Will Congo's Rebels Finally Come in From the Cold?

The DRC's most notorious outlaws may finally be ready to end their 20-year war of rape and plunder.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Fourteen-year-old Habimana was asleep in his bed when armed militiamen burst through the door of his home and demanded that he carry their luggage to a nearby market. When he arrived at the market, with two other children from his village in the Masisi territory of eastern Congo, they were told they would never see their families again.

That was six months ago, and the armed men were from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group that relies heavily on abducted child soldiers and counts among its members men who participated in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

Now, after 20 years of preying on the civilian population of eastern Congo, the biggest faction of the FDLR says it wants to come in from the bush. In April, it declared its intention to lay down its weapons and engage in political dialogue, and on July 3, a group of foreign ministers from southern and east African countries said they would suspend military operations against the FDLR for six months in order to give the rebel group a chance to make good on its pledge.

Whether the FDLR is serious about disarming or just playing for time is, of course, impossible to say. But there can be little doubt that the group is feeling the heat. Ever since the United Nations' special intervention brigade, fighting alongside Congolese troops, trounced the M23 rebels last year, both parties have come under tremendous pressure to take on the FDLR. Meanwhile, a diplomatic full-court press on Congolese President Joseph Kabila means that the rebels can no longer look to Kinshasa for support.

"Kabila is under intense diplomatic pressure to get this settled and he no longer needs rebel support to fight the M23 or its predecessor movements," said Laura Seay, a professor of government at Colby College and an expert on the Great Lakes region, in an email. "So [the FDLR is] in a predicament."

Already, some 200 FDLR fighters out of an estimated 1,500 have turned themselves in. But the United Nations is only cautiously optimistic that the remaining rebels will disarm voluntarily. "These guys are criminals, bandits, and they have been deceiving us for years. Why should we trust them?" said Ray Torres, the head of office for the U.N. mission in North Kivu, the province where the most recent FDLR disarmament took place. "Still, it would be irresponsible not to give this a chance.… What is at stake here is a 20-year-old war, and we have an opportunity to end it in a few months without having to kill anybody."

For the last two decades, eastern Congo has been the site of seemingly unending tragedy. After the Rwandan genocide, the perpetrators, along with roughly 1 million refugees, fled across the border to what was then Zaire, touching off a regional war that toppled the government in Kinshasa and, at its height, involved dozens of rebel groups and nine different countries. The human cost was astonishing: More than 5 million people have died in eastern Congo since 1996, mostly from war-related disease and starvation.

Today, the country of 60 million is moving, haltingly, toward peace. The world's largest U.N. peacekeeping operation -- and the only one that is authorized to take offensive military action -- has improved the security situation in the east dramatically. Meanwhile, a U.N. and U.S. diplomatic offensive has convinced the Rwandan government, which in 1996 pursued the Hutu genocidaires across the border into Zaire and has been exploiting the chaos ever since, to cut ties with rebel groups that were causing the most damage.

The preliminary results are impressive. In Goma, which fell in dramatic fashion to the M23 less than two years ago, U.N. peacekeepers have little to do except break up bar fights that have spilled into the street (they don't dare enter the establishments themselves) and neutralize the occasional drunken Congolese soldier who is stumbling around, armed to the teeth. So secure is the provincial capital, in fact, that the United Nations deemed it safe for me to accompany its North Kivu brigade for a night patrol without wearing a helmet or bulletproof vest.

But large parts of Congo are still controlled by armed groups, roughly 50 of which operate in the eastern portion of the country alone. Among the alphabet soup of rebel movements, the FDLR is one of the more potent, but its real significance is political, not military. As the successor group to a genocidal army and militia, the FDLR's demobilization would eliminate Rwanda's favored pretext for meddling in Congo.

But even as some elements of the flagging militia prepare to hand over their weapons, others continue to terrorize civilians and even recruit additional fighters. According to a report released July 3 by U.N. experts, the FDLR "continues to recruit and train combatants, including children."

