GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — One is a straight-talking Brazilian general who previously took on street gangs in Haiti and now leads an invigorated UN military force in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another is a lawyer turned soldier, and now a spokesman for the Congolese army. A third is a former squash champion from Punjab who commands a UN base in the rugged mountains west of Goma.
They are among the military and political figures who agreed earlier this month to talk on camera, in unusually candid terms, about a potentially significant turn in the frustrating effort to end Africa’s longest-running conflict–a conflict that spills across borders, has displaced hundreds of thousands, and contributed to the deaths of more than 5 million people.
The Congolese army is projecting an unexpectedly cohesive, disciplined face, pushing back a rebel militia known as M23 that the UN says is sponsored by the government of neighboring Rwanda. Equally surprising, the UN peacekeeping force known as MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo), is acting like an army prepared to fight.
“The posture now is to go and neutralize the threat,” said Gen. Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, the Brazilian who took command of MONUSCO’s military forces this June. “We go to where the threat is and we neutralize the threat . . . We need to take action. It’s a different dynamic, a completely different idea.”
Just how different has been underscored this last week of October, with the rout of M23 forces along the border with Rwanda and Uganda, capped by the Congolese government’s October 30th seizure of the M23’s main base, in the town of Bunagana on the Uganda border.
The M23 is made up of Congolese army deserters who launched a rebellion in April 2012. Most of them are members of the ethnic Tutsi community, as are top officials of the Rwandan government. The multiple conflicts in eastern Congo trace back to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and have been exacerbated since by cross-border jockeying for control of the region’s vast mineral wealth.
Last November, M23 briefly occupied Goma, the largest city in eastern Congo. Instead of fighting, the Congolese army retreated, and even worse, perpetrated mass rapes in and around the nearby town of Minova as they fled. The UN troops of MONUSCO did almost nothing.
In late August of 2013, the tables turned. The Congolese army, with air and artillery support from the UN, displaced the M23 from the high ground they had occupied just north of Goma. A brief ceasefire followed but after the breakdown of peace talks last week, fighting resumed–and with it what looked like breakthrough military advances by the FARDC, the Congolese army. The FARDC dislodged the M23 from Kibumba, near Goma and, further north, from the strategically important towns of Rutshuru, Kiwanja, and Rumangabo along the border with Rwanda. And most recently, on Wednesday, from the main base at Bunagana.
A Strengthened Mandate
MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping force, has been based in the DRC for 14 years. It now totals some 20,000 soldiers, at a cost of $1.5 billion per year. It is the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world and has long been charged with the protection of civilians under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. But for most of that period MONUSCO has focused more on the safety of its own soldiers, than on protecting civilians or going after the dozens of militias wreaking havoc across eastern Congo.
The humiliating retreat from Goma last November led to a reassessment by the UN Security Council of MONUSCO’s role and enactment last March of a new resolution that strengthened its mandate. A new Force Intervention Brigade was established within MONUSCO, with 3,000 troops from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi, charged with carrying out “targeted offensive operations” so as “to prevent the expansion of all armed groups, neutralize these groups, and to disarm them . . .”
MONUSCO and its predecessor, MONUC, had already been charged with protection of civilians–a mandate that was further strengthened by adoption of the Responsibility to Protect at the 2005 UN World Summit as a global norm against genocide and other war crimes. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “responsibility to protect” too often appeared focused on protecting UN troops than civilians.
Santos Cruz headed the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti from 2007 until 2009 and was credited with successfully battling street gangs in the Port au Prince slum of Cite Soleil. In an interview earlier this month, he stressed the importance of making good on the UN’s promise of real protection for Congolese civilians.
“The most important message to the Security Council is to continue the efforts to disarm the M23 and [to take this] message to all the armed groups,” Santos Cruz said.
“[T]he mandate is just one paper with the legal frame,” he added. “[W]e need to transform that paper into reality, and then from the idea, from the will, of the United Nations, to the reality. We need to translate this into action.”
Santos Cruz discussed his role on Oct. 6, the day that the entire Security Council membership visited Goma. Members received a first-hand briefing on the military situation that included a trip to the mountain ridge at Kibati, just north of Goma. FARDC and UN troops had just reclaimed that territory from M23.
Tanzanian Brig. Gen. James Mwakibolwa, the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) commander, said in an interview that MONUSCO acted in August after M23 used the high ground above Goma to shell heavily populated civilian neighborhoods, breaching a MONUSCO-declared security zone.
“That firing into Goma was an infringement of the security zone which the FIB was tasked to enforce so we had to react, to neutralize the M23,” Mwakibolwa said.
A three-decade veteran of the Tanzanian People’s Defense Force, Mwakibolwa also served as head of the team charged with conducting a military assessment of eastern DRC for the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. The group has been working toward a regional settlement of Congo’s conflict.
