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
"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
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.
I spoke with one man, a former CNDP foot soldier who'd been reintegrated
into the Goma police. He told me that he was paid so little by the government
he couldn't afford food. "They want you to die with hunger," he said. So, last
spring, when he was approached by a M23 operative who asked him to start
passing on information, he agreed. He had nothing to lose.
"I want them to proceed and take over Kinshasa," he said. "I'm
praying they won't stop here."
President Kabila's neglect, and the
desperation it's produced, were apparent everywhere in Goma in the days after the
M23 entered. So was evidence of how the city fell so easily. There was no water
or electricity, either because technicians had abandoned their posts or
national army troops had sabotaged infrastructure in their retreat. The offices
of the governor were empty -- he'd fled to the town of Beni, it was rumored,
soon after the first shots rang out. The airport was abandoned. Close to
200,000 displaced persons had fled their homes in Goma and nearby refugee camps.
Initially, reports of M23 misbehavior in Goma were rare, in
stark contrast to the national army soldiers, who, aside from their
unwillingness to fight, are best known in Goma for looting, rape, and their
fondness for sapilo, a local moonshine. After leaving the U.N. base, I went to the
national army camp, and found that reputation coming into perspective.
Now deserted, the camp is on the northern outskirts of the
city, sprawled over a hill of chalky black volcanic rock. There are no proper
barracks; the soldiers had been living in shacks made from plastic sheeting and
tin siding. They'd been worse off than Goma's refugees, who at least get help
from aid agencies. At the army hospital towards the top of the hill, in a ward
holding soldiers injured in the fighting, there was not only no power or water,
but no medicine or medical equipment, nor any nurses or doctors, in sight.
"They were better equipped than us," a soldier, whose unit
had been transported from Kinshasa and then moved to the frontline near Sake,
outside Goma, said of the M23 forces. As his position was being overrun, he was
shot in the leg. He lifted up his gown to show me two large screws sticking
from his shin. The gauze around them was caked in dried blood. He hadn't been
tended to in days, because the doctor who'd performed the surgery had returned
to Kinshasa. A 25-year veteran, he makes $68 a month and his family receives one
kilogram of food each week. Several of the soldiers in the ward hadn't been
paid in months. "The government has abandoned us here," one said.
While the Congolese government has abandoned Goma, the M23
has effectively infested it. According to residents I spoke with, plainclothes
agents are dispatched around the city. The M23 press office sends out Gmail
alerts to the media. Kazarama can be heard on the commandeered government radio
station warning thieves they'll be made into public examples and encouraging
children to attend school. Otherwise, this former lumber salesman, who prefers
to be called mon colonel, can be found flitting among Goma's better hotels, always
in his camouflage. At the lakefront Ihusi Hotel, temporary home to the international
press corps, Kazarama is a nightly fixture. Charming if crass, he grants impromptu
interviews and flirts with female reporters.
Kazarama spends so much time at the Ihusi because the M23
has yet to establish a headquarters in Goma, or to occupy government offices. "We
don't want to implement a new government. We are a revolutionary movement
only," Bisimwa said when I asked him why this was. Bisimwa, who makes a nice
counterweight to Kazarama -- short and pudgy, he speaks patient, formal English
and dresses casually -- then went on
to describe how he would implement a new government. "We'll pay more attention
to what government workers are doing, how they're working. We must control
them. When somebody steals money, for instance, we have to punish it."
Across town at Unity Stadium, a tumbledown soccer pitch with
concrete bleachers, hundreds of police officers and soldiers who'd turned
themselves in were mustering each day under orders from M23. Many were frightened
they'd be sent to the frontlines. Still, the scene was a strange mixture of
suspicion and joviality. Some had shown up to the stadium in their uniforms,
but just as many were in natty street clothes. A national army colonel dressed
in red chinos and a multicolored Johnnie Walker baseball jacket told me that
they were awaiting transport to a camp at the village of Rumangabo. They'd been
informed that there they would undergo two days of "ideology" training before
At the nearby Stadium of Volcanoes, where the M23 held a victory rally
that brought in thousands, young men were trickling in to enlist in the rebel
army. They were being promised six months training, and food. "We don't force
anyone to join," a recruiter told me. "These are volunteers."
