Eastern Congo rebels thrive on fear, chaos

Los Angeles Times

RUTSHURU, Democratic Republic of Congo — The rebels materialized out of the moist, heavy air, startling the woman as she tended her crops in the lush volcanic hills near the Rwandan border.

They wanted a bag of salt. No salt, and they'd kill her.

"You just do what they say," said Solange, a widow struggling to support a family in the midst of war.

To people like her who live in eastern Congo's North Kivu province, the M23 fighters who have taken control of their region are bandits, not rebels. After they seized Solange's village of Rutshuru in July and plundered all her beans, she fled south to the provincial capital, Goma.

It would prove to be no refuge. The rebels and the violence followed her.

The awesome serenity of the cloud-swathed emerald hills, twittering with bird life, home to mountain gorillas, is almost deep enough to erase, for a moment, successive waves of gruesome violence.

The region, an important source of minerals used in laptops and cellphones, was swept up in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Since then, it has become the scene of one of the great tragedies of the last century: Wars fueled by a toxic blend of resource riches, ethnic hatred and interfering neighbors have killed 5 million people.

In recent years, the area settled into a fragile peace. But militias still drain the country's wealth. There now are fears that eastern Congo could spiral into another long and bloody conflict.

United Nations experts say Rwanda armed and commanded M23, which rebelled against the Congolese army in April, and directly supported the rebels' attack on Goma.

Rwanda has been accused of backing militias and fueling conflict in the region for years, but it denies interfering. It has a security interest because Hutu militias responsible for the 1994 genocide fled into eastern Congo, where they continue to mount attacks. And with few mineral resources of its own, Rwanda has a strong economic interest in the region.

Among M23's reputed leaders is Bosco Ntaganda, a commander nicknamed the Terminator who was indicted in July by the International Criminal Court on suspicion of atrocities including murder, rape, sexual slavery and pillaging.

The M23 political leaders wear shiny silk suits, with labels like "High Class" left ostentatiously on the sleeve. They made Rutshuru their base, imposed compulsory weekend cleanup brigades for the entire population, planted grass around the administrative building and put up signs condemning corruption. They made the town look like a miniature copy of Rwanda, a country so tidy that all plastic bags are banned and seized at the border.

They also looted villages and killed an undetermined number of people.

Solange is 35 and belongs to the Nande tribe, the main ethnic group in North Kivu. Her husband was a government soldier who earned $55 a month before his death three years ago from malaria. They had no children.

On the farm, she grew cassava and beans to sell in the local market and always had plenty to eat. "Life was good," she said. After her husband's death, she had to support not only her family, including her parents and a younger sister with children, but her late husband's family too. In all, there were 15 mouths to feed.

M23 disrupted all that.

After fleeing to Goma, she stayed at a friend's house. She registered with an aid agency, hoping to get food assistance, but never received any.

"It's very difficult. Sometimes we don't have enough food," said Solange, who preferred not to use her last name out of concern for her safety.

Goma's idyllic lakeside setting could be a tourist haven in a parallel universe. But in this one, teenage boys and grimy men push heavy loads of water, wooden poles or potatoes. Women pound cassava leaves or fry tennis-ball-size lumps of dough in bubbling oil.

Solange didn't outrun M23 for long. The rebels seized Goma in November, looting, killing their enemies, raping women and then retreating after intense international pressure 11 days later, vowing to take the city back whenever they wanted. Peace talks between the Congolese government and rebels began Sunday, but a scheduled meeting Monday didn't take place because the rebels failed to attend.

A week after the rebels took Goma, there was a pro-M23 rally in the city, a ham-fisted propaganda stunt that fooled no one. The signs were mostly written by one person, and onlookers sneered that the participants were all maibobo — street boys. And it was a little embarrassing at the end of the march when participants like David Umbeni, a cleaner who smelled strongly of alcohol, loudly demanded their pay for taking part.

"They promised to give us two dollars, and now they're not giving it to us," he groused.

In Goma's empty marketplace, Regan Balume, a butcher, lovingly sliced pieces of beef stomach, heart and liver when a rare customer appeared. Like many here, he muttered a dark refrain that the rebels were not just bandits and looters, but also foreigners. Some fear there could be another genocide.

"I'm angry at these so-called liberators, who just came to lie to us," Balume said. "They should just go back to where they came from, Rwanda." Then, abruptly, agitation died, replaced with fear, and he fell silent, glancing sullenly at his feet. A plainclothes M23 official had materialized beside him.

That evening, Solange, who had nothing to eat and no money, did the only thing she could think of to get a few dollars for food: She went to a bar, hoping to meet a man who'd buy her a soda and give her some cash in exchange for sleeping with him.

But nothing happened at the bar, and she hurried home in the dark. "That's when the bandits caught me," she said, referring to M23 rebels.

She told the story later, in a doctor's office back in Rutshuru. Small and slight, she sat clutching a handbag to her body. She wore a black scarf on her head, the knot arranged above the hairline like a plump flower in bud.

There were five of them, she recalled. They also seized a passing boy and tied him up. The boy watched as they threw her onto the street and ripped at her clothes.

"One put a gun to my head," she said in a soft, clear voice. "They said to me if I cried, they'd kill me. They were saying, 'Let her die, let her die.' When one was finished, another would say, 'Have you finished? Let me do it too.' "

She fled after the attack, never knowing the fate of the boy.

Analysts fear that it will be hard to get a peace deal between the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, and M23, and that there will be many more victims like Solange.

If there is a peace agreement, it will probably contain the same weaknesses of previous bargains, stitched together quickly, co-opting the enemy into the military, doling out positions, access to resources and other benefits to placate them.

"It could escalate into all-out war, or it could go back to skirmishes," said Jason Stearns, author of the blog Congo Siasa. "It's going to be extremely difficult to find a compromise between M23 and the Congolese government. It's about trusting Kabila.

"Everything we have been describing is a recipe for a mess, and M23 thrives on chaos."

Beneath the surface, analysts say, the rot deepens. Kabila's weak government on the other side of the country is disconnected and isolated from eastern Congo, with no ability to provide decent services or impose security. Corrupt military and venal government officials plunder the minerals and smuggle them into Rwanda and Uganda.

People like Solange expect little from the government. She'd like justice. But she sees no reason to expect it.

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