Andre Moussa, a child protection specialist at UNICEF, confirmed that the FDLR still ranks among the top 10 armed groups operating in Congo in terms of recruitment of child soldiers. "The FDLR is still actively recruiting children," he said. "The risk of recruitment and re-recruitment is high, particularly for children in the Rutshuru territory," which is located to the east of Masisi in eastern Congo.

Despite repeated pledges by the United Nations and the Congolese government to take on the FDLR, no decisive military action has been taken to date -- a fact that many experts believe reflects the cozy relationship between officers in the Congolese military and the FDLR. According to a U.N. report that was leaked earlier this year, FDLR fighters regularly shack up under the same roof with Congolese troops and purchase ammunition from the Congolese military for as little as 5 cents per bullet. Over the years, the two have also fought alongside one another frequently against Rwanda and its proxies.

While the United Nations' special intervention brigade is authorized to take offensive military action with or without the support of the Congolese military, in practice Lt. Gen. Carlos dos Santos Cruz, the force commander of the U.N. mission in Congo, has interpreted his mandate very conservatively thus far.

"He sees the mission's task as being not just about ending the violence, but also to build institutions and the Congolese people's confidence in them," said Seay. "In that mindset, having the [Congolese military] involved is really important."

The announcement of the six-month grace period by the group of African foreign ministers seems to push the military option even further down the road. But exactly how long the FDLR has until it needs to worry about the type of offensive military action that routed the M23, a much larger rebel faction that captured the eastern city of Goma in 2012, is not entirely clear.

"There is some negotiations about this timeline," Santos Cruz said in an interview on July 3. "It's not been fully established."

But Santos Cruz was clear that the FDLR will eventually have to choose between total disarmament and war. "The surrender is one option. But if they stop [voluntarily disarming], the military option is the one we will use."

Taking the fight to the FDLR will be tricky, though, because unlike the M23, which was easily distinguishable from the civilian population, FDLR fighters live among the communities they terrorize. "It's completely different from the situation of M23," said Santos Cruz. "The operations against them were very classic operations. The FDLR is completely different. Some small groups are inside the population, and then you need to treat it case by case because [you don't want to] cause more suffering to the population."

That will be easier said than done. According to Seay, the only way to pry the FDLR loose from the civilian population is to conduct door-to-door searches. As a result, a military solution would be "really messy" and almost certainly cause "a lot of civilian casualties."

Even if the FDLR is serious about going out peacefully, the demobilization process is fraught with potential pitfalls. For one thing, the group itself is deeply fractured, and only one faction -- the Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi (FDLR-FOCA) -- has declared its intention to disarm. Whether the remaining factions will follow FDLR-FOCA's lead is anybody's guess. "A rebel group is not an organized army," said Torres, the head of office for the U.N. mission in North Kivu. "So disarmament is going to be a slow and consultative process."

Then there is the possibility that other rebel groups could try to prevent FDLR fighters from turning in their guns. The United Nations is preparing for the possibility that Cheka, an armed group previously allied with the FDLR, could attack the facilities where ex-FDLR fighters are being processed. The result is a bizarre scenario in which U.N. peacekeepers are being deployed to protect recently demobilized members of one armed group from another.

Finally, there is the ever-present risk that combatants, once demobilized, will tire of civilian life and eventually return to the bush. These are people who have spent 10 to 20 years feeling powerful because they carry a gun, explained Santos Cruz. "Your power is the weapon, and suddenly you are going to drop it."

Already, there have been reports that former members of the M23, most of whom are in camps in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, have begun to recruit and rearm. Last year, the Congolese government set up a so-called DDR -- disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration -- camp in Bweremana, a village in the Masisi territory of North Kivu, but failed to provide adequate services for the ex-combatants and their families.

"The place was a complete mess," said one NGO worker who visited the camp before it was closed down. "Many of the more battle-hardened fighters took one look at the place and marched right back into the bush."

The disarmament and demobilization facilities administered by the United Nations are by all accounts better run than those overseen by the Congolese government. But the idea that men who once killed and raped at will can be turned into productive members of society is at best aspirational -- a fact that is confirmed by the U.N.'s own record on DDR. According to the Small Arms Survey, which has conducted DDR assessments in more than a dozen countries, "there is still little evidence of its effectiveness."