I asked a 22 year-old man named Faraja why he was there. "I
want the M23 to take over the Congo, because all the young people you see here
don't have jobs," he said. "When they take over the country, they'll create
jobs. That's what they told us." Just who may be commanding Faraja, however, is
unclear. Laurent Nkunda is still officially living under house arrest in
Rwanda. Bosco Ntaganda -- or "The Terminator," as he's known -- has been
indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, and is
rumored to be moving between the Goma area and Rwanda.
How Faraja will be treated is another question. One
prominent M23 commander, also a reintegrated CNDP veteran, is Seraphin Mirindi.
He can often be found at Colonel Kazarama's side. One day I went to the home of
a prominent figure in Goma who is opposed to the M23. He sat me down at his
desk and turned on his laptop. He clicked open a file called "Seraphin's
tortures" and brought up a video, shot in January, when Mirindi was still
officially in the national army.
It shows Mirindi, in the yard of his home, in track pants
and a t-shirt. With him are several national army soldiers. A shirtless man
with his arms tied behind his back at the elbows enters the frame. Mirindi
addresses him briefly, and the man pleads with him. The man is then pulled from
the frame and pushed to the ground. A soldier begins whipping him with a stick
and then kicks him. In a subsequent video shot during the same incident, another
man with a large, bleeding contusion in his head, his arms also tied behind
him, is pushed to the ground and whipped and kicked. The men being tortured had
been accused of stealing the radio of one of Mirindi's family members, the man
"These are our new masters," he said as we watched.
The M23 has other problems. Until now, Goma's population has
been peaceful, either out of fear or patience. But if power and water service
are not restored, and imports and aid agencies are not allowed back in, that
will soon change. At first hard to find, reports of its soldiers looting homes
in Goma and abusing and raping civilians are beginning to
proliferate. On Tuesday, the Guardian reported that the M23 looted Goma's central bank. And
the extent of its support among the population is undecided. Though generally
Tutsi-dominated, the M23 has been boycotted by much of Congo's Tutsi elite. In
order to keep taking territory, the group has had to forge alliances with
undisciplined and venal local militias, known as mai mai, some of them rabidly
anti-Rwandan. (When I was in Goma, a mai mai fighter attacked a British
Meanwhile, donor nations are threatening to withdraw hundreds of
millions in aid from Uganda and Rwanda and have frozen Makenga's foreign
assets. The Security Council has sanctioned it. Washington, London, and Paris,
along with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, have all called on the M23 to
pull out of Goma. After talks with Kabila in Kampala last week, so too have
Rwandan president Paul Kagame and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, officially
at least. On Monday, Makenga was in Kampala to negotiate.
But Kazarama and his colleagues
are still calling for Kabila's ouster,
or meetings with him, depending on the day. On
Tuesday, November 27, M23 political leader Jean-Marie Runiga issued a list of demands before
it would leave Goma. It includes prisoner releases, investigations into army
corruption, and other impracticable things. Last Friday, the M23 held a press event at
the abandoned national army camp to show off seized weapons. Mirindi stood over
a pile of rusted mortar guns and bellowed, "With these we will defeat Kabila!" As
reporters gathered around Kazarama, I handed him a copy of the U.N. report,
which had been publicly released the day before, and asked him about its allegations
of child-soldier recruitment and executions.
His eyes bulged and he launched into a tirade in
increasingly loud and fragmented French. "You are all journalists," he said.
"Check if there are child soldiers. I am Kazarama, I am not children. I'm an
As for the dragooning charges, he said, "How could we take
people be force? Everyone in Goma welcomes the M23 -- except for the children.
The will of the people is to come with us. Apart from the children."
PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images