The war burgeoning in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo with the conquest of Goma, a wealthy and strategic town, by the M23 rebels, continues to take up ink and feed debate. This war continues to merit questioning and interrogation. Troubled, frustrated and revolted, the population vacillates between so many sentiments that it doesn't know anymore which saint to pray to. One young man confided to his neighbours the day Goma was taken, "Why must the Eastern DRC always be the theatre for war, and the starting point for all the wars?"
It's a good question, answered the companion in whom he had confided. It could lead to another question, one that would launch a debate for experts: "Who is hidden behind these wars, and which of them are the real actors?"
Far from being able to answer this question, we will instead examine the effects of the fall of Goma, the tensions created between the military and civilians, and finally the actions FARDC has taken to reverse the situation.
The past two weeks, especially with the fall of Goma, have provoked a mix of intense feelings from the populations of North and South Kivu. First, following the pattern of events in 1996, towns have fallen one after another without resistance, and the populations feel they've been left with no protection. Without completely blaming the military, there's a malaise within the army. This unease is linked to the organization of the army, to salary payments, and to betrayal and fragmentation within army. The army has not yet moved beyond the dysfunction it inherited from the past, where troops were loyal only to themselves under the shadow of an outside commander. According to this view, protecting territory and securing institutions and populations are roles that cannot be filled by such an army.
By the same token, more than one person has said that with the events of the last two weeks, the DRC has fallen victim to a conspiracy, of which it's impossible to pinpoint the ins and outs. With rich soil, flora and fauna, the DRC can't be left to peacefully preside over its future without falling prey to someone's greed. Faced with an existential paradox between the wealth of the country and poverty of the people, the sense of resignation is exacerbated by many who find that these riches never help the Congolese. In this context people still defend their interests tooth and nail, recalling the African proverb, "How can the corpse know the value of its gold coffin?"
Finally, these past two weeks haven't failed to claim victims. They say, "When two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers." The resulting humanitarian crisis is unacceptable: more than 200,000 refugees. The displacement of people who are driven on again with every conflict, their uprooting, closing schools, the presence of a variety of diseases, hunger and lack of access to water at refugee camps, are all part of the drama that the world refuses to see or take seriously. One mother who had just given birth to twins said the day after Goma was captured, "Exhausted from walking, I gave birth only by a miracle. And after traveling kilometers by foot, I was forced to flee again from Goma. Without help or assistance, how can my two babies survive?"
In South Kivu, humanitarians, human rights activists and other segments of the population sought refuge in neighboring countries, some fearing for their lives, and others fearing the rebels' advance. Leaflets were distributed by the Mai Mai to convince the population to stand ready to defend their territory. Coalitions of Mai Mai groups were raised and aimed to consolidate their forces to combat the enemy, who, according to some, include both M23 and the government. These are some of the effects of an inevitable conflict imposed on the population.
These two weeks have also stirred up formidable military-civilian tensions. The army has been subject to numerous accusations from human rights groups that it took revenge on the population along its line of retreat. Regular forces are accused of having pillaged Goma during their retreat to Sake. The rebels also stand accused of atrocities during the conquest and occupation of Goma. Bodies were found by the roadsides. Some also accuse the rebels of using vehicles from humanitarian groups and other agencies to cross into Rwanda. What's more, observers have accused rebels of raping women in Goma, persecuting human rights activists and harassing journalists.
These tensions also point to MONUSCO forces, which are accused of complaisance and ineffectiveness. We have heard people who compare the attitude of MONUSCO to that of the UNAMIR forces on the ground in Rwanda in 1994. This accusation has spread so that everywhere in the DRC, language is heard condemning the attitude of MONUSCO, and young people are mobilizing to attack MONUSCO installations and property. The most remarkable actions of such youth are tied to Bunia.
It's difficult to give an exhaustive account of tensions provoked by the past two weeks, but we must also mention the rise of xenophobic attitudes. In the north and in South Kivu, some fear that recent events will wake sleeping demons, especially if people suspect, rightly or otherwise, that they are Rwandan, and subject them to discrimination because of their appearance, language or accent. On the plain of Ruzizi in South Kivu, the conflict is tied to land and power struggles between Burundians and the Bafuliru, and is heavily influenced by the events of the past two weeks in North Kivu, particularly with hate and mistrust already well entrenched. The Bafuliru fear that those arriving in North Kivu with the M23 will set up shop there with the Barundi and the Banyamulenge.
Finally, the Congolese army's humiliation will not end without certain high officers suffering sanctions. The head of the land army, Gen. Amissi Tango Fort, was suspended from his functions and replaced by Gen. Olenga. The strong man's suspension could be linked to implications that he was involved in arms trafficking with armed groups operating in the eastern DRC. Other sources, however, reveal that the longtime patron of FARDC has ties with the M23 rebels.
Soldiers who fled the front have also been punished. The new head of land operations said after spending several days in Minova that his army is ready to re-take Goma and throw the enemy out. Many Congolese have no faith left in him, asking what magic wand he has to organize an army that has seen nothing but defeats and has never won a battle. He'll find no sympathetic listeners among a population that demands he first pay the military, feed them well at the front and organize them before he sings about his exploits.
We can also add the Mai Mai phenomenon. Until now, the popular sentiment has never pushed the government to eliminate Mai Mai groups. But the population putting its faith in Mai Mai has always condemned the attitude of the government. The population has never been able to stomach government actions that allowed high-ranking CNDP elements in the army while it did nothing for the Mai Mai. The population found that the government must assume its responsibilities because it armed and encouraged M23 at a high level and offered them security in the eastern DRC, especially as the East has been gripped by bloody wars.
We can see today that a certain tolerance to the Mai Mai movement is beginning to surface in the ranks of FARDC. We can cite, for example, the attack of Sake last week by a coalition of FARDC and Mai Mai. For better or worse, coalitions of M23-Rwanda, FARDC-Mai Mai, and the series of events in the East holds surprises on all levels for those who survive to see.
In closing, it's important to emphasize that the Eastern DRC has become a powder keg that holds surprises for the entire region that analysts and specialists on the area cannot yet understand. One thing is sure: events encompassing the entire Great Lakes region are well underway. We can only hope that whoever set fire to the region has some method in mind to put it out. If not, there are great things in store! One can only rub his hands when the neighbour's house is on fire, they say.
Translated by Cid Standifer