What does Congo's Gen. Nkunda want?
An ordained preacher and rebel group commander, Gen. Laurent Nkunda is threatening to draw other nations into a war in eastern Congo.
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On Thursday, one SADC member, Angola, took this idea a step further, threatening to send its own troops into Congo in support of the Kabila government. Such a unilateral move could draw other neighboring countries – some of which are thought to support the Nkunda movement – into an all-out regional conflict. For five years, ending in 2003, nine nations fought in the Congo.Skip to next paragraph
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There is little in Gen. Nkunda's past to suggest that he enjoys causing suffering. A former school teacher in the town of Kichanga – where he now has his military headquarters – and a devout Seventh Day Adventist preacher, Nkunda is admired among his own Tutsi ethnic group.
In a brief interview last year, Nkunda told this reporter that he simply wanted to protect his people from armed groups who have a long history of attacking and killing Tutsis, namely, the Rwandan rebels who carried out the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda.
"It's a threat," he said of the FDLR, or the Force Democratique de la Liberation du Rwanda, "and not just to us but to the people of Congo. They have an ideology of genocide, and they did genocide in Rwanda and they want to do it in Congo."
In a region of Congo with literally dozens of armed groups that change allegiances and ideologies all the time, Nkunda has been consistent in his demands – and consistently a thorn in the side of the Congolese government.
He has demanded that Rwandan rebels of the FDLR be returned to Rwanda. He has demanded security for his own Congolese Tutsi minority, who are economically powerful but increasingly reviled. He has demanded that the 40,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees living in camps in Rwanda be given a safe environment in which to return. And, while he has agreed in principle to disarm his National Congress for the Defense of the People forces, he insists that his men be allowed to remain in the Kivu region, to help protect ethnic Tutsis from internal and external threats.
Yet there is a pattern of cruelty among the troops under Nkunda's command, says Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior analyst for Human Rights Watch in London.
In 2002, when Nkunda was a senior commander of the Rally for Congolese Democracy, a now-defunct Tutsi militia backed by Rwanda, Nkunda oversaw the brutal response to a mutiny of his RCD soldiers in the central Congolese city of Kisangani. More than 150 mutineers were rounded up, beheaded, and their bodies tossed into the Congo River, says Human Rights Watch.
In 2004, Nkunda's men took by force the South Kivu capital of Bukavu – then under the control of UN peacekeepers – creating a humanitarian crisis similar to the one today in Goma. Nkunda justified his actions because of the deaths of more than 15 ethnic Tutsi businessmen, but the displacement of civilians in Bukavu, and the crimes committed by his troops – including public rape, says Human Rights Watch – caused a lot more public suffering.
"We have seen the acts of him and his troops," says Ms. Van Woudenberg. "Is he the only one in Congo doing this? No, the Congolese Army itself is abusive, the Mai Mai are horrendous. But let's not make him [Nkunda] out to be a legitimate rebel leader who doesn't have blood on his hands."
Yet, the sheer ease with which Nkunda's forces take territory away from the Congolese Army makes him a force to reckoned with, says Mr. Boshoff. "He's in a very good position," he says. "Basically Goma is under siege and he can take it anytime he wants."