Africa

DR Congo's rebel kaleidoscope

  • 5 December 2012
  • From the section Africa
A child watches as Congolese soldiers return to the military barracks in Goma eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo on December 3, 2012.
Congolese Civilians remain at the mercy of a variety of armed groups

While the M23 rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have dominated headlines in recent months, they are just one of more than two dozen armed groups fighting in this resource-rich region.

A new report by the aid agency Oxfam, published along with a remarkable map, shows that the recent unrest in Goma - a strategically important trading city - is just the tip of an iceberg of human suffering.

The M23 rebels, named after a 23 March 2009 failed peace agreement that they claim to want to implement, captured Goma nearly two weeks ago, before withdrawing with their loot to positions just outside the city at the weekend.

Their campaign began in May 2012 when they mutinied from the national army. According to the United Nations, they had active assistance from Rwanda - which Kigali denies.

The M23 threat to the provincial capital Goma shuffled some of the military cards in areas far from the border region they control because United Nations and Congolese government army troops moved to Goma to counter them.

This left a security vacuum in other areas which smaller rebel groups exploited.

As the UN or the army moved out to reinforce areas under M23 threat, the smaller groups moved in, destabilising the situation further.

Tax to work the fields

More than 25 rebel factions operate in just two provinces of eastern DR Congo: North and South Kivu. They have shifting alliances and control fluid areas of territory - but try to hang on to profitable tin or gold mines and/or routes where travellers can be "taxed".

Strictly speaking, the map, drawn up in late November, was probably out of date almost as soon as it was published. But it does give an idea of the extreme difficulty ordinary civilians have in the region.

"Preying on people has become an extractive industry," says Oxfam's Elodie Martel.

"Armed groups plunder money, food and whatever other resources they can find."

In recent years, I have made numerous journeys through the Kivus and the kaleidoscope of armed groups you encounter is bewildering.

It is not unusual to come across two or three armed bands contesting the same stretch of road.

These groups often allow foreign journalists to pass through - it would draw too much attention to them to do otherwise.

But Congolese civilians are not so lucky. Oxfam cites the example of the small market town of Kashanga north-east of Goma which was attacked 12 times between April and July 2012.

The attackers were from the government army, and two other groups - the Patriotic Alliance for Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

They were fighting over control of illegal taxes imposed on people attending the weekly market.

In a nearby area farmers said they had to pay the Mai Mai Nyatura group 1,000 Congolese francs ($1; £0.62) or two to three kilos of beans per person for the right to access their fields to tend crops.

A man from this region who asked not to be named said of the armed groups: "Anyone who resists them or who raises their voice is immediately killed."

Across the Kivus there are estimated to be 767,000 displaced people.

"In the face of abuse and exploitation on this scale there is no room for apathy," Ms Martel said.

"This is a humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale and the world cannot continue to turn its back on this tragedy," she said.

Too rich to care?

But whatever Oxfam's well-meaning appeals, the truth is that many people around the world do indeed shrug off DR Congo's woes.

The news emerging from the country is so consistently bad that people seem to have become immune to reacting.

Eastern Congo's beautiful hills belie the danger within

Across the country there are 2.5 million displaced. But the epicentre is the Kivus, for a combination of reasons:

•The Kivus have rich volcanic soil which supports crops in the valleys and cattle grazing on the rolling hills

•Other areas have rich mineral deposits - including tin, gold and coltan (used in the manufacture electronic gadgets)

•The above have attracted a relatively dense population

•Successive waves of ethnic Tutsi and ethnic Hutu settlement in the Kivus have destabilised and complicated the local ethnic balance

•Neighbouring countries all exploit the weakness of Congolese institutions by allowing their nationals to plunder DR Congo

•The Kivus are 1,500 kilometres from the capital Kinshasa and their natural trading route is via east Africa. This leads to yet more foreign influence.

Many people have fled their homes several times during two decades of unrest

Oxfam's Ms Martel said: "It is reprehensible that another year goes by with people telling us they go to bed afraid of killings, looting and abduction - and that women are too afraid to go to their fields to fear of being raped."

The aid agency called on the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers in the country to respond to people paying the ultimate price for the conflict.

But a more fundamental rebuilding may be necessary, because neither of these institutions have thus far been able to square up to the needs of the population.

When faced with a similar though much smaller-scale breakdown in law and order a little over a decade ago, the West African state of Sierra Leone decided to rebuild "from the army up".

With international assistance it re-trained its security forces in a strategy that has so far worked in helping rebuild the wider country.

But the tragedy of DR Congo is that it may be just too rich to do this.

It may be that the various elite actors on the Congolese stage - local and foreign - are making so much money from the rich mineral deposits that they don't want a functioning national army to restore order.

They may be benefitting too much from the current chaos.

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