On the evening of the M23’s departure from Goma, Congo, the city’s civilians were secretly excited to finally see the rebels leave. “We’re terrified of the M23,” one motorbike-taxi driver told me, as we swerved down a potholed road past U.N. peacekeepers. “They just cause problems. It is time they left.”
A “pro-M23” march, scheduled for the day before the departure, demonstrated the city’s lackluster support for the rebels. In a city of 1 million, only 100 people turned up, most of them street kids. “As you can see, we just want them to leave,” one shop owner whispered timidly as the march went by.
The next day, to the relief of many, M23 soldiers bundled onto trucks, marking the end of an occupancy that started Nov. 20 and lasted more than a week. The M23—named after a peace agreement in March 23, 2009, between leaders of a former rebel group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), and the Congolese government—started their recent insurgency in April of this year, claiming that the government had not stuck to its original agreement. Although the M23 have not retreated to the agreed 15 miles outside Goma—they are still two and a half miles from the city center—talks with the Congolese government have commenced in neighboring Uganda.
Humans-rights groups, though, are concerned that the peace talks could result in the integration of the rebels—whom they accuse of war crimes—into the national Army. “No agreement should lead to the reintegration of M23 commanders who are suspected perpetrators of serious human-rights abuses into the Congolese Army,” says Theo Boutruche, Amnesty International’s Congo researcher. “There is a critical need not to repeat the same mistakes made in the past.” Despite the M23 leaders’ vows to protect civilians, research done by human-rights groups in the region is starting to unearth a very different picture. “The M23’s claim that civilian protection is their priority does not stack up with our findings on the ground,” says Boutruche. Amnesty International documented a range of human-rights abuses supposedly committed by the M23, including unlawful killings of people who refused to collaborate, forced recruitment of children, and rape.
“M23 commanders belong in only one place: behind bars. They should not be reintegrated once again into the Congolese army or running gold mines,” says Scott Campbell, Africa chief at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Campbell argues that there has been no change in the M23 leaders’ attitude towards human rights since they were blacklisted for their war crimes during a previous rebellion as the CNDP. “Their military leaders have a total disregard for children, women, and human life in general,” says Campbell. One possible difference, says Campbell, is that the M23’s leaders have attempted to cloak themselves with a civilian leadership at the negotiating table. “The United States and others should not be so easily duped”.
A Human Rights Watch team investigating in and around Goma told me that M23 troops have committed various human-rights abuses during their occupation of Goma, including summary executions, rapes, forced recruitment, and looting. The group claimed that at least 15 civilians were killed by the M23, and the team is still trying to verify a number of other allegations. In one incident, Human Rights Watch said, soldiers from the M23 raped a 10-year-old girl so badly on Dec. 1 on the outskirts of Goma that she died from the wounds the next morning. In another reported human rights abuse case, fighters allegedly looted a family home and took the father away to transport the stolen goods. When the man’s four-year-old daughter asked the M23 fighters where they were taking her father, they shot her in the head. The M23 fighters also forcibly recruited medical personnel from the military hospital and took them to a training camp north of Goma. In another incident, two young men who tried to escape after being forcibly recruited were caught and stabbed to death by M23 fighters. Other civilians were taken by M23 fighters and it remains unknown whether they were killed, forcibly conscripted, or managed to escape alive.
Some of those killed were accused of opposing the M23 or supporting militia groups allied to the Congolese army. As one local human-rights activist put it, “It seems they are using their time in Goma to punish those who they know have stood up against them in the past.” Many of the human-rights defenders who have been monitoring abuses committed by the M23 since April have received death threats via texts and phone calls in recent months. The Human Rights Watch team reported that M23 soldiers were looking for a civil society leader who had spoken out against the M23’s abuses. When they didn’t find him, they reportedly shot and killed one of his colleagues instead. As a result of the harassment, dozens of human rights activists have gone into hiding or managed to leave the province.
A mechanic and a motorbike-taxi driver were also reportedly assassinated by M23 rebels for their role in an anti-Rwandan protest earlier in the year.
“These abuses stand in stark contrast to the image the M23 leaders seek to promote, with declarations proclaiming their movement to be orderly, disciplined, and respectful of human rights and with grand visions for a ‘reformed’ Congo,” says Ida Sawyer, Congo researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Yet they are not surprising. The M23’s fighters have committed widespread war crimes since they mutinied from the Congolese Army eight months ago, and its leaders have been responsible for some of eastern Congo’s worst atrocities over the past 15 years.”
Human-rights groups also say that abuses were committed not only during the M23’s control of Goma, but since the M23 was created this past spring. The groups have reported countless cases of forced recruitment and harassment of local populations. According to one local activist, the M23 have repeatedly stolen from civilian communities in Rutshuru. “They have no respect for the people who end up living around their camps,” said the activist, who wished to remain anonymous over fears of reprisal. “They do what they want, take what they want.” In one of the worst reported cases, the M23’s fighters allegedly attacked a family in the village of Chengerero, in eastern Congo, on July 7. A 32-year-old woman said that the rebels broke down her door, beat her 15-year-old son to death, and abducted her husband. Before leaving, she said, the M23 fighters gang-raped her, poured fuel between her legs, and set the fuel on fire.
The M23’s leaders claim to have started their latest rebellion because the government did not stick to past agreements, and they claim to be fighting against the corruption and bad governance of the Congolese government. While corruption is rife, and the Congolese army troops have also terrorized local communities, the M23’s claims have been met with skepticism. A U.N. group of experts has said that the Rwandan government has been supporting the rebels--financially, logistically and with weapons--and that they have sent Rwandan army troops into Congo to fight alongside the M23. “Senior Rwandan military officials, who may be complicit in war crimes through their support to the M23, should be sanctioned, and foreign governments should publicly press Rwanda to stop support for the M23,” says Human Rights Watch’s Sawyer. Rwanda has backed numerous other rebellions in eastern Congo, in part to maintain control over the fertile land and rich mines in eastern Congo's Kivu provinces—mines also of interest to the M23 leaders—and the ability to smuggle minerals across the border to Rwanda.
Another theory is that Kigali had increased its attempts to arrest the International Criminal Court–indicted former CNDP leader, Gen. Bosco “Terminator” Ntaganda, which led him to desert the Congolese Army and possibly form the M23. While the M23 leaders have vehemently denied any involvement with Ntaganda, he is still believed to be involved in the group’s affairs.
Despite the M23’s efforts to distance themselves from past atrocities, it appears they will soon have the same reputation that the CNDP made for itself. “Same wine, different bottle,” quipped one diplomat. For many human-rights groups, even if the talks do succeed, the lack of willingness by either side to vet those committing human-rights abuses has led to something of a lose-lose situation for human-rights defenders.