x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rebel leader offers DRC a choice - words or war

The violence has subsided in this volatile central African country as a ceasefire between the government and a rebel group has held for the past five days.

Displaced people returning to their homes in rebel-held territory outside of Goma walk past the body of a Congolese soldier.
Displaced people returning to their homes in rebel-held territory outside of Goma walk past the body of a Congolese soldier.

KITCHANGA, CONGO // The violence has subsided for now in this volatile central African country as a ceasefire between the government and a rebel group has held for the past five days. The gap in the latest round of fighting has allowed much-needed aid to reach the thousands of displaced people who have fled their homes. But the situation remains tense and the rebel commander who captured a large swath of territory in the recent battle and pushed the front lines of the conflict within a dozen kilometres of Goma, the provincial capital, wants the government to listen to his grievances. "We need to fight until we get negotiations," Laurent Nkunda, the leader of the rebel movement told a small group of journalists at his stronghold in the green hills of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. "If [the government] doesn't want negotiations, we will keep fighting." Dressed in crisp army fatigues, a green beret, thin glasses and carrying a black cane with an eagle's head for a handle, Mr Nkunda, who has a degree in psychology, said the government in Kinshasa has neglected the people of the eastern DRC. "We say our government has betrayed our people," said Mr Nkunda, who is tall and gaunt. "If there is a vision, it is a government with a good economy and security." Two weeks of intense fighting has roiled the region suffering from a decade of civil war. Mr Nkunda's forces, known as the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), drove the Congolese army from Goma but stopped short of taking the strategic town. Government soldiers raped, looted and killed civilians as they retreated, according to reports. At least 200,000 people have fled the latest fighting, which has escalated the humanitarian crisis. Yesterday, a UN convoy crossed rebel lines to deliver aid to the displaced people who have built tents out of tarpaulins and banana leaves. People went about their business on the streets of Goma and shops reopened. UN tanks guarded strategic locations as peacekeepers patrolled the town. North of Goma, just behind rebel lines, the bodies of dead government soldiers still lined the road, their skin swollen and decaying in the equatorial heat. The government has yet to retrieve the bodies. At a displacement camp yesterday, people packed up their white tarpaulins and moved back to their villages in rebel-held territory. A steady stream of displaced people, with their possessions tied up in neat packages balanced on their heads, walked past the bodies of the dead government soldiers on their way back to the villages they had recently fled. Mr Nkunda claims to be protecting the Congolese people, especially those from his ethnic Tutsi minority, and people have flocked to rebel areas for security. Human rights groups said Mr Nkunda's forces have raped and killed civilians. "We are living in good terms with Nkunda," said Eraston Muhizi, a pastor from the rebel-held town of Kitchanga. "I like CNDP. They have given us peace." The war has its roots in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which Hutus slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The Hutu perpetrators of the genocide fled to Congo, where they have continued to attack Congolese Tutsi. More than five million people have died since fighting began 10 years ago, according to aid organisations, making the conflict the deadliest since the Second World War. The DRC's vast wealth of minerals such as diamonds, gold, tin ore and coltan, which is used in mobile phones and other digital electronics, has fuelled the war. Mr Nkunda, a former general in the Congolese army, claims that the Congolese government is aiding the Rwandan Hutu militias operating in Congo. Congo claims that Mr Nkunda's forces are backed by the Tutsi-led government in Rwanda, a charge both Mr Nkunda and Kigali deny. "The whole eastern Congo is under rule of negative forces," Mr Nkunda said. "Those forces are supplied by the [Congolese] government. They are under protection of the government." Mr Nkunda took issue with a recent deal of US$9 billion (Dh33bn) the Congolese government signed with China in which the Chinese will build roads and a railway in exchange for natural resources. The deal, Mr Nkunda said, would line the pockets of a few politicians while the Congolese people would see no benefit. "All the mines were given to the Chinese without any calculation," he said. "We have a big problem of corruption." The CNDP rebellion is seen as destabilising the region and worsening the humanitarian situation. About three million people have been displaced and live in squalid camps where malnourishment and disease are rife. "That is the cost of freedom," Mr Nkunda said in response. "We have to suffer for some time before we can be free." mbrown@thenational.ae