KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — There
was unexpected news in early November from the Democratic Republic of the Congo
(DRC), which has endured two decades of fighting in what has become Africa's deadliest
conflict: The M23 rebel group, responsible for numerous atrocities since its inception in April 2012, had been defeated.
The M23 was the latest in a succession of armed
groups led by ethnic Tutsis in eastern Congo with backing -- weapons,
ammunition, recruits -- from neighboring Rwanda. It
crumbled after Kigali, facing Western criticism and aid
suspension, did not offer the group the same military support that it had in
the past during new fighting in October. The Congolese army and the United
Nations' new African-led intervention brigade, with its mandate to carry
out offensive operations, quickly took control of one rebel stronghold after
another. On Nov. 5, the M23 announced it was laying down its arms.
This is a
significant development, especially for those who
have lived under the M23's oppression for the past year and a half. It has
prompted over 1,000 combatants and leaders from various armed groups, worried
they might be new military targets, to turn themselves in to the government or
But it is
by no means the end of Congo's brutal story.
M23 leaders with long records of serious human rights
abuses -- for whom the Congolese government has rightly ruled out any amnesty
or integration into the army -- are still at large. Most have fled to Uganda
and Rwanda, and they could form a new armed group if they are not arrested and
brought to justice. Just
as concerning, however, is that much of Congo's east remains under the control
of other armed groups who filled a security vacuum left when Congolese forces
turned their attention to the M23 rebellion over a year ago.
These groups prey on civilian populations:
killing, raping, extorting illegal taxes, forcing children to become soldiers,
burning villages, and ill-treating those who resist them. Most have taken
advantage of and manipulated existing ethnic tensions in an effort to gain
control of land and mineral resources, including gold, tin ore, and coltan
(widely used in electronic devices). Their alliances, leadership structures,
and even names keep shifting. Some have allied with or received support from
the Congolese army -- itself guilty of perpetrating atrocities, including rape,
arbitrary arrests, and the mistreatment of suspected M23 collaborators.
Congolese government and the U.N. have said one of their next main targets is the
Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Many members of the FDLR
-- which, after earlier iterations, formed in 2000 in opposition to the
government in Kigali -- are Rwandan and ethnic Hutu.
Some of them
participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which claimed more than half a
million lives. Others, however, were too young at the time to take part in the
horrific violence. Some were born in Congo after the genocide, to Rwandan
refugee parents; others are Congolese recruits.
has committed numerous abuses against Congolese civilians. Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura,
a Rwandan who has commanded the FDLR's military forces since 2003, is already sought on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal
Court (ICC) for war crimes committed
in eastern Congo. According to the ICC, he is allegedly responsible for "attacking
civilians, murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, rape, torture, destruction of
property, pillaging and outrages against personal dignity."
The fight against the FDLR has been inconsistent: In
late 2008, the FDLR was estimated to have at least 6,000 combatants,
controlling large areas of North and South Kivu provinces, including key mining
areas. For years leading up to that point, the Congolese government had turned
to the FDLR for support
in its fight against Rwandan-backed rebel groups and the Rwandan army. This shifted in early 2009, when Rwanda and Congo made a deal: In exchange for Rwanda's
assistance in removing the threat posed by another armed group, the National
Congress for the Defense of the People, Congo's President Joseph Kabila
permitted Rwandan troops to conduct joint operations with the Congolese army against
the FDLR. The Rwandan army left after just one month, but Congolese forces,
together with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country, continued military
operations against the FDLR. The U.N. also increased
its efforts to encourage FDLR combatants to demobilize and return to Rwanda. By
early 2012, the FDLR was much weaker and its number of fighters had decreased
the M23 rebellion began, and the Congolese army and UN re-focused attention on
the new threat, pressure on the FDLR waned again. FDLR combatants began
surrendering at a lower rate, and the group continued attacking civilian
populations, often in alliance with Congolese Hutu militia groups. I spoke to a
woman in October who told me that FDLR fighters had rounded up and raped her and
more than 30 other women and girls from her village in the territory of Masisi last
year. While they raped her, the FDLR fighters told her she was "worthless." She
lost consciousness, but she believes she was raped by at least five or six men.
