Havoc as Congolese flee the 'Terminator'

Wema Mambo at Mugunga camp on the outskirts of Goma, May 2012

Wema Mambo has fled her village for the third time in just five years because of warring groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

On this occasion the fighting pits government forces against defectors loyal to the renegade general Bosco Ntaganda, sometimes known as the "Terminator".

She is among 9,000 new arrivals in the Mugunga camp on the outskirts of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu province on the Rwandan border.

"I don't know when I'll be able to go home," she said after receiving beans, salt, oil and soap from aid workers in the camp.

"Other displaced people who went back to look for firewood came back saying they had been attacked and three of them had died."

Gen Ntaganda defected last month - three years after he led the integration of fighters from the ethnic-Tutsi CNDP rebel group into the army.

Other camp residents said that as they fled, some had been raped and young men had faced forcible recruitment.

"We, the young men, fled the soldiers who wanted to recruit us by force. Some of us have been taken," Jean de Dieu Christophe said.

It is unclear which side is responsible for which abuse, as the belligerents are factions from the same army, wearing the same uniform and people are afraid of making accusations.

Reliving horrors

Image caption People are fleeing towards the Rwandan border

Thousands of other families are stranded all along the 40km (25 mile) stretch of road between the battlefields of the Masisi hills and Goma.

According to the UN refugee agency, 1,000 people a day have been walking the Sake road to the border and crossing into Rwanda since fighting broke out on 29 April.

Many of these civilians say they are reliving the horror of 2006-2008, when the CNDP threatened to invade Goma under the leadership of their then-chairman Laurent Nkunda.

The same camps were filled with displaced people.

"This is war, the same war all over again, but even worse, with more shooting that is scaring us even more," said Berkimase Banke, an elderly man who walked 30km from the Masisi hills with a mattress and a suitcase.

"We were told that peace was here, but war is coming back in an even worse way."

In early 2009, the CNDP signed a peace agreement with the Congolese government while Rwanda , which had been backing the militia, withdrew its support of Mr Nkunda and arrested him.

Bosco Ntaganda emerged as the CNDP's new leader and conducted the militia's integration into government forces with the rank of general.

But in March, the International Criminal Court returned its first ever guilty verdict - against Thomas Lubanga, Gen Ntaganda's co-accused in a war crimes case linked to an earlier phase in DR Congo's conflict.

Pressure from the ICC and international advocacy groups to arrest Gen Ntaganda suddenly grew heavier.

'Large-scale smuggling'

The Congolese government's protection of Gen Ntaganda as part of the 2009 agreement became less and less tenable, especially after numerous UN and non-governmental organisations reports highlighted the extensive criminal networks he had established inside the army in eastern DR Congo.

According to last November's report by the UN group of experts on the arms embargo in the DR Congo, Gen Ntaganda controls mines and other businesses in the region despite a legal ban on military officers doing so.

Their report alleged he used military units under his control to protect his financial interests and engaged in large-scale smuggling through unofficial border crossings with Rwanda controlled by his men, including one outside his house in Goma.

"The Group estimates that Ntaganda makes about $15,000 [£9,200] per week by taxing at this crossing point," the UN experts wrote.

The report also documented Gen Ntaganda's involvement in an alleged multi-million dollar gold transaction scam targeting US investors last year.

During the first week of April, army commanders close to Gen Ntaganda began to defect and move their troops to remote strongholds in North and South Kivu.

While government forces managed to contain the mutiny in South Kivu and arrested 18 high-ranking officers due to be tried in the coming days, defectors in North Kivu regrouped in the Masisi area, where they began to clash with government forces.

By the end of the month, the confrontation had escalated into a full-scale war involving hundreds of soldiers backed by artillery on both sides.

The UN peacekeeping mission deployed temporary bases around the area of fighting and flew over it with helicopters in an attempt to limit abuses against civilians.

Rwandan connection?

The Congolese authorities have blamed the violence squarely on Gen Ntaganda and called for his arrest - though President Joseph Kabila hinted that he would prefer to see him tried before a Congolese court than at the ICC.

The general told the AFP news agency last week that he was not behind the mutiny and still considered himself as part of the national army.

Government forces suspended their offensive at the weekend and gave mutineers until Thursday to surrender, but the most recent group of defectors issued a statement on Sunday saying they were forming a new armed group under the command of Col Sultani Makenga, a long-time associate of Gen Ntaganda.

It is unclear whether this new militia is in competition with Gen Ntaganda or a front for his own rebellion.

But several security sources in Goma fear these new rebels may have found refuge and support in Rwanda, in a repeat of the Nkunda era.

Thomas d'Aquin Muiti, who chairs the North Kivu provincial committee of civil society organisations, called on Rwanda to clarify its position.

"People say those who are defecting will again receive support from Rwanda. Rwanda must prove them wrong and say: 'We no longer want to support mutinies in the Congolese army,'" Mr Muiti said.

In an interview with Jeune Afrique magazine last week , Rwandan President Paul Kagame said of the North Kivu crisis: "This is a matter for the DRC and not Rwanda."

He added that Gen Ntaganda's arrest "may be positive, but it could equally well be very negative, yet this evaluation still hasn't been done".

Peace after the 'Terminator'?

Regardless of Gen Ntaganda's personal fate, uncertainty remains as to the new balance of power that will emerge in eastern DR Congo from the current turmoil.

Matthew Brubacher, a demobilisation and disarmament expert with the UN in Goma, believes there is now momentum to break the influence networks maintained by former CNDP leaders despite the 2009 peace agreement.

"A lot of the hardliners that were loyal to the side of Bosco have been marginalised, some of them have already been arrested, and those that have stayed loyal to the government, to the national government, have been rewarded," he said.

"It's not the end of the CNDP as such but it's the end of the CNDP as a parallel administration that's trying to be separate from the national government," Mr Brubacher added.

Jason Stearns, from the Rift Valley Institute think tank, is more cautious.

"Both Rwanda and the ex-CNDP cadres can suffer to see Bosco go - after all, many have personal quibbles with him. But they cannot suffer to see the CNDP networks and power dismantled," he wrote on his blog .

A lawyer representing some of the defectors arrested in the past month said their withdrawal from army ranks was not a rallying movement to protect Gen Ntaganda from arrest, but rather a natural reaction to the political manipulation and general hostility against troops integrated from the CNDP movement since 2009.

Competition for land and natural resources remain, with CNDP and army defectors claiming to defend the interests of Kinyarwanda-speaking communities, especially Tutsis, some of whom feel vulnerable after the 1994 genocide of their kinsmen in neighbouring Rwanda.

Leaders from other ethnic groups see the 2009 deal, which allows for the repatriation of Kinyarwanda-speaking refugees to North Kivu, as unduly favouring Tutsis - and some have been supporting their own militia, arguing "self-defence".

Since 2009, the UN-backed policy pushed by the Congolese government has been to integrate willing militias into the army and combat those that resist signing peace deals through joint military operations conducted by peacekeepers and Congolese troops.

Three years on, some local peace activists would like to try a new approach, based on talks with various rebels and traditional leaders to resolve long-standing ethnic disputes - and with the ever-present Rwandan neighbour.

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