Congo and Rwanda agree to tackle armed groups
The DRC, Rwanda and their Great Lakes region neighbours have agreed a plan to "eradicate" armed groups in eastern Congo, the Congolese and Rwandan delegations said on Thursday.
The document was signed in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa by foreign ministers of nearly a dozen regional states, who met on the sidelines of an African Union summit.
They agreed to tackle a rebellion in Congo's North Kivu province, where the latest fighting began in April, displacing more than 100,000 civilians according to the UN and raising tension between Congo and Rwanda.
"I think it is positive. The most important thing is putting it into effect," Congolese Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda N'tungamulongo told Reuters.
Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo also welcomed the agreement, which foresees the region requesting an international force to eliminate both the Tutsi-led M23 rebel movement and the predominantly Hutu FDLR insurgents.
"It is a good agreement, it is not a solution, it is part of a solution and it is very good that the region gets involved," the Rwandan minister said.
The population of Bunagana, a Congolese town on the Ugandan border, has lived in terrifying uncertainty for two months. Trapped since mid-May between the lines of armed rebels calling themselves M23 and soldiers of the notoriously undisciplined Congolese army, thousands fled into Uganda seeking shelter from sporadic fighting in the hills around the town. On 6 July, after a 14-hour battle, Bunagana fell to the rebels.
By Pete Jones, Bunagana
A month earlier the local population had voiced concerns for their safety, insisting that they wanted a resolution to the crisis, whether through decisive fighting or negotiation. M23’s victory brings only further uncertainty.
The usually bustling town centre is eerily quiet as small numbers of people walk back and forth, carrying carpets, mattresses, small possessions and jerrycans under the watch of the M23 fighters, who have occupied a hill overlooking Bunagana. When asked about the situation in town, a young man says “the situation is calm. It’s okay”. He seems nervous though, glancing around and answering in short sentences.
An ethnic dimension?
M23 takes its name from 23 March 2009, the date of peace agreements that put an end to fighting between government troops and the Tutsi-led National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels. The CNDP soldiers integrated into the army as part of that deal, but those fighters now claim the government did not observe the terms of the agreement. They launched a new rebellion, and the former CNDP rebels make up the leadership of M23.
The population of Bunagana is largely Hutu, and they fear that the ex-CNDP Tutsi leadership may launch ethnically motivated killings. “We are waiting to see whether there is an ethnic dimension to the fighting,” said Janvier Celestin, a young man lingering on the Ugandan side of the border crossing into Bunagana. The fact that many M23 fighters are Hutu has gone some way to reassure people that M23’s fight is not an ethnic one.
Looting and forced recruitment
On the road between Bunagana and Rutshuru, a town that fell to M23 on 9 July, rebel soldiers are sparse, allowing people to speak more freely.
“When the rebels came we fled, now they’ve told us to go back,” says Louis Bazeeha, a 21 year old struggling up the hill towards Bunagana in the hot sunshine. “We are tired of running every time they attack. Now they are looting our things, and they are recruiting young men by force, giving kids uniforms and guns. So the young boys are fleeing.”
“Where I was staying, they were taking boys,” he continues. “I hid in the house then ran when they left the village. We have no choice in who wins between the army and M23, but we just ask that whoever rules brings peace.”
While towns in the area continue to fall to M23 and the Congolese army melts away as the rebels approach, peace and stability seem a distant prospect for the local population. For many of the young men here, there is only the impossible choice between joining the rebels and fleeing to the overcrowded refugee camp in Uganda. That is no choice at all.