The woman also said that three girls from her village, ages 7 to 11, died after
several FDLR fighters gang-raped them that same night.
the FDLR will not be easy: Its members, which have faced little government or
U.N. pressure for months, are scattered in small groups across a vast
territory, and they are experts at disappearing into the forest and blending in
with civilian populations. Past military operations against the FDLR have also
spurred the group to carry out large-scale attacks on civilians.
Congolese armed groups claim to be protecting the population from the FDLR. One
is the Raia Mutomboki ("outraged
citizens" in Swahili). This is a loosely organized network of former fighters in other militias, demobilized
Congolese soldiers, and youth who have armed themselves largely with machetes
and spears. The Raia Mutomboki have killed hundreds of civilians since mid-2012:
Often purposefully avoiding direct clashes with the FDLR, they have instead
focused their attacks on dependents of FDLR combatants, Hutu women and children
who are refugees from Rwanda, and Congolese who are ethnic Hutu.
Among the Raia Mutomboki's victims is Ernest*, a 12-year-old
boy. When I met him late last year, he told me how the Raia Mutomboki had
attacked his village in Walikale territory in August 2012. He said the combatants, shirtless and wearing traditional raffia
skirts, entered his village, beating on drums and shouting out that ethnic Hutu
civilians should leave the village. Ernest and his family -- who are Hutu --
quickly fled and hid in a thicket of reeds on the outskirts of the village.
They thought they were safe, but the Raia Mutomboki combatants found them and
proceeded to hack most of the family to death with machetes and spears. Ernest
had been carrying his baby niece on his back, and when the Raia Mutomboki killed
her, Ernest was covered in her blood, so the attackers assumed he was dead,
too. After the attack, he had made it on his own to a displacement camp in a
neighboring village several miles away.
Ernest spoke in a soft voice, staring at the corner of
the ceiling and fidgeting his hands. He told me the names of those he lost that
day: his mother, his father, his four brothers and sisters, his aunt, his
uncle, and four little cousins.
militia allied with the Raia Mutomboki and currently opposed to the FDLR --
although it previously collaborated with the group -- has been responsible for
some of the most brutal attacks on civilians in recent months. It is led by
Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, a warlord wanted on a Congolese arrest warrant for crimes
against humanity. Made up mostly of ethnic Nyanga combatants, Sheka's militia
has killed, raped, and mutilated scores of ethnic Hutu and Hunde civilians in
western Masisi and eastern Walikale territories.
A Hutu woman named Janine and some of her grandchildren
escaped an attack by Sheka's militia in late September. Janine was going to her
farm to look for food when militia fighters grabbed her and demanded money. She
gave them what she had, and as they were counting the money, she managed to
escape. She hid in the forest and soon heard gunshots coming from the direction
of her village. When she went back the next day, she found that 11 of her
family members and neighbors had been killed. Her eldest daughter had been shot
in the head, and the daughter's six-month old baby had been stabbed multiple
times in the chest, head, back, and ribs. Janine said that when she found him
unconscious next to his mother's body, he had lost a lot of blood and was close
to death. Janine and others took him to the hospital in the town of Bibwe, at
least a seven-hour walk up and down several steep hills through the forest.
Janine was holding the baby when we spoke. She said
she was worried because he wasn't getting milk, and she didn't know how she'd
care for all her orphaned grandchildren -- there are now 10 -- on her own.
wake of defeating the M23, the Congolese government and the U.N. must address
the threat posed by groups like the FDLR, the Raia Mutomboki, and Sheka's
militia. This should include efforts to encourage combatants to disarm
voluntarily, restore state authority in areas controlled by armed groups, and arrest leaders wanted for war crimes and crimes
however, such efforts have been insufficient. Little has been done to curb
abuses or investigate, arrest, and prosecute those most responsible for them. The
government also has no official program for disarmament, demobilization, and
reintegration of former combatants. In the past, some combatants have gone to
regroupment sites to await such a program, but many gave up on waiting and
returned to their militia groups.
especially worrying given the recent wave of fighters turning themselves in
after witnessing the M23's demise. For these defections to be meaningful, the
Congolese government, with international support, must act quickly to step up demobilization
and reintegration initiatives. Otherwise, whatever improvements in security the
M23's surrender may have brought will be short lived -- and the road toward
peace will remain as long as ever.
*Pseudonyms were used for the names of victims
and witnesses mentioned in this article for their protection.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images