GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — After three days of sporadic fighting in and around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the city fell to the M23 rebel movement last Monday night, November 19. The following Thursday morning, the military spokesman of the M23, Col. Vianney Kazarama, was standing at an intersection in central Goma, addressing a group of young men. Government troops were said to be in the hills planning a counteroffensive, and United Nations peacekeepers, who had attacked the M23 forces with helicopter gunships before fleeing, were nearby, awaiting new orders. Kazarama didn't care, he said. He was thinking ahead. The M23 was going to create a better future not just for Goma but for all of Congo, he told the young men, and it needed their help.
"We have to go to Bukavu!" said Kazarama, referring to the capital of South Kivu province, some 60 miles south, and the presumed next step in the M23's march, "and on to Kinshasa!" Kinshasa, the country's capital, is a rather more ambitious goal, lying some 1,000 miles west across a dense mass of jungle. Kazarama then repeated what has become his favorite refrain since his group burst onto the world stage last week, calling on the president of Congo to step down. "Joseph Kabila must leave the country!" he said. Then he promised the young men that the M23, which officially formed in April, would provide them all with jobs.
Some cheered. Others looked on skeptically. As he left, Kazarama, a tall man in forest camouflage, spotted my notebook and shook my hand. "Bonjour, ca va, ca va," he said in his choppy French. He got into a waiting SUV, and the spectators who'd followed him gathered around me. Like M23, they badly wanted to be heard. They were smart, articulate, and, for the most part, they told me, unemployed.
"If they have this mission, all Congolese must be behind them, because what the colonel is saying is true," one young man said. "People are suffering. We are living without food. We are ready to fight to Kinshasa."
A street vendor pushed his way through the crowd and lifted up a clutch of fake leather belts that he sells. "The president wants me to pay a surtax on these," he said. "What kind of life are we leading? Tell him to quit his job and leave the population alone."
At the sound of Kabila's name, someone shouted "mwongo sana" -- "big liar" in Swahili. Then "mwizi sana" -- big thief.
After it was clear that Kazarama had gone, however, two men made their way up to me. "May we speak with you? We do not support the M23," they said in unison. I asked why. "I don't know what motive they're supporting," one said, voicing the common belief in Congo and elsewhere that the neighboring Rwandan and Ugandan governments are managing the M23. "What agreements have they made?"
His friend had more immediate concerns. "We are happy for the moment, but we are afraid. If we don't join them, they may kill us," he said. "We are very afraid."
He has good reason to be afraid. Stories of atrocities accompanied the M23's march to Goma. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called its leaders "among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the DRC, or in the world." A new U.N. report and Human Rights Watch have accused the group of press-ganging people into military service, recruiting child soldiers, and torturing and killing deserters and resisters.
The fall of Goma has brought out many reactions in its citizens -- fear, hope, anger -- but, perhaps most of all, bafflement. How did 1,000 or so skinny militiamen in rubber rain boots conquer a city of 1 million people in a matter of hours? How did a group that didn't exist only months ago push back a national army and humiliate a well-armed $1.4 billion United Nations peacekeeping mission?