Published in The Independent
In January 2008 hopes for peace in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo soared when the government and 22 armed groups signed a ceasefire agreement in Goma, capital of North Kivu province. But the fragile peace process is now broken and needs urgently to be fixed.
After hundreds of ceasefire violations, serious combat resumed in August between the government and its main challenger, the rebel movement led by the renegade general Laurent Nkunda, a native Congolese Tutsi. More than 50 civilians have been killed and hundreds more raped. Tens of thousands have fled. The number of displaced people is now more than 1.2 million.
With Nkunda's troops threatening Goma, national and international leaders must act to avert further war. To make this work, diplomats must acknowledge two uncomfortable truths: Rwandan support-perhaps tacit, but important-for Nkunda, and the cosy relationship between the Congolese army and a Rwandan armed group, the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR.
Although high-ranking Rwandan authorities deny any assistance to Nkunda and discount any power to influence him, Nkunda actively recruits hundreds of his most experienced soldiers within Rwanda, many of them demobilized troops from the Rwandan army. Although exact numbers are not known, the fact that some 200 Rwandans have left Nkunda's ranks to enter a UN-run demobilization program for repatriation back to Rwanda provides some idea of the scale of this problem.
Whether Rwandan officials encourage this recruitment or merely tolerate it matters little to most Congolese. All they see is soldiers present in the rebel ranks who have come from across the border. Given the past history of Rwandan military occupation of eastern Congo, that presence fuels hostility and suspicion toward Rwanda, and toward Congolese Tutsi.
Officials anxious to solidify their own power spur that hatred, creating the conditions for potential anti-Tutsi violence. Since August about 40 Tutsi have been arbitrarily detained in Goma, some of whom were tortured.
The second uncomfortable truth is that there has been a resurgence of collaboration between Congolese government soldiers and Rwandan Hutu FDLR based in Congo. The group, which incorporates some combatants who participated in the Rwandan genocide, says it intends to overthrow the government of Rwanda, but these days it just plunders Congolese citizens and enriches itself from Congolese resources.
In the past the government army has occasionally relied upon FDLR support, though according to a November 2007 agreement between Congo and Rwanda, the Congolese government made a commitment to disarm the FDLR. In recent battles, such as those in the town of Masisi in mid September, FDLR combatants joined Congolese army soldiers in fighting Nkunda's forces.
Just as the presence of Rwandan troops among Nkunda's ranks spurs anger and suspicion among Congolese, the Congolese army's collaboration with the FDLR is a red flag to Rwandans.
Until these two problems are resolved, peace efforts will not advance and the civilians of Congo will continue to pay the price.
A shorter version of this article was published in The Independent on October 29, 2008.
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