Renewed fighting between Congolese rebels and government forces has worsened one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, sending thousands of villagers from their homes, while Congo's government accuses the Rwandan government of intervening on its soil.
Fighters from the rebel faction of Gen. Laurent Nkunda – an ethnic Tutsi thought to be backed by the Tutsi-led government in neighboring Rwanda – took the strategic town of Rumangabo and a military base from the Congolese Army during heated battle this week, but have since withdrawn. Casualty numbers were not known, but internal refugees told the Monitor that the fighting was fierce and that they were urged to leave their homes by government soldiers.
"Soldiers told us to leave because they were going to fight strongly against the Tutsis," says Appoline Nyiranza Bimana, a mother of three children, speaking on the morning of her arrival this week at Kibumba camp 25 miles north of the regional capital of Goma. "There was so much shooting, I couldn't stay at home anymore."
The fresh wave of fighting comes just 10 months after the signing of a peace deal between most of the major armed factions in the troubled eastern region of Congo. Nearly 3 million Congolese have died since 1996, when a rebel army – backed by a number of neighboring foreign countries, including Rwanda – forced the government of President Mobutu Sese Seko out of power. The January peace deal, brokered by the European Union and the United Nations, was seen by many as Congo's best chance for finally sending rebel armies home, but now political experts and peacekeepers say that it is clear the deal itself was never given a chance to work.
"One of the parties did this deliberately to derail the peace process, we're just not sure which one did it," says Lt. Col. Charles McKnight, a senior peacekeeping official within the UN peacekeeping force, MONUC. MONUC is the UN's largest peacekeeping operation in the world. "As of August, I was actually optimistic that this would all work."
The problems in Congo – one of the richest countries in the world, in terms of natural resources, but among the poorest in terms of human development – are rooted in a tangled mess of bloody ethnic rivalries, foreign interventions, and the violent sparring for control of lucrative mining resources. Congo's government, elected in the fall of 2006, has proved incapable of controlling its own vast territory and relies heavily on UN troops to keep the peace in the eastern provinces, where much of the mineral resources lie, and also, where much of the ethnic fighting has continued for more than a decade.
Nearly 100,000 Congolese have been displaced in the last three months alone, and given the population in the areas attacked in the past few days, as many as 30,000 additional people could be forced from their homes.
The peace deal, hailed for its inclusiveness of all Congolese armed groups, fell apart after fighting erupted Aug. 28, north of Goma. Nkunda complains that the government was never serious about peace, because it never attempted to shut down the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), a group made up of Hutu rebels blamed for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. But government peace brokers say it was Nkunda who wasn't serious about peace, and that the violent clashes of the past few weeks show he is trying to provoke a regional conflict.
"It wasn't a realistic deal in the first place," says Gregory Mthembu-Salter, an analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit in Johannesburg, and expert on Congo. Too many armed factions profit from their control of mineral resources, and worry about facing possible war crimes if they come out of the bush, he says. "They just haven't gotten beyond the zero-sum game."
The Congolese government says the current troubles are the instigation of Rwanda and the government of Paul Kagame. On Wednesday, the Congolese government announced plans to ask the UN Security Council to meet to discuss what they called the invasion of Rwandan soldiers on Congolese soil. Congolese Foreign Minister Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi told Reuters news agency that he had "hard evidence," including captured Rwandan soldiers, to prove that Rwanda was intervening in Congo.
"The Rwandans are indeed there. They now want to take Goma [capital of North Kivu province]," Nyamwisi told Reuters. Rwandan officials deny the charges.
On the day of the attack on Rumangabo, it was clear that the conflict had escalated. Government tanks lined the road in the front line village of Rugare, pointing their turrets toward the hills where Nkunda's troops make their home. Even a day later, when Nkunda's troops retreated from Rumangabo and the military camp had returned to government control, local villagers continued to pack up their belongings and head for crowded displacement camps.
"We never thought that the camp could be taken, that's why we are forced to leave our village," says Sekibibi Sibomana, a farmer who left during the fighting on Wednesday and has returned to collect food for his family in the displacement camp at Kibumba. "We were sure that the army was very strong, and they could protect us, but they didn't."
Most of the refugees in this area blame the recent fighting on Nkunda, a former Congolese army general who took up arms against the government because of its inability or unwillingness to protect his ethnic Tutsi group against the Hutu-led FDLR.
Gen. Nkunda recently announced his plans to widen his rebellion to liberate the whole of Congo from the control of the government in Kinshasa.
Col. Delphin Kahimbi, commander of the Congolese army effort to retake Rumangabo, pulls out Rwandan Army backpacks and Rwandan Army ID cards as evidence that the recent takeover of his military camp at Rumangabo was a direct intervention by Rwanda.
"This was the Rwandan army with a small group of CNDP [Nkunda's rebel group]," says Col. Kahimbi. "We know that CNDP does not have the capacity. It is the Rwandan Army that has the capacity to come here."
One MONUC official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says he still holds out hope that the January peace agreement can be patched up. He also says that it is unlikely at this stage that the conflict will draw in neighboring countries, even if Congo pushes the UN Security Council to act.
"Kagame has too much to lose [than to enter Congo]," the MONUC official says. "He wants Rwanda to join the Commonwealth. The only way he gets involved here is if there is a massacre of Tutsis. Then he has the humanitarian justification to intervene."