Following days of doubt regarding whether M23 rebels in eastern Congo would withdraw from Goma, it appears that they have begun to return to their stronghold north of the country's second-largest city. But there are indications the rebels could yet reverse course.
Standing atop a mountain overlooking the frontline on Wednesday, rebel commander Lieut.-Col. Masozera claimed his troops will soon start to leave. “We have begun our withdrawal,” Masozera said. “It will take a few days, though.”
Regional leaders had called for the rebels to withdraw from Goma by midnight Monday. At a press conference Tuesday in an upscale hotel on the Congo-Rwanda border, the group's political leader, Jean-Marie Runiga, said M23 would not pull out of Goma until the Congolese government met a string of demands, including the release of political prisoners. On the same day, though, the group's military chief Sultani Makenga said they would pull out immediately, without any conditions.
At Karuba, situated close to the frontline, around 24 miles outside of Goma, there was no immediate evidence of a withdrawal. Masozera said his troops would start to withdraw on Friday and head to Sake, northwest of Goma. When asked what they would do at Sake, Masozera replied, “We will standby for further orders.”
But late Thursday, there were reports that the Democratic Republic of Congo Army (FARDC) was advancing on rebels, spurring M23 troops to reinforce their positions rather than withdraw. Congo's government in Kinshasa has voiced skepticism over their plans for withdrawal and been infuriated by rebels' declared plans to keep control of the city's airport.
The head of the Congolese state Army, Gen. Francois Olenga, meanwhile, used fighting words during a press conference on Thursday in Minova. “I am going to ask the government for permission to wage war,” he said. “The negotiations do not get us anywhere, we are now going to declare war for peace.”
Some support in Goma for rebels
Earlier, the M23 had been seen transporting military hardware to their headquarters. The UN has also said they have seen signs of a retreat. M23 sources said that a parade would be held in Goma on Friday to mark the withdrawal. Some residents in Goma, however, have said that the rebels have only begun wearing police uniforms, possibly suggesting a more long-term presence.
If the M23 do withdraw, it will mark the end of more than a weeklong occupancy of Goma. The M23, named after a peace agreement in March 23, 2009, between leaders of a former rebel group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), started their insurgency in April. The rebel leaders say the government did not stick to the agreements made and claim they are fighting against the corruption and bad governance of the Congolese government.
Residents of Goma say they believe the driving force behind the recent rebellion is Rwanda, which has long desired the resource-rich state of Kivu. The UN has made the same allegations, saying that the government in Kigali is supporting M23 financially and logistically. There have been unconfirmed sightings of Rwanda Defense Forces assisting M23 units on the ground.
Since the rebels have taken control of Goma, many residents say security has improved. “Before it was unbearable, there was so many killings, so much violence,” says Rinoni, a young hairdresser. “The M23 definitely brought some kind of stability the FARDC were never able to give us.”
Before the M23 took over the city, both sides were playing dirty tricks, impersonating the other side to ruin the other's public image, say local journalists. A bomb in a market; a grenade thrown into a hair salon; and the kidnapping of a famous musician were a few of the horrors inflicted on the city while the two sides vied for public support or to simply discredit the other.
As a result, many are fearful of the M23's departure. “For the first time, no one has taken any money from us, we felt safe,” said Elly, a villager in Karuba who gave only one name. All the villagers gathered around nodded their heads in agreement. “We do not want the FARDC here, they only cause problems and rob from the people,” said another villager who wished to remain anonymous because of the still volatile situation.
Not everyone, though, is so supportive of the M23, including soldiers currently in rebel ranks. In Goma, one young soldier who had been working for M23 for a couple of months said he was not sure they would do much better.
“All armed groups are the same in Congo,” he said. “It is just for money; whichever side wins I'll join, most the groups are like this.”
For the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who have been forced out of their homes by the conflict and forced to languish in terrible conditions, opinion is divided. “We do not want the rebels, they only cause more problems and grief for us,” said one young man who shared a tiny straw shelter with five children and his wife.