Habimana, the 14-year-old who was abducted by the FDLR earlier this year, is now taking part in his own DDR program after he and a friend pulled off a daring escape a few weeks ago. The two were given weapons and ordered to loot a farm in Masisi territory. Instead, they made a break for it and ended up seeking refuge on a U.N. base.

Today, Habimana is being housed in a transit and orientation facility for former child soldiers, where he is at least on track to be reunited with his family. Still, he told me that he does not want to return to his home village for fear of being recognized and recaptured. "The FDLR is still a big problem for us," he said. "It is not yet safe to go home."

Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images


The Last Stand of the People’s Republic

As Ukrainian troops advance on Donetsk, a hardcore separatist army gears up for war.

DONETSK, Ukraine — Three months after pro-Russian separatists established the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine, the city's central administration building has become the heart of political life in the self-proclaimed republic. Flags of Donbass, the region of eastern Ukraine encompassing Donetsk, hang from the exterior. The slogan "No Fascists" has been painted across the building's front. Four tattooed militiamen, with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, guard the entrance, checking visitors' bags for weapons. But defense is the order of the day. Slovyansk, a city some 70 miles north, had just fallen to the Ukrainian army -- and the mood in the building was tense.

On the fifth floor, Claudia, a pleasant peroxide blonde in her late 30s with acrylic nails, was processing press accreditations and trying to organize interviews with DNR officials. Claudia has drunk deep from the separatist cup. She showed off videos of masked DNR soldiers posing with a variety of guns and swearing oaths of allegiance on what appears to be a ring binder. Her phone rang every five minutes or so. "Don't go anywhere," she barked into the receiver. "Just stay inside. It will all be all right."

Earlier that day, July 5, news reached Donetsk that the eastern town that had been the center of separatist military operations for three months, Slovyansk, had been captured by the Ukrainian army. The rebels had hoped the city would be the stronghold of their autonomous, Moscow-aligned territory. It was not to be; the Ukrainian army's heavy shelling returned it to Kiev's control. President Petro Poroshenko has vowed that Slovyansk is just the first city of several that will soon be taken back from separatists in his bid to reclaim the restive east.

But the Ukrainian army allowed separatist forces to leave unmolested in convoys from Slovyansk, and thousands of armed pro-Russian rebels were on the move. Inside the administration building, rumors were flying that Igor Strelkov, a veteran of the Russian special forces who commanded the DNR troops in Slovyansk, was on his way to Donetsk. His convoy was originally supposed to head to Kramatorsk, a small city between Slovyansk and Donetsk, but then news filtered through the DNR administration building that the Ukrainian army had taken control of that town, too. Donetsk will be the last redoubt. Divisions of DNR fighters were expected to begin arriving in the city, but still no one knew when or how many are coming.

Discussion in the office turned to worst-case contingencies: what happens when Donetsk comes under attack. Accurate information is almost nonexistent, and speculation dominates conversation among DNR officials, civilians, and journalists alike. One second, people are shouting to evacuate the building, and everyone runs down the stairs. The next, a gaggle of DNR officials regroup outside and relax. An airstrike isn't coming. A portly man with longish, curly brown hair and sunglasses smokes a cigarette with some soldiers, a Kalashnikov slung languidly across his back. I am told he is the DNR's minister of communications.

Back inside headquarters, I met Andrei Purgin, one of the founding members of the DNR. He was in a belligerent mood. The fall of Slovyansk, he said, was the Ukrainian army's attempt to "eliminate the civilian population" there. He claimed that DNR forces have removed the remainder of the population from the line of fire. "The Ukraine army did not use infantry," he said. "It used heavy artillery -- over 100 pieces -- wiping the town off the face of the Earth. There was no humanitarian corridor. Forty-five thousand people were effectively condemned to death."

Purgin's casualty figures are wildly inflated, but even in the information black hole of Donetsk, it is clear that several hours of sustained shelling from the Ukrainian army finally forced the insurgents to withdraw from Slovyansk. With much of the city in ruins, rebel positions had become increasingly difficult to defend.

