NAIROBI, Kenya — A bitter battle looms in eastern Congo after the armies of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and a rebel band joined forces to attack the Hutu extremist militia.
The people of eastern Congo will likely be caught in the crossfire.
The war was supposed to have ended with a peace deal in 2003 but the death toll — now estimated at 5.4-million — continues to climb, the vast majority dying of disease and starvation, caught in the crossfire or as a result of being forced from their homes by the fighting around them.
A new joint Congo-Rwanda military operation launched in late January aims to root out a vicious and well-organized 6,500-strong ethnic Hutu militia called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). For almost 15 years it has settled in the thick jungle of
eastern Congo holding entire communities hostage, while biding its time to strike at Rwanda.
"It is obvious to all involved that Congolese citizens face grave new dangers ahead," warned the Washington-based Enough Project, a pressure group aimed at ending genocide and war crimes.
The FDLR is led by men accused of perpetrating Rwanda's bloody 1994 genocide in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in less than three months. The Tutsi-led Rwandan army chased the perpetrators, known as the Interahamwe, into Congo but failed to wipe them out. It has been itching to finish the job ever since. Thousands of Interahamwe and other Hutus have been arrested in Rwanda and are standing trial for the genocide, but the militia in eastern Congo is perceived as the most hard-core and violent.
The new joint operation is encouraging evidence of a rapprochement between Congo and Rwanda but it also looks a lot like a Tutsi assault on a Hutu militia. The force is nominally commanded by a Congolese general, from Katanga province in the south, but the Congo government troops are woefully ill-equipped, undisciplined and are regularly trounced in battles.
The actual fighting will be done by an estimated 5,000 Rwandan troops, a more disciplined force, and battle-hardened ethnic Congolese Tutsi rebels who may neither be able — nor have the will — to differentiate between Hutu fighters and civilians.
The current conflict metastasized out of Rwanda's genocide but the history of violence reaches back to the days when white colonialists hacked off hands, conscripted labor and carried out summary executions. The colonialists' brutal methods have lived on to become a feature of the present-day fighting.
Like the colonial rubber traders and ivory hunters today's armed leaders are killing for Congo's riches, the gold, diamonds, tin ore, coltan, copper, timber and charcoal that fuel the fighting.
In January Laurent Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi rebel leader, was arrested and replaced with Rwanda's backing by his former military chief Bosco Ntaganda, who is now spearheading the joint assault on the FDLR militia.
The quid pro quo was Rwanda's removal of Nkunda and the integration of his militia into the national army in exchange for the opportunity to hunt down the FDLR.
Nkunda was nicknamed "The Butcher of Kisangani" after ordering the executions of more than 160 people in 2002 and is wanted by the Congolese authorities for murders and rapes committed in 2004 when his troops overran the city of Bukavu in eastern Congo.
Observers say it is unlikely Nkunda will be extradited from his comfortable detention in the Rwandan capital Kigali.
"Nkunda knows way too much," about the Rwandan government's activities, said Guillame Lacaille, a regional analyst at International Crisis Group in Nairobi.
A recent United Nations report provided detailed evidence of Rwanda's support for Nkunda, something the government there has always denied so further revelations would be highly embarrassing.
Ntaganda has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes — including the recruiting of child soldiers — committed while fighting alongside another militia leader, Thomas Lubanga, who is currently making history as the first man to be tried
before the world court in The Hague.
In November 2008 Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Ntaganda of leading the massacre of more than 150 civilians in a town called Kiwanja. The ICG's Lacaille describes Ntaganda as "a radical of the Tutsi cause"." as well as an effective military tactician.
Ntaganda's role leaves the 17,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, in a dilemma as it seeks to protect the population by supporting the removal of the FDLR but to do so means working with an indicted war criminal, Ntaganda.
MONUC's solution is messy: it first said it would provide logistical support before it backtracked following an outcry from human rights groups. MONUC has been criticized in the past for being too expedient in dealing with alleged war criminals while attempting to pacify Congo's northeastern region of Ituri.
For the people of eastern Congo this is all too familiar. In 1998 the armies of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda were both in eastern Congo, purportedly to fight rebel groups but they also plundered Congo's rich mineral resources during five years of occupation, according to a U.N. report.
Today both armies have returned at the invitation of Congo President Joseph Kabila. The Ugandans are there to hunt down the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the Rwandans to take on the the Hutu militia of the FDLR. Kabila said both armies must leave by the end of February setting up the time for a showdown. Kabila lacks the power to enforce his will, which is why he has joined forces with Rwanda and the Tutsi rebels, formerly led by Nkunda.
Already Congo's civilians are dying in Ituri province where the LRA has killed hundreds of civilians in retributive attacks. The looming battle to oust the FDLR is expected to be even more bloody for the people of eastern Congo.
Other GlobalPost coverage of Congo:
See the slide show "Congo struggles to move from war to peace" by Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly.
Read GlobalPost dispatch "A step in the right direction in eastern Congo".