Context for the Conflict
The regional context is crucial to the conflict in eastern Congo, especially the role of Rwanda in arming the M23 and similar militias. Rwanda denies any involvement. This fall, the U.S. moved to suspend military aid to Rwanda on the grounds of its alleged complicity in M23’s recruitment of child soldiers. But US officials have been reluctant to take on Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a close ally since taking power following the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
U.S., UN and other diplomats pressed the FARDC and MONUSCO to pull back on the offensive, urging a return to on-and-off peace talks in Kampala, Uganda. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and now special representative of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for Africa’s Great Lakes region, urged that course. As did former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., now the special representative for the Great Lakes region for the U.S.
In the Oct. 6 interview, Mwakibolwa said the military option had been suspended, but only temporarily:
“The Kampala talks, the Madame Robinson initiatives, are some of the things that we are kind of waiting as to, you know, how they solve the problems,” he said. “If it is not solved through diplomatic means then we will try the military means. Ours is to contribute to security. So now,we have left it to the diplomatic initiative. Thereafter it will be looked into, and the force commander will know what to do.”
The Kampala talks broke down again in late October. The Congolese government accused Rwanda of shelling DRC territory, the Rwandan government accused Congo of shelling DRC territory, and by the end of the month, the major offensive against M23 had commenced.
MONUSCO’s more robust posture has been a welcome surprise to many residents of Goma. So have the reassignments, force restructuring and other changes that have made the FARDC these past few weeks look more like a respectable, disciplined force than the dissolute body that had previously been associated with looting,corruption, and rape.
Col. Olivier Hamuli, chief spokesman for the FARDC in North Kivu province, took part in combat operations in August and again this week. Earlier in October, during an interview and tour of the front line against the M23, he praised the success of the joint operation with MONUSCO. He vowed that his government would hold firm to its insistence on no amnesty for top M23 leaders and no reintegration of any senior M23 commanders into the Congolese army.
“For those who are still young they can go for [re]training, before joining the FARDC, but most of them will be demobilized,” Hamuli said. He also acknowledged the Congolese army’s culpability in rapes and other crimes, insisting that on this front too the Congolese government is prepared to take a tougher stand.
“We know that there are some FARDC [soldiers] who have been involved in abuses, in human rights violations,” he said, but “there is no impunity now in the FARDC. We have stressed to all of FARDC to maintain discipline and respect human rights.”
Feller Lutaichirwa, the vice governor of North Kivu, called on the Congolese army and the UN to stand strong, not only against the M23 but also the several dozen armed militia groups scattered across North and South Kivu. The militias, some ethnically based and others under warlord rule, exact taxes on the local populations and control much of the region’s mineral wealth.
“One must put to the side the human rights violators,” Lutaichirwa said. The Congolese government must not repeat the “errors of the past,” he said, such as attempting the mass reintegration of militia soldiers into the FARDC.
Roads More Traveled
Lutaichirwa is from the town of Masisi, only 78 kilometers from Goma, but a six-hour trip through washboard roads and gooey mud. The mountainous territory is a checkerboard of competing militia fiefdoms–and a daunting logistical challenge for the company of Indian soldiers who man one of MONUSCO’s forward operating bases.
Lt. Col. Bhanish Sharma, a fourth-generation military officer from Punjab, has been stationed here since November. He appreciates Santos Cruz’s emphasis on “one force, one mandate,” but he also believes that in conditions this rugged it is more realistic to encourage voluntary demobilization of militia members than to confront them militarily.
“You’ve seen what the road conditions are like,” he said, standing in the mud west of Masisi. Sharma’s convoy of four MONUSCO vehicles spent most of a morning patrol towing their own vehicles out of ditches and covered less than four kilometers. “My patrol generally prefers walking because it takes less time.”
Critics have repeatedly faulted MONUSCO for not responding to attacks on civilians, Sharma said, but in this environment “quick response” usually means hours at best. Attacks that happen more than a few miles away require authorization for helicopters that can take days to obtain. Sharma said that on paper, his region is guaranteed at least one helicopter patrol per month, as a visible show of UN presence. But because of redeployments east with the current focus on the M23, there has been no helicopter patrol here for the past three months.
At the Mugunga camp for displaced persons outside Gomathere there was no ambiguity about what “responsibility to protect” should mean. UN Security Council representatives, among them U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, crowded into a small wooden building and heard from women community leaders. The UN representatives were told the needs were plain: the removal of all armed groups, the arrest of war criminals, and an end to interference by Rwanda and other neighboring countries.
Power was surprised to learn that one of the women had been wounded this August, when a shell launched by M23 landed on a house just outside the camp entrance. Power acknowledged that the UN, and the world, needs to do more. “What has been contributed so far has not been enough,” she told the women, “to end your suffering.”
In a temporary office at MONUSCO’s base on Lake Kivu, Santos Cruz pointed to a large map of the DRC, the second largest country in Africa, and to the relatively tiny territory of the Kivus on the country’s eastern fringe.
“When you compare this to Congo you see that it is a very small piece,” he said. “And yet every day you have people raped, and minors going to armed groups, forced recruitment,” and over 1 million persons displaced from their homes.
“[W]e must come here with some will,” he said, “to take some risks, to take some action.”
Jon Sawyer is executive director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Video production by Kenny Katombe.