Soldier pay threatens to undo Congo's progress against rebels
Many soldiers haven't seen wages for months. Meanwhile, a Hutu militia is increasing attacks on civilians in response to the military offensive.
Luofo, Democratic Republic of Congo
"You see how I am, I cannot fight again," says Mukalayi Senga, a bed-ridden Congolese government soldier, his lower right leg heavily bandaged after it was shattered by a misdirected mortar. "With the small money the Army gave me, I was not able to pay for my children's school fees. Now, I don't know how I will be able to take care of my family at all."Skip to next paragraph
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The experience of Mr. Senga is far from unique. He is one of many government soldiers injured recently in operations against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an extremist Hutu militia. But he is one of the fortunate ones. He was flown out of the battle zone to a United Nations military hospital in Goma, a provincial capital. And he was being paid.
Many troops on the front line have not received wages for months, even in the midst of a UN-sponsored offensive against the Hutu fighters exiled from neighboring Rwanda.
The Congoglese Army's month-long joint offensive with Rwandan troops – invited across the border in a surprise bilateral deal in January – had the FDLR on the run. But now, the desperate militia is terrorizing tribes it had previously lived with peacefully, killing scores of civilians and displacing tens of thousands. Security officials, diplomats, and aid workers are becoming increasingly concerned that lack of payment for soldiers could worsen already low morale and undo recent progress toward rooting out the Hutu militiamen.
"Payment of the soldiers is still a big concern," admits Lt. Col. Jean Paul Dietrich, a UN military spokesperson.
Yet Congolese soldiers are being expected to take the fight to a well-organized and ruthless FDLR, which has a long-established presence in eastern Congo. Having fled from Rwanda 15 years ago – where some of its fighters took part in the 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus – this militia controls significant mineral resources, such as tin and gold mines. For its core of more than 5,000 remaining fighters, there is little incentive to return home.
Congo's military is losing the momentum built up during the recent Rwandan intervention. Only 105 Hutu militiamen were repatriated in April, according to figures from the UN. In February, when Rwandan troops were dispersing the militia from deep inside Congo, 586 rebels were bused back to Rwanda.
And the FDLR appears to be regaining the upper hand.
"Although the military operations pushed them out of their bases, in a number of places FDLR combatants have returned or remain very close by," says Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch. This includes parts of Walikale territory, which is rich in tin and gold, and Lubero territory, which has over 100 gold mines, according to a Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A new strategy of terror
In Lubero territory, the FDLR appears to be relying on a new strategy – terrorizing the ethnic Nande population, which it had lived largely peacefully with before.