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Story Publication logo May 4, 2009

Letter From Goma: An Implausible Savior


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The 2006 election in the Democratic Republic of Congo was supposed to usher in a new period of peace...


In late February, I was walking down the dusty road that winds through Nyabiando, a town deep in the forests of eastern Congo, when a young Congolese man approached me. Nervous and sweating, he insisted that we talk immediately. We ducked into an alleyway. "We're all going to be killed," he said. A mile-long column of Rwandan soldiers was marching past on their way home to Rwanda. "Why are they leaving before they've finished the job?"

The "job" was the destruction of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (better known by its French initials, F.D.L.R.), a Hutu rebel group linked to the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. For years, the group extorted the population of Nyabiando and much of eastern Congo and oversaw a lucrative trade in minerals. Or at least it did until January, when Congolese President Joseph Kabila invited several thousand Rwandan soldiers into Congo to help root out the rebels.

It was a dizzying volte-face: the two governments that were now vowing to join forces against the F.D.L.R. had been fighting each other for more than a decade. Ever since 1994, when the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese-Seko gave safe haven to the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, the Rwandan government had made the politics of Congo its business, invading its much larger neighbor twice and plundering its abundant natural resources. According to a United Nations report released in December 2008, the Rwandan government had been secretly supporting the rebellion of Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi general, against Kabila's regime in Kinshasa. And Kinshasa had been using the F.D.L.R. to push back Nkunda's advance.

Michael J. Kavanagh 2009So why the change? By last fall, Kabila could no longer survive the situation politically. Nkunda's two-year rebellion had displaced a million people in North Kivu. One of his offensives had overwhelmed the hapless Congolese army and brought him to the outskirts of Goma. Then he blustered about overthrowing the central government, prompting a political crisis in Kinshasa. Kabila's hold on power seemed to be slipping away, and none of his old African allies offered to come to his aid.

By the end of the year, Nkunda's antics had also become a headache for Rwanda. After the UN published its report, Sweden and the Netherlands withheld aid to Kigali, and the U.S. and British governments told Rwandan President Paul Kagame that they were troubled. Kagame, a former rebel leader, needed to prove to the international community that after years of causing instability in eastern Congo he could now restrain himself.

And so in December, Kabila and Kagame struck a secret deal that once would have been unthinkable: Kabila would let the Rwandan forces hunt down the F.D.L.R. if they agreed to take care of Nkunda.

Diplomats in Africa, Europe, and the United States were quick to celebrate the agreement as a step toward lasting peace in eastern Congo. But it was only a small step. One handshake between Kabila and Kagame cannot solve the biggest problems facing the region: a refugee crisis, tribalism and insecurity, and conflicts over land and resources. As Jendayi Frazer, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, told me, "This is going to be a long, long effort."

On January 22, soldiers from the Rwandan army marched to Nkunda's headquarters in Bunagana, in eastern Congo, and took him into custody. (He is now under surveillance in a house in western Rwanda.) But in spite of the joint military operation, the F.D.L.R. is still present.

In February, Congolese officials were touting the campaign on the radio, saying that rebel fighters would be hunted down. But as he cowered next to me, the man in the alley said that when the Rwandans saw the rebels, "They shot in the air like they were shooting at birds in trees, not soldiers." The Rwandan and Congolese governments claimed that their soldiers killed 153 rebels during the operation -- undoubtedly an overestimation. Of one bombing raid that had supposedly killed 40 rebel troops, a UN official said it had "probably killed one goat."

Indeed, as the Rwandan Defense Forces marched their way through village after village of wide-eyed, uneasy Congolese in January and February, there was very little fighting. They paid for their food and slept under the stars. In Pinga, I saw them take children on joy rides in the back of a truck; in Nyabiando, they flirted with women at the vegetable market. Operation Umoja Wetu (Our Unity, in Swahili) was less a military campaign than a public-relations operation meant to erase suspicion after years of war.

Which is why it scored only minimal gains against F.D.L.R. and, in doing no better than that, may have made the situation in eastern Congo even less secure. By way of explaining the rebels' endurance, one F.D.L.R. commander told me during the operation, "We've been living in the bush for fifteen years. You don't think we can wait a month?"

They could, and they did.

The Rwandan troops managed to push groups of F.D.L.R. away from the border and deeper into Congo, allowing about 350,000 Congolese displaced by Nkunda's rebellion to return. But by April, reprisal attacks by the F.D.L.R. had forced at least another 250,000 people to flee their homes.

The abbreviated operation upset the uneasy coexistence that the residents of eastern Congo and the F.D.L.R. in their midst had developed over the years. Left without any allies, the rebels are now vengeful and desperate, and the inhabitants of Congo's remote villages have little protection against them.

In other words, the departure of the Rwandan troops has left a giant security vacuum. In theory, the Congolese army should be able to fill it; in practice, it does not. Toward the end of the joint mission, one Congolese unit came to the village of Kashebere after the Rwandans had cleared out. They looted the entire town. "At least the F.D.L.R. didn't do things like that," one resident told me.

Skeptics of Umoja Wetu had believed that the Rwandan soldiers would invade the Kivus, seize the area's mines, and plunder and kill. In reality, the Rwandan troops acted with discipline. And since they have gone home, the Congolese soldiers have proved unable to repel the F.D.L.R. on their own.

With the Congolese army trying to integrate into its ranks all former rebel groups, including about 6,000 of Nkunda's soldiers, there is some hope that the force will get stronger and become better able to keep pressure on the F.D.L.R. But that remains to be seen, especially since many of Nkunda's former troops who have integrated into the army remain fiercely loyal to their sequestered leader. Meanwhile, the UN mission in Congo has limited power to help. The Rwandans and Congolese left the UN out of the planning of their operation, and the peacekeepers do not have the resources or, in some cases, the will to do much. The troops in charge of eastern Congo are still waiting for reinforcements that were promised almost six months ago.

Thus, Rwanda remains the most powerful player in eastern Congo, and the region's future depends on Kagame. The best one can hope for is that he will come to believe that bringing peace to the area is in Rwanda's interest. With the Congolese army and the UN mission struggling to cope with the F.D.L.R. rebels who are still terrorizing North Kivu or regrouping en masse in South Kivu, it seems more and more likely that Rwandan troops will be invited back. What a paradox: with the country most responsible for Congo's insecurity now the only one capable of solving it, many citizens of eastern Congo, once the crucible of anti-Rwandan sentiment, find themselves today wishing, like the man in that alley in Nyabiando, that the Rwandan troops had never left.


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