It was supposed to be the press conference that would clear the air and inform the residents of Goma, the second-largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), what the rebels would do next. On Tuesday, sitting in front of a room full of journalists in an upscale hotel on the Congo-Rwanda border, rebel leader Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga said his group—called M23—would not leave Goma until President Joseph Kabila met a list of demands, including the release of all political prisoners. It was a statement that completely contradicted recent comments from the rebel’s military chief, Sulatni Mukenga, who had unconditionally promised to regional governments that M23 would soon leave Goma.
For the countless civilians who have been trapped in the middle of the conflict, the contradiction is bound to only fuel fears of prolonged suffering. Since fighting broke out in April of this year, hundreds of thousands of residents from Kivu state have been displaced from their homes. The rebel group, named after a peace deal made in March 23, 2009, say the government has not respected initial agreements to fully incorporate them into the state army. The rebel leaders claim to fight against corruption and to better the livelihoods of the civilians. Many Congolese, though, doubt these are the real goals of the M23, and these suspicions were further fuelled by U.N. allegations that Rwanda was heavily backing the group’s struggle. Tutsis—the same ethnic group as Rwandan president Paul Kagame— dominate M23, and they are fighting in a territory long desired by Kigali. With Rwanda’s apparent backing, and perhaps that of Uganda’s, too, M23’s strength has flourished.
On Nov. 20—to the surprise of many Goma residents, who thought it would never happen—M23 troops marched into the city and claimed it as under their control. The invasion came on the heels of a quick retreat by government troops, after only a few days of fighting on Goma’s outskirts, and after U.N. peacekeepers had stopped firing on the rebels (a decision that unleashed a barrage of criticism on the U.N. for not defending the city’s residents). The next day, rebel spokesman Col. Jean Marie Vianney Kazarama held a rally in the local stadium and indicated that the rebels intended to march on to Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. M23 also moved to incorporate hundreds of local police and Congolese soldiers into its burgeoning ranks.
Since the rebel take-over, Goma—a city of 1 million—appears to have regained some degree of normalcy, though daily life remains slightly surreal. Only a few M23 soldiers can be seen during the day, mostly guarding the hotels where their leaders make impromptu public appearances. UN peacekeepers—mainly from India—rumble by in armored vehicles, looking bored. Apart from that, it appears to be business as usual. Vendors line the streets; landscapers maintain the city’s few grassy patches.
However, behind the calm facade, the city is living in fear. Banks have refused to open, to avoid looting, and many businesses remain closed. Few parents have allowed their children to return to school, despite M23’s violent demands that teachers reopen the institutions. “We are constantly terrified of what could happen next,” says Robert, a shoe-seller. “But for the moment, we are just trying to get on with our lives and hope the M23 will bring something better.”
While the residents of Goma might be able to eke out some form of life, those who have been displaced from their homes and forced to languish in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), are displaying less patience for the M23’s contradictions. “They have to make a decision what they’re going to do,” says Habani Mageshi, a 47-year-old Congolese woman, as she sits outside her straw shelter in the Makunga IDP camp outside Goma. “We can’t go on living like this.”
Mageshi, who traveled to the camp with her seven children, is no stranger to the conflict that has torn apart Eastern Congo. After her husband was killed by the FDLR—a Hutu rebel group that has been operating in the DRC since the Rwandan Genocide—she fled to Sake, 25 kilometers from Goma. When fighting between M23 and the Congolese army erupted last week, she was forced to leave Sake, as well. Now, she’s in the camp, where the situation is catastrophic. Like countless others, Magehsi sleeps on rocks. Her shelter is no protection from the heavy rains that batter the region. And the camp residents live in fear that the M23 will be routed on its march to Kigali and pushed back towards Goma, which would put the camp right in the path of the war. The nightly sounds of gunshots and mortar fire are a constant reminder for Mageshi’s children of the horrors they have run from.
Although fighting has been taking place sporadically around the region, no full-fledged offensive has been launched by either side since the M23 took Sake. Rumors are circulating around the city that the M23 will leave on Thursday, but few are convinced. If the rebels keep on advancing, there is a danger that the conflict could escalate to unprecedented proportions, with Rwanda and even Uganda becoming involved militarily. Warning signs of a regional war rang out on Tuesday, when reports emerged that the Congolese army had assisted the FDLR Hutu rebel group in attacking Rwandan military positions.
If the M23 does bow to regional pressure and retreat, the region would likely return to its status quo—a state of affairs that pleased that few citizens of Kivu state. Many residents complain of corruption within the Congolese troops, sexual violence, extortion, daily kidnappings and homicides. Residents say security has improved slightly with the rebel takeover but that the M23 are no angels—they, too, have been accused of human-rights abuses, including executions and forced recruitment of children. Once again, the citizens of Goma may end up having to place their hope in the lesser of two evils. “We still don’t trust the M23, but we hope they can do anything better than the government in Kinshasa,” says a local teacher calling himself Bahani. “Like all armed groups in Congo, though, they all lose their way, and we are the ones who will suffer.”