The general walks into the hut, his boots freshly brushed, his green beret tilted just so, his silver-capped swagger stick tucked under his arm. He greets a group of journalists, puts his hand over a table full of food, and closes his eyes in prayer.
"Father, we thank you for the food we are about to eat, and we ask you to ensure a safe journey for your children who have come to visit us," Gen. Laurent Nkunda intones, in the rhythm of an evangelical preacher, which he has been in the past.
It's not the picture one expects of Congo's Public Enemy No. 1.
Called a war criminal and terrorist by his opponents in the Congolese Army, General Nkunda maintains a well-armed and -supplied militia of 8,000 in the mountainous eastern region of Congo, carrying out a guerrilla war against the government and other ethnic militias in defense of his ethnic group, Congolese Tutsis.
"We are asking government to take a position against the negative forces, so we can get peace," said Nkunda at a recent press conference held in his headquarters in the town of Kitchanga. His enemy is not the Congolese army, he insists, but rather the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a militia of ethnic Hutus who have taken refuge in Congo since carrying out the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 Tutsis. "It's a threat, 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."
Bad time for a rebellion
Nkunda's rebellion couldn't have come at a worse time for the war-torn nation, a massive sprawling country of 250 ethnic groups bound together by the Congo River. The newly elected government of President Joseph Kabila is just now learning the ropes of government. Aid workers were about to help move 700,000 displaced people back to their villages and begin reconstruction of the country. And foreign investors were just beginning to help Congo extract its almost unlimited mineral riches. Renewed fighting puts all that at risk.
Yet, while President Kabila recently signaled his frustration, announcing on TV that "the time for carrots is over," the solution of this conflict will not easily be won by battle.
"There should be a political solution in eastern DRC, because there is no military solution," says retired Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, former commander of UN peacekeepers in Congo.
No easy solutions
Speaking of the Congolese army, General Cammaert says, "The FARDC is in no position to carry out combat operations." And simply removing Nkunda as a charismatic leader won't solve the problem either, Cammaert adds. "You still have the problem of a minority that is ignored, and nobody is taking care of their needs. Nkunda says, 'I'll take care of it, because the government isn't taking care of it.' "
Just months ago, the problem of reintegrating Congo's many militias seemed to be improving. President Kabila pushed a program of brassage, in which militias would send troops to join an army led by commanders of all ethnic groups.
But the continued presence of rebel groups from outside Congo, including the Hutu FDLR, made many ethnic groups uneasy. When three Tutsi businessmen were murdered in December, Nkunda, himself a Tutsi, withdrew the 6,000 fighters he had sent for reintegration, and returned to the jungle to force the government to expel the FDLR before continuing demobilization.
The crisis has escalated in recent weeks during whigh fighting between Nkunda's men and government forces displaced 65,000 civilians .
Nkunda's demand to allow a Tutsi army to protect Tutsis is "impossible," says Sylvie Van den Wildenberg, a spokeswoman for the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC. "If we allow every soldier to defend his own people, we'll have 250 tribal armies."
During the current cease-fire negotiated by MONUC on Sept. 2, Nkunda has used the media to put forth his demands, a move that has roiled the Congolese government. A recent press trip into Nkunda territory, joined by this reporter, was met by lengthy detention, interrogation, and harassment by Congolese police, army, and army intelligence. "Nkunda is using the media for propaganda," one army intelligence commander fumed during a lengthy interrogation, in which the reporter's camera and recorder were confiscated (and later returned). "Nkunda is not a hero. He is a criminal. He is a terrorist."
In Kitchanga, Nkunda creates a very different impression. "I've known him since my childhood until now," says Katabana Mateene, a local chief who is not a Tutsi. "Since Nkunda came, my village is safe. Without him, we would have a very bad situation here."
Still, whatever the merits of his cause, UN officials say Nkunda's mobilization is not helpful.
"Nkunda says he should not be compared with the FDLR and I know what he means, because of what the Tutsi community suffered from the FDLR," says Ms. Van den Wildenberg, of the MONUC. "But the effect of his policies in the region are just as bad as any negative forces operating on Congolese soil."