RUMANGABO, Congo — In an absurd turn of events, a rebel group in Congo was handed back control of two towns on Sunday, March 3, by the national army. It was a sign of the M23 rebellion's continued domination of eastern Congo, and of strengthened fears that the rebels will carve out a piece of territory for themselves and spark another deadly war in the conflict-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo. The strategic towns, Rutshuru and Kiwanja, were captured by the army on Friday after M23 military leadership fired its senior political boss and was momentarily distracted by infighting. The army's show of force was short-lived, however, and later even seemed foolish, a sign of the government's frustration. The rebels had only to issue verbal threats and the towns were returned to them -- without a fight.
In November, M23 captured the eastern provincial capital of Goma in similar fashion, walking past U.N. peacekeepers after the army fled advancing rebel forces. M23, which the United Nations says is backed by Congo's powerful donor-darling neighbors, Rwanda and Uganda, later retreated from Goma to allow for negotiations with Congo's government. But the talks have produced few results or hopes for peace. The rebellion has so far displaced nearly a million people, is accused of grave human rights violations, and has rolled back years of progress toward peace after a deadly 17-year war that never quite ended and has killed 5 million people from war-induced hunger and disease. And the unrest in eastern Congo is now being exploited by other armed groups -- a separate Mai Mai militia attack on an eastern town this weekend killed at least 70 people and caused thousands more to flee.
In search of answers to this cycle of violence, I traveled recently to meet the M23. The drive through the rebel zone revealed the rebels' total control of a large, densely forested, and mineral-rich region. Congolese soldiers were nowhere in sight. Rebels wore police uniforms and patrolled the forest's dirt roads.
When I arrived at the M23 military base, at the top of a lush hill, the rebel military commander, Gen. Sultani Makenga, was unapologetic for the turmoil his mutiny has caused. "The world needs to understand that Congo needs change," he said. "Congo's people support us. But the government is the problem." But it seems as if M23 is having its own problems with leadership. In late February, Makenga dismissed M23's political leader, Jean-Marie Runiga, accusing him of diverting finances and poor leadership. Makenga has emerged from the rift as M23's most powerful figure.
Despite the brief episode of infighting, M23 has shown ample signs of its power in recent months. At the rebel base, behind Makenga, were some of his spoils: a tank, an SUV that used to belong to Congolese President Joseph Kabila, anti-aircraft guns, rocket launchers, and large piles of ammunition. Makenga had established his quarters at the former home of the Congolese commander of the Rumangabo army base -- a run-down house, its roof coming apart in places, but nonetheless equipped with satellite television. Much of this territory was captured around Nov. 20, when the rebels took over Goma, about 25 miles to the south. Peace in eastern Congo -- as well as potentially the entire country -- now hangs on the rebels' negotiations with the Congolese government. One of Makenga's senior deputies said that M23 would attack the capital if the negotiations were to fail. "We will not stop again," he said.
M23 began a year ago when a group of soldiers -- mostly ethnic Tutsis -- defected from Congo's army. The Tutsi minority in eastern Congo has historically suffered from discrimination, and the M23 movement is the latest cycle in a series of rebellions, all closely allied with Rwanda, that have claimed to defend Tutsi interests. The two previous Tutsi rebel groups, known as the RCD and CNDP, had created their own governments in eastern Congo and had made it clear that they wanted to carve out a piece of the country for themselves. The evidence suggests this rebellion is no different.
These Tutsi rebel groups have grown progressively more powerful. A decisive contributor to their force has been foreign aid, which has worked against peace in the region for almost two decades by propping up the perpetrators of violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, the French and Swiss governments, among others, heavily financed a Rwandan regime that orchestrated the country's 1994 genocide, which killed some 800,000 Tutsis in three months. When Rwandans, mostly Hutus, including some perpetrators of the genocide, fled across the border to Congolese refugee camps, Western aid was channeled to those camps, leaving the genocide's victims in Rwanda languishing.
The pendulum of foreign support has since swung the other way, out of guilt. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who seized power after the genocide, was allowed to send his troops to pursue and kill Rwandan refugees in Congo. His troops' massacres of an estimated tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees, including women and children, have largely gone uninvestigated and unpunished. That Rwandan invasion sparked Congo's war, which overthrew long-ruling dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Rwanda invaded Congo again in 1998 and has been regularly accused of fomenting rebellion in Congo, in pursuit of mineral wealth and territorial control. But Rwanda and Uganda, over the last 15 years, have been granted an incredible and increasing amount of foreign development and military aid -- most of it channeled directly to their governments -- turning them into regional superpowers.