A photographer in Congo witnessed the moment when the guns fell silent

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Here's a relatively good news story from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jubilant residents of Eastern Congo are pouring into the streets this week. They're celebrating a decision by the ruthless rebel group known as M23 to lay down its weapons. The rebels have been fighting Congo's army for more than a year, before government forces routed the insurgents in their last strong-hold. That was a bit of a surprise in Congo, where government soldiers are known for corruption, looting, and rape than for their professionalism. Photographer Pete Muller says he's seeing a new discipline in the Congolese armed forces. He was with Congolese soldiers as they launched their final assault on the rebels in a town called Bunagana.

Pete Muller: It's about a 12 mile uphill hike. What I witnessed was Congolese soldiers, commando units and advanced infantry units marching in a single file line up the left side of this road continuously with virtually no interruption.

Werman: Wow.

Muller: It was quite an impressive feat of discipline and determination for the Congolese soldiers to reach this low bastion hold out of the rebels.

Werman: Right, and that's not, kind of, typical of this very disciplined marching pattern.

Muller: Well, I, no... I mean I was not in the Eastern Congo when the Congolese army lost control of Goma last year, but you know as all of the photographs and all of the reporting indicated, as soon as the M23 rebels started making rapid territorial advances, the FARDC basically were running along side the civilian population; and they basically abandoned the defense of Goma and they fled south and basically handed the city over to the rebels.

Werman: Yea, big difference. You have described, Pete, a military priest, who you think might have played a role in the morale of this unit of the Congolese army. Tell us who this man is. I mean I know he's a colonel in the army, what else do you know?

Muller: Colonel Aaron Kubuta is a really fast knitting figure that I came across in the weeks before the fighting erupted, who is making sermons at least twice a week on the absolute front line, where the Congolese army could, was within shouting distance of the M23 rebels; and he would come up twice a week and he would give these extraordinarily impassioned sermons that both put the battles that the Congolese foot soldiers were at that stage about to embark upon into almost biblical terms, using biblical referencing to justify and build the morale of these soldiers to go on and fight the rebels who, in his perception and among Congolese and international observers are backed by foreign countries. Namely Uganda and Rwanda. So he was using religion, which is such a powerful instrument, it's a cultural, you know facet of the way people exist in Congo; to build morale, but at the same time, utilizing that force, that religious force to preach vehemently against abuses of the civilian population.

Werman: I gather the rebels could hear him giving these speeches as well.

Muller: He would put himself in positions with a megaphone and walk around singing. We were at the absolute and most advanced point at that time. You could see the rebels on the other side of the line, and he would address them, face his physical body in their direction, and preach in their direction. It almost was as though he was telling not just the Congolese army that he was there formally to preach to; but that he was directing his message, to some degree, at the M23 rebels which were about a hundred meters down the road.

Werman: So, Pete, you were there when the fighting ceased in one eastern town in Congo. Take us to that moment please.

Muller: Well, we had been advancing with the Congolese forces up the road to a town called Bunagana the entire day. It was a sweltering hot day and there was very little shade. It was very eerie moving along with that calm of troops, because, you know, at that stage the rebels had lost such extraordinary amounts of territory in such a short amount of time. I was sort of fearful that they may resort to any types of sort of last ditch tactics to protect this last bastion that they controlled. There were skirmishes along the road; sort of mild, medium arms fire skirmishes that sort of came and went quickly. At the end of the day we arrived at the town of Bunagana and I came up just as sort of the last heavy round of fifty caliber machine gun fire had died down. We had sort of been taking a bit of cover behind a tank, and you got the impression that the town was completely vacant. But as soon as those last rounds came out of that fifty caliber gun, it was extraordinary. The civilian population just poured out of the houses where they'd sort of locked themselves inside and the celebratory atmosphere was really extraordinary. There's a photograph you can look at that appeared recently in the New York Times slideshow of the barrel of that fifty caliber gun still smoking and hundreds of people gathering around it singing and cheering and welcoming the Congolese forces into the town. The previous M23 headquarters had been sort of ransacked and all of their paperwork and all this stuff had been strewn about the main square and it was a very exuberant atmosphere in Bunagana.

Werman: Pete Muller, a freelance photographer who works regularly for the New York Times. You can see his incredible photos from Eastern Congo at pri.org.