Fighting between the Congolese army and the FDLR rebel group broke out a week ago and has continued even now in the village of Busurungi and its neighboring villages, located about 125 miles from the mining area of Walikale. The violence prompted thousands of civilians to flee south towards the towns of Hombo and Otobora, a two days’ walk away. Civil society in Walikale indicated that people even as far away as the town of Zirhalo in South Kivu were displaced because of heavy weapon detonations.
Congolese army spokesperson Maj. Sylvester Ekenge recently told a local radio station that North and South Kivu based army units have increased pressure on the FDLR as part of the second phase of Amani Leo military operations that have been underway, under various names, since early 2009.
Congo military operations have been very controversial as Congolese army officers either struck alliances with the FDLR and Mai-Mai groups, or simply pushed them out, and took over the mines. A total of 45 brigades have been sent out to track down and suppress Rwandan FDLR and Ugandan ADF/NALU combatants since early 2009. However, commanding officers of the operations, most of which are ex-CNDP, went straight for the highly lucrative minerals all over eastern Congo, as noted in the recent Enough field dispatch “Behind the Ban: An Update from Eastern Congo.”
So what prompted the recent outbreak of fighting? Busurungi and villages around it, as well as Kimua forest, where the FDLR keeps its Walikale HQ, are known for their gold and cassiterite mines, which have been under FDLR control since the early 2000s. So it should come as no surprise that the area where the fighting broke out this week is precisely where the FDLR continues to control mines. As the UN experts describe this in their recent report, the Congolese army is “is more focused on profiting from natural resources than on dealing with armed groups.”
Since Rwanda and Congo launched secretly brokered joint military operations “Umoja Wetu” against the FDLR in early 2009, they have been rebaptized Kimia I, Kimia II, Amani Leo Phase I, and Amani Leo Phase II without rethinking the whole strategy. For instance, while Congolese President Joseph Kabila instituted a ban on minerals exports with the stated aim of curbing the mafia-like exploitation of the minerals trade, a BBC investigative report that aired in early November alleged personal links between Congo army force commander Gen. Gabriel Amisi Kumba Yala’s (aka “Tango Four”) and Walikale gold mines. Over one month later, the president still hasn’t addressed the scandal, despite his “zero tolerance policy.”
The Congolese army’s operations against the FDLR are little more than a poorly veiled rationalization for forcing the FDLR out of eastern Congo’s mining areas. To be sure, a militia like the FDLR should be cut off from mineral-rich areas, but it’s little consolation to know that the Congolese army – with its abominable record of committing atrocities as well – is coming in to fill the void. As usual, civilians in the area pay the steepest price for this struggle over who will control the resources and wealth.