A new rebel push in Congo's wild, wild east is threatening to mar recent progress toward peace and plunge one of the world's most war-ravaged regions into a fresh humanitarian crisis.
From Jan. 21 until late February, the Congolese Army joined neighboring Rwanda in a surprise offensive against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militia suspected of committing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and wreaking havoc in the mineral-rich mountains of eastern Congo ever since.
The joint operation – a rare instance of cooperation between two neighbors with a history of animosity – is credited with flushing out hundreds of FDLR militiamen for re-integration into Rwanda, something widely viewed as key to ending the conflict that has killed more than five million people in the past decade.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon heralded the operation during a visit to eastern Congo earlier this month.
But now the Hutu rebels are retaking many of their positions and carrying out reprisal attacks on civilians suspected of cooperating with the joint offensive.
In the past two weeks, 35,000 people have been forced to flee their homes by the FDLR, says David Nthengwe, the spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in eastern Congo. More than 160,000 civilians have been displaced since January.
"The FDLR is reoccupying places that joint forces went into and is accusing civilians of collaborating with the operation to root them out," says Mr. Nthengwe. "The general harassment is increasing. How long this continues will depend on the Congolese Army's ability to defend its own people."
Gen. John Numbi, commander of the joint force, said his operation had seen 153 Hutu rebels killed and up to 5,000 repatriated to Rwanda. But a Western security official, who declined to be named, says that the number of captured FDLR is closer to 450. The joint operation took over five main FDLR bases, but the rebels have taken back three of them, he says.
"People who were applauding the joint operation are now being targeted," he says, giving an example of a local administrator who was recently shot in the back five times.
The official also said that Western aid groups are now being attacked more than before. There are now an average of three to four attacks per week, he says.
In the village of Kanyola, where an FDLR massacre killed scores two years ago, safety is a daily concern. Residents say the FDLR militiamen come down from the mountain at night to loot and hike back up during the day.
"We worry, because we never know when they'll come," says Njabuka Mvubuhendwa as she carries a load of firewood on her back. "We live in fear."
Her neighbor was killed last week for resisting FDLR militiamen's request for food. After ending his life, they slaughtered one of his cows and took the meat with them.
"We fear to live near them, but there's nowhere else to go," says a teenage boy who didn't want to be named for fear of retribution.
He says he knows relatives and neighbors who have been recruited against their will to fight for the FDLR.