Congo: In rebel push, civilians displaced

Residents of Goma react as they listen to M23 rebel group spokesman at the Volcanoes Stadium in Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on Nov. 21, 2012. Lt.-Col. Kazarama addressed the population of Goma in an attempt to calm and reassure the civilians following the fall of the city to M23 rebels this week.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo ― Thousands fled the town of Sake on Thursday, carrying their children in their arms and their possessions on their backs.

They trudged, angry and fearful, in a thick constant column toward Goma, the regional capital.

Rebel soldiers loaded with guns and bullets, meanwhile, ran in the opposite direction to face the Congo army. Mortars exploded on the surrounding hills and gunfire rattled around the town.

As the rebels, known as M23 and widely suspected of having the support of the Rwandan government, battled with the Congolese army for control of the eastern part of the country, it is the civilians who suffer.

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“This is politics in Congo, this is what happens to us, look!” said one woman caught up in the flow of humanity streaming out of Sake.

They may find little safety elsewhere.

The M23 is made up of former Rwanda-backed militants that fought the Congolese army for years before striking a peace deal in 2009. The former fighters were at the time brought into the fold of Congo's national army. But a contingent of the former militants broke off earlier this year and resumed the fight.

While M23 says it only wants the original peace agreement honored, they have grown in notoriety by annexing a large swathe of territory in eastern Congo. Now they have taken control of Goma, a regional capital, and are threatening to march on to Kinshasa, Congo's capital city.

Rwanda’s interest in supporting the rebels would likely stem from the 1994 genocide. At that time, ethnic Hutu death squads killed more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis. When the Tutsi fought back, many Hutus fled to neighboring countries, including what is now Congo. Chasing the killers, Rwanda invaded Congo twice ― in 1996 and 1998 ― triggering a regional war that has led to the deaths of more than 5 million people, mostly from disease and starvation. 

Eastern Congo is also rich with minerals, making it a source of both potential wealth for Rwanda.

But as the once-small rebellion grows more powerful, residents of eastern Congo are finding few places to run.

Sirire Mufanjara, 53, is one of tens of thousands of residents of Mugunga, a camp for people forced from their homes by the fighting. He arrived at Mugunga with his wife and 11 children in May.

“We ran away from the war,” he said.

When M23 advanced on Goma a few days ago, he was forced to flee yet again, along with all the other refugees staying there. They had so far been forced to spend two nights sleeping out in the open, shivering in the rain with their families.

“All I could take with me when we ran was my children,” he said.

Mufanjara said he came back to Mugunga to find that the Congolese soldiers, who had retreated in panic when the rebels advanced, had looted his meager belongings. He said they took cooking pots, clothes, even the plastic sheeting that made his home waterproof.

“Everything was taken,” he said. “I am here now but the fear has not gone. All I want is to go home, to live in peace.”

The Mugunga camp was supposed to be a safe haven. When the M23 advance began a week ago, the rebel fighters swept toward Goma and through another camp called Kanyarucinya. Tens of thousands of people were on the move as the bullets flew. They managed to make their way to Mugunga. Among them was 23-year-old Jeanne Furaha and her two young children.

“The shooting was all around the camp, we had to run,” she said cradling her 7-month-old baby daughter.

They had only just reached Mugunga when the fighting caught up with them. They were forced to flee once again into the hills. Now Furaha is back in the squalid Mugunga camp, whose eucalyptus trees and bright yellow sunflowers are incongruous among such misery.

“I don’t know if we will be safe here,” she said.

Some of the heaviest fighting during the rebel takeover of Goma happened just a few miles from Mugunga. An abandoned tank was parked hastily on the roadside, a pile of live tank rounds abandoned next to it. A row of shops was peppered with bullet holes, a metal security door blown out by a rocket-propelled grenade.

A little further up the road, three partially burned out cars laid on their sides. Kids had set up an impromptu chop shop, eviscerating the engines for spares, whacking at the chassis with rocks and hammers for scrap.

Goma itself was strangely normal under its new rebel administration. At the border the old immigration officials are back at their desks and a portrait of President Joseph Kabila still hangs on the wall.

The city center lacked its usual bustle but was far from a ghost town. Shops were padlocked, banks closed, markets quiet. But people were on the streets. Electricity had been cut since the rebel takeover, as had water. Down at a public beach city residents were collecting drinking water straight out of Lake Kivu.

An aid agency handed out free shots of chlorine to clean the water.

The hardship hasn't been bad for everyone. A water seller, who insisted his name was Emmanuel Kant, said business was good.

The price of a 5-gallon can of water shot from 200 to 300 Congolese francs, about $0.33, and Kant was selling them, seven at a time, from the back of his bicycle. He has been making 10 trips to the lake every day.

“You know what they say: one person’s misfortune is another’s good luck,” he said.

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