They aren't alone. Longtime Congo observers were mostly convinced that the M23 would stop short of Goma, just as the last group to reach its outskirts, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), had in 2008. Perhaps no one was as stunned as the U.N. forces, who have spent more time in perennially warring Congo than in any other country in the last half-century. When I visited the U.N. Organization and Stabilization Mission in Congo base on the banks of Lake Kivu on Thursday, after leaving the intersection, gunfire broke out nearby. A small stampede of people ran for the gates. After squeezing through a crush of bodies, I found a rattled mission spokeswoman. I asked what its new mandate was.
"We don't know," she said. "It's a big question."
And from one perspective, the M23's victory is a surprise. Until last week, M23 wasn't appreciably more promising or menacing than any of the many other groups that have terrorized the mineral-rich Kivus since the days of Mobutu Sese Seko. Its original fighting force consisted of perhaps a few hundred troops, according to a new report by Congo researcher Jason Stearns. Its first attempts to foment rebellion, in Bukavu in January, proved a debacle, because its leaders have varying degrees of allegiance to each other -- not to mention to Congo itself, if the arguments about Rwandan and Ugandan foreign backing are true. Only one of those commanders, Sultani Makenga, is known to be on the ground in North Kivu.
From another perspective, success was predictable, and the M23's appeal obvious. Since the 1990s, the Kivus have come under the yoke of a series of militant insurgencies, from the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo to the Rally for Congolese Democracy to the CNDP, all of them widely believed to be Rwanda-backed to some degree or another. M23 is little more than a remix of these groups. The CNDP, its immediate progenitor, signed a ceasefire agreement with Kabila in 2009. (The agreement, which the M23 claims Kabila violated, was completed on March 23, giving the group its name.) The ceasefire called for reintegrating the rebel forces into the military, police, and local governments, in a process known as mixage, and if Kabila had wanted to, he could not have devised a surer scheme for more mutiny. Makenga and the two other men assumed to be M23's main field commanders, Laurent Nkunda and Bosco Ntaganda, are all former CNDP leaders reintegrated into the national army through mixage. Recruitment was easy, in other words. The Kivu garrisons were shot through with discontent and espionage. Months before it marched on Goma, the M23 was already dug into it.
"This is a revolution done with government officials," the M23's political spokesman, Bertrand Bisimwa, told me. "They began the revolution when we were not here. Some of them sent us money. Some of them helped the infiltration of our soldiers here."
If Bisimwa was boasting, he was also probably telling the truth. But Eastern Congolese soldiers don't rebel so often for the thrill of it. They do so largely for the reason that explains the M23's military victories and its broader allure -- namely, the neglect with which they and just about everyone else here have been treated by Kabila. While the capital and western Congo have enjoyed development, the Kivus, for all their resources, have been left to suffer. They rank at the bottom of international public health and corruption indexes. Indeed, walking around Goma's dirt roads and years-old refugee camps, neglect seems a polite word. Contempt feels more accurate.