The 2012 crisis in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo became headline news in April as Bosco Ntaganda, an International Criminal Court indictee, staged a mutiny from the Congolese national army (FARDC). Between March and April, Bosco went from being one of the most powerful generals in eastern Congo to a man on the run.
On 4 June, Human Rights Watch reported that the Rwandan military has given support to Bosco’s mutiny in the form of ammunition, arms and recruits.
While the repercussions of Rwanda’s support have become a focal point for analysis of the latest conflict, little-understood armed groups are carrying out massacres along ethnic lines under the radar of the international media. As Bosco’s mutineers fought the FARDC, more than 200 civilians were killed in attacks near the rebel’s former stronghold in Masisi territory, according to preliminary investigations by the UN’s mission in Congo
Devastating human displacement has become a norm in the violent, volcanic landscape of the mineral-rich east. The effects of the 1994 Rwandan genocide erupted into Congo when the Hutu population fled Rwanda, triggering a series of ethno-political power struggles, which find no resolution today. The number of deaths as a result of war since 1998 is an estimated 6 million.
Three years of relative calm followed the 2008 rebellion in Congo, which ended with what is known locally as, The Putsch. Bosco, then second-in-command of the rebel group CNDP, double-crossed his boss, Laurent Nkunda, to negotiate a peace-deal with the FARDC, leaving Bosco in command of North Kivu and Nkunda in hiding.
President Kabila refused to arrest Bosco in 2006, claiming he was a lynchpin of the peace (despite inviting the ICC to investigate war crimes in 2004). But at the start of April this year, Bosco mutinied following international pressure to secure his arrest.
In mid-April, Bosco and some 600 former-CNDP mutineers who had followed him went on a furious recruitment drive. Amongst the recruits, Human Rights Watch has evidence of 149 boys aged 12 to 20 inducted into the group.
A few weeks later, what seems to be a-mutiny-within-a-mutiny took place. In early May, Colonel Makenga, an ethnic Tutsi who fought alongside Bosco, his predecessor Nkunda, and Paul Kagame in the Rwandan Defence Force, was announced as the leader of M23 – a rebel group named after the March 23rd peace accords agreed by Ntaganda to integrate CNDP fighters into the FARDC.
On Tuesday 1st May, one month after leaving the FARDC, Bosco gave a telephone interview. “I am not involved in the clashes pitting the FARDC against the soldiers who defected”, he said. More recently, in a telephone interview with the BBC he said, “What soldiers? I have no soldiers, I’m in my farm in Masisi.”
Bosco’s wife is said to be in Ituri district, while his farm in Masisi, currently under FARDC control, was raided in May, revealing a 25 tonne weapons cache. Rumours as to Bosco’s whereabouts have him under house-arrest in Rwanda, hiding in the Virunga national park, and in Ituri, where he committed his alleged war crimes. Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses last month who said he is working with the rebels at their Runyoni base.
Aside from the question of Bosco’s whereabouts, debate in Congo has largely been speculation on whether Rwanda is arming the M23 rebels. “What would Rwanda gain in creating instability around its own borders?” asked Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, in an interview with the BBC.
Experts, such as journalist Michael Deibert, have spoken of the Rwandanisation of eastern Congo and say instability in this region is in Rwanda’s economic interests. Control of the lucrative cross-border trade in minerals (a crucial source of income for armed rebel groups) relies on disorder and a lack of centralised state control.
The M23 rebellion was the first pillar in the region’s structural collapse. “The situation is the worst it’s been for several years. Progress made is being lost as previously stable areas are becoming increasingly insecure”, said Samuel Dixon, Policy Advisor for Oxfam, in Goma.
When FARDC battalions left their positions, either to join the rebels or to fight them, many local power vacuums were created. In Pinga, the rebel group APCLS simply moved in, no ousting needed, and set about establishing civic structures. Bloody or not, these takeovers have longer-term repercussions, as the FARDC will, at some point, attempt to regain control, affecting yet more civilians.
West of Goma around Ufumandu, Raia Mutomboki, a Maí¯-Maí¯ rebel group from South Kivu, has formed alliances with another group, Maí¯-Maí¯ Kifuafua, and extended its reach into North Kivu. The Chef de Secteur in the village of Katoyi has a list of 111 people killed since 17 May in his area, attacks he attributes primarily to the Raia Mutomboki and Mai Mai Kifuafua alliance.
The Raia Mutomboki militia was initially formed to defend communities in South Kivu against attacks from the FDLR, the pro-Hutu militia formed from the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. They have since moved from targeting the families of Hutu FDLR fighters to directing attacks against Rwandaphone communities in the East, irrespective of nationality . A 26-year old man said the rebels shouted, “we will kill everyone who speaks Kinyarwanda” as they attacked residents of his village, Marembo, using machetes, spears and machine guns. The upsurge of Raia Mukomboti attacks in North Kivu has given rise to the question, “who is arming them?”
The FDLR has responded to these attacks by killing Maí¯-Maí¯ family members. Last month the national UN-created Radio Okapi reported the FDLR burning four children alive and witnesses report attacks on more than 21 villages in the area in the month of May.
Some say burning alive is a recent phenomenon, but much of this is nothing new – a Human Rights Watch report describes the situation in Ufumandu 3 years ago: “When some tried to flee, the FDLR attacked them, killing dozens with guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and machetes. “As I ran, I saw bodies everywhere – men, women and children”, said one witness”.
“It is unacceptable that violence in Congo goes unstopped and under-reported. While world leaders rightly condemn Syrian massacres the human tragedies happening in Congo are hidden at best, ignored at worst”, said Dixon.
Newspapers find it easier to report the threat to the gorilla population in Virunga national park than they do the human cost of the conflict. The timely reporting of events such as these can require helicopters (often there are no roads), considerable risk (the Raia Mutomboki have shown little sign of wanting to engage with any foreigners), and a lot of time verifying what can be misleading witness statements.
In eastern Congo, atrocities are everywhere. A nine-year old girl who lies in a windowless room at a remote hospital in Rutshuru territory recounts how she was raped in a field of corn while trying to flee the fighting. An elderly and infirm couple sit together on wooden stools as FARDC and M23 rebels exchange heavy machine gun fire in the hills above them; they are too weak to leave their home on what has become the front line.
Press releases and official reports can detail numbers of dead and the mode of killing, but unless those numbers are given context, there is a risk the world will become further desensitised to them. Those fighting “˜Congo fatigue’ do so only to promote the urgent need for civilian protection. Until a serious political commitment to a long-term solution is made encompassing real progress on military reform, that need will continue and the worst will go underreported.
Jessica Hatcher is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi.