosco should face a military tribunal in Congo and there is no need to hand him over to the International Criminal Court.

“We’re seeing now that people are suffering from that. It was predictable. You don’t integrate a former human rights abuser into the military.  They will continue the human rights abuse,” Kambala Musavuli, a spokesperson for Friends of the Congo.

However Ntaganda has continually denied any involvement in the new mutiny:

“I am not involved in what happens here (Masisi), I am an officer in the army of the DRC (Congo) and I obey the orders of my superiors,” Ntaganda told a journalist in Goma who works for Deutsche Welle. “My problem is between me and my superiors that I have promised to solve it.”

According to Musavuli, the scope of problems in Congo are huge and thus one of the solutions is the most important:

“We must bring these rebel leaders to justice so that they don’t continue to repeat these crimes,” he said. “There needs to be an end to the culture of impunity.”

Democratic Republic of Congo’s Very Fragile Peace


Bosco Ntaganda has been wanted since 2006 on an International Criminal Court arrest warrant (AFP/File, Lionel Healing)

Bosco Ntaganda has been wanted since 2006 on an International Criminal Court arrest warrant (AFP/File, Lionel Healing)

I guess only when something directly affects you, then you’ll do something about it. This is the case with President Joseph Kabila ordering the long-awaited arrest of General Bosco Ntaganda after 600 Congolese soldiers deserted their posts this week. With the recent guilty verdict of Thomas Lubanga, the ICC and human rights activists have pressured Congo to follow suit with Ntaganda. Not only does Kabila make it clear that “he will not work under foreign pressure [even though they] have more than a hundred reasons to arrest him,” but his arrest is much more complicated and holds significant implications for the country’s stability.

The defecting soldiers are a mix of former rebels, including loyal members of the former Rwandan-backed rebel group turned political party, National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), which Ntaganda led. Under the 2009 peace deal designed to end the conflict in eastern Congo and an effort to distill rebellion, former CNDP rebels were integrated into the national army and Ntaganda was made general in the Congolese army and deputy commander of a joint UN/Congolese operation. Thus, allthough Ntaganda or ‘The Terminator’ has been wanted by the ICC since 2006 for war crimes, massacring villages, raping civilians, recuriting child soldiers, and a key figure for the persistent unrest in the East, he is considered a strategic component of maintaining order among the most significant former rebel group.

“From his point of view, the message he wants to get across is that if you try to arrest me, I will react violently. So whereas Bosco may be the linchpin of this whole situation, there is a broad alliance of people who are linked to him; that means any action by Bosco or against Bosco could very quickly escalate throughout the provinces,” Jason Stearns, the director of the Usalama Project, which researches conflict in eastern Congo.

As if to throw another curve-ball into the already extermely complex situation, Ntaganda supported President Kabila’s re-election in a small area of the eastern Congo, which may have added to the president’s reluctance to turn him over to the ICC, but after observers widely condemned the vote as flawed, Kabila has sought to reassert his authority and prove his legitimacy to the international community.

I believe that Ntaganda’s arrest could threaten a fragile peace but the much more colossal issue in DRC is the never-ending impunity that fuels the relentless killings, unrest, and human rights abuses by all parties. The government has previously refused to arrest Ntaganda, on the grounds that peace is more important than justice. Is it better to maintain the status quo and prevent rebellion once again or should we risk uprisings and further violence in the name of justice, trying to establish accountability and rule of law in a country that needs it most?

Just to follow-up, Wednesday also saw the collapse of Frederick Mwenengabo, the Congolese-Canadian who has been on a hunger strike for 38 days to protest against human rights abuses in Congo; he is being treated in the hospital.