Like the rolling hills in the Kivu regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, reports of violence in the area seem never-ending. Now Human Rights Watch has revealed the horrors inflicted as M23 rebels have clashed with government troops since April. Once again, Rwanda has been found to be the linchpin of the crisis. Pulling it won’t be easy.
The deadly conflict erupted in eastern DRC when hundreds of soldiers mutinied from the Congolese national army. President Joseph Kabila had secured another term as president and seemed set on enforcing an old International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant against Bosco Ntaganda, the warlord leading the M23 rebel group. M23, named after a March 23, 2009 peace deal, has been engaged in a deadly battle with the government to control the east. Since the military defections in April, violence has displaced almost 500,000 people (226,000 in North Kivu and 200,000 in South Kivu).
Those numbers, however, appear abstract, detached from emotion and, frankly, what many people have come to expect from the volatile region since regional powers went to war in the DRC in 1998. But Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been on the ground throughout the recent conflict, speaking to almost 200 locals and M23 defectors, to provide personal accounts of the war crimes committed by the rebels.
The most shocking fall under the heading “Killings and Rape by M23 Forces”. Between June and August, M23 has murdered at least 15 civilians, wounded 14 others and raped 46 women and girls (13 of them were children), HRW said in a statement. At least 25 more civilians were killed in fighting between M23, DRC forces and UN peacekeepers, it found. The personal stories coat statistics of fatalities and displacement with a lacquer of tragedy.
One account reads: “In early August, an elderly couple who lived near Runyoni left their home to flee to government-controlled areas when a group of M23 fighters stopped them. The M23 fighters grabbed the woman and tore off her clothes. Her husband tried to protect her, but some of the fighters started beating the 60-year-old man with their rifles, while others gang-raped his wife. The man lost consciousness when he saw his wife being raped. He was later taken to a hospital, where he told relatives, ‘I want to die. I have no desire to live after what I have seen. It is only animals who could have done this.’ Two weeks later he died of his wounds.”
M23 has also been forcefully recruiting soldiers, usually by asking them to carry loads of supplies at the barrel of a gun and then refusing to let them leave. HRW found at least 286 people had been forced to fight, 68 of whom were under 18 years old. Many of those met early deaths. In just a few months, at least 33 rebels and recruits who attempted to escape had been executed. Those who stayed didn’t fare much better. A 17-year-old who was recruited in June said, “There are lots of children with Ntaganda now, and they send us to the front lines so we’re the first to die. It’s as if they take us to kill us.”
As shocking as the allegations of war crimes are, they come as nothing new. The ICC already has two arrest warrants out for Ntaganda while M23 senior commander Sultani Makenga has been implicated in the recruitment of child soldiers and massacres in eastern DRC. The greatest impact of the HRW release might be the allegations of war crimes it levels at Rwanda.
Family members of victims, defected M23 members and locals all describe a conflict that hinges on Rwanda’s support for the rebels. Hundreds of troops have been sighted arriving each time M23 makes a strategic advance. They’re said to be well-equipped, speak English and have come across the DRC’s eastern border. Defectors had spotted Rwandan General Emmanuel Ruvusha commanding M23 forces and claimed the DRC’s tiny neighbour “directed, or helped to direct, military operations, provided weapons or supervised the training of new recruits.”
Rwandan forces had recruited at least 600 new M23 fighters, said HRW.
That’s more than those coming from the DRC. Recruiting in Rwanda has been based on targeting the vulnerable and exploiting long-standing ethnic divisions in the region. Congolese Tutsis living in transit camps were targeted because “all the Kivus should come back to Rwanda because it’s ours”, coaxed one recruiter. An M23 fighter from DRC said, “We have a small number of soldiers and Rwanda has many We recruit everywhere in Rwanda. We especially look for those with families in Congo, former CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) fighters (which Ntaganda commanded), or demobilised soldiers. The street children are also very susceptible to recruitment.”
HRW accused Rwanda of war crimes for it military officials recruiting child soldiers. President Paul Kagame’s government has vehemently denied allegations of supporting war in the DRC, but the United Nations has condemned Rwanda for fuelling violence in the region. It led to major donors suspending aid to the country, which despite its well-publicised successes still depends largely on foreign aid.
Its fortunes looked to be improving last week when Britain became the first donor to resume aid. The eastern DRC war has quieted recently and the UK’s outgoing international development secretary explained the about-turn. “Given this progress and recognising that the government of Rwanda has continued to demonstrate its strong commitment to reducing poverty and improving its financial management, Britain will partially restore its aid budget to Rwanda.”
The decision was most likely based on affection as opposed to real progress. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned at a meeting on the crisis last week that despite a lull in violence the situation remains extremely volatile.
The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region supported sending a neutral force as peacekeepers. But Saturday’s meeting was widely seen as a failure; only a third of the 11-member group turned up and Kagame was notably absent as accusations continue to shoot between Kinshasa and Kigali.
Herve Ladsous, the UN’s head of peacekeeping, warned adding more troops to the 19,000 already based in the DRC, 94% of which are in the east, would need to be “flushed out” by the Security Council. He’s in the country ahead of a high-level UN meeting in New York in September on the ongoing crisis.
Yet, ending violence in the DRC has never enjoyed the international attention it needs. The M23 conflict has a messy background and both governments in Kinshasa and Kigali have much to lose by backing down.
Unless some award-winning acts of diplomacy can uncover their mutual interests in peace, Human Rights Watch will be recording tales of tragedy for a long time to come.