Poroshenko sealed Slovyansk's fate on June 30, when he called off a 10-day-long unilateral cease-fire and ordered the army to drive the separatists from their strongholds.

"No compromise is possible," said Purgin. Slovyansk had changed nothing. "The chance for compromise disappeared after the [Ukrainian army's] killing of the first 1,000 people." A confederation with Russia remains, he said, the most likely and desirable outcome. He pauses. "A federation with Russia would be good, but this is far less likely, as the EU would be really against it," he concluded before disappearing quickly back into his office.

As evening fell, rumors were spreading that the Ukrainian army was surrounding the city, ready to storm. Reports of gunshots at Donetsk airport were dismissed with a phone call, but whispers that separatists had stolen tanks from a World War II memorial were gaining credence; several had been spotted rumbling through the darkenedd city.

By the next morning, July 6, the militia presence on Donetsk's streets had increased dramatically. Fighters from Slovyansk had poured into the city overnight. Armed men ambled through the streets and loitered in cafes. Kalashnikovs -- often with the safety catch off -- were everywhere. Separatists with anti-personnel grenade launchers manned checkpoints near the university. An uneasy stasis rules. The latest rumors were that the army is preparing to blockade the city, but no one is sure.

With fears that the Ukrainian army could be just miles away, DNR political leaders found a strategy to bring together their beleaguered people: a rally. In the afternoon, some 800 people gathered near a statue of Lenin in the city's main square. Many clutched Russian, Soviet, and Donbass flags, banners, and placards. "Donbass is against USA aggression," read one. "Save Donbass people from Ukraine army," read another, which also has across it the face of a young girl and a dove clutching flowers in its claws. Speakers blasted Soviet songs and Donbass hits, which now seemed somewhat out of date and wistful: "Donbass, Donbass, Mother Russia is behind you" while referencing the glory of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. The first speaker took the stage and quickly introduced a "fighter fresh from the front" who detailed the DNR forces' heroism and the Ukrainian army's brutality with equal gusto.

While all signs point to an impending defeat, eastern Ukraine's rebels are convinced that they are winning. Pavel Gubarev, the "people's governor of Donetsk" and one of the leaders of the separatist movement, took the stage to loud cheers. Slovyansk, he declared, was a "tactical retreat to protect the civilian population there." It was a "necessary and brilliant move by General Strelkov."

After the rally, I asked Gubarev what comes next for his anti-Kiev comrades in the new stage of their conflict. "[Slovyansk] is a big defeat for Poroshenko," he said. "Our people were totally surrounded ... and they got out virtually unscathed, despite the fact that Ukrainian forces outnumbered us 10 to one. It was a Pyrrhic victory." Gubarev and many other eastern Ukrainian leaders believe that when the battle comes to Donetsk, they will have a strategic advantage. Just a day earlier, Strelkov declared on DNR media that he had the troops to occupy all the city's commanding heights. "The failure to do this was the mistake that was made in Slovyansk and one that won't be repeated," Strelkov admitted.

"We are not scared of war," Gubarev said, "because we know war is coming. We have to wait and see what sort of plans our commanders make. But there is a big difference between trying to encircle a city like Donetsk, which has 1 million people, and Slovyansk."

On July 7, separatists started work protecting the city from attack. They blew up three bridges on key roads leading to Donetsk to slow the advances of the Ukrainian army. (This also damaged the railway lines.) Two other bridges on roads from Slovyansk to Donetsk were also destroyed. The rebels are insulating the city as they get ready to hunker down and prepare for an extended battle.

A siege or stalemate looks like the most likely option. Poroshenko is determined to recover the east, but shelling Ukraine's most important industrial city would be disastrous both for the economy and for any hope of reconciling in the future. Meanwhile, the separatists can defend their positions, but the chances of making gains are now unlikely in the extreme.

The only real chance now for the rebels to fight back would be if their allies in Moscow accepted separatists' demands for direct military assistance. But this is equally unlikely, and even the otherwise confident rebels know it. "Of course Russian military aid would resolve the problem very quickly," said Gubarev, almost forlornly. "But we understand that it is not possible at the moment. We will respect any decision Russia makes."