Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Storm Gathers Over Eastern Congo

Large numbers of refugees are fleeing to Uganda to escape ongoing violence involving the Kampala government army and local militias in North Kiva.
By Goodluck Musinguzi
Tens of thousands of people fleeing heavy fighting in North Kivu province of the Democratic of Congo are sheltering from heavy rains under trees in the town of Bunagana in southwest Uganda, amid fears that a new civil war is about to break out in their country’s east.



Two previous periods of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, in 1996-97 and 1998-2003, have been described as Africa's First World War because of the scale of the casualties - more than four million deaths.



Aid agencies and diplomats now fear a third Congo war is in the making, and could again suck in neighbouring countries.



The North Kivu crisis comes as the Ugandan government prepares to send troops into another area of eastern DRC in an attempt to flush out guerrillas of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.



Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and his DRC counterpart Joseph Kabila signed an agreement in Tanzania on September 8 that will see a joint military force supported by United Nations soldiers attempt to remove LRA fighters from their bases in the Congo’s Garamba National Park by mid-December.



The LRA has waged a 21-year civil war in northern Uganda and its four top leaders are wanted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, on 33 charges of crimes against humanity including rape, murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, mass burnings of houses, and the looting of camp settlements.



The accord signed by Museveni and Kabila came after Ugandan defence minister Crispus Kiyonga threatened a unilateral invasion of DRC to hit not only the LRA but also other armed groups about which Kampala is concerned.



Kiyonga named the four other potential targets as the People’s Redemption Army, PRA, the Allied Democratic Forces, ADF, the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, NALU, and the Interahamwe.



The PRA, ADF and NALU are Ugandan rebel groups operating out of DRC, while the Interahamwe is an ethnic Hutu paramilitary organisation heavily implicated in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which resulted in the killings of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in just 100 days. Following the overthrow of Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated government, the Interahamwe fled into eastern DRC.



The defence minister’s threat came amidst reports by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR that people were fleeing into Uganda to escape renewed warfare in eastern DRC involving local militias, renegade soldiers and the national army.



The fighting in North Kivu pits DRC government forces against units loyal to General Laurent Nkunda, a renegade officer from the Congolese army who has launched an offensive designed to destroy Interahamwe forces in North Kivu, now known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda or FDLR.



Nkunda, who belongs to the Tutsi minority of eastern DRC, sees himself as the protector of his co-ethnics, and has turned much of North Kivu into his personal fiefdom.



The violence has caused Hutu civilians like Augustine Habimana, 53, a small-scale farmer, and his wife Rosamaria to flee into Uganda. They left their home in and went to Bunagana just over the border after the small North Kivu town of Rutshuru was attacked by Nkunda’s forces.



Nkunda’s troops launched their attack on Rutshuru at the beginning of September, destroying power lines and the transmitters of a community radio station before moving northwards into the mountains and forest of the Virunga National Park.



UNHCR estimates that between 25,000 and 35,000 people have fled the Rutshuru area into Uganda while thousands of others have been displaced elsewhere in North Kivu. Aya Shneerson, the head of the World Food Programme in eastern Congo, said more than 200,000 people had already been displaced in North and South Kivu by an outbreak of fighting last February.



General Nkunda renewed his campaign against the FDLR after the commander of DRC’s army, General Gabriel Amisi, said an official counter-insurgency operation against the group had ended.



Amisi’s explanation for suspending operations was, according to the AFP news agency, that "it is difficult for the army to distinguish Rwandan Hutus and Congolese Hutus during operations, insofar as they speak the same language".



Meanwhile , Nkunda told the London-based magazine Africa Confidential that he is prepared to fight to the bitter end to prevent what he says are plans by DRC government forces and Interahamwe guerrillas to wipe out ethnic Tutsis.



In a statement issued in Arusha, where Presidents Museveni and Kabila agreed to launch a joint offensive on the LRA, the DRC’s defence minister Antipas Nyamwisi said, "Today the DRC government is facing a full-fledged situation of war.”



In Bunagana, Habimana told IWPR of broken pledges and disappointment in his home country.



“You need to be inside Congo to understand the situation there. Words cannot explain the pain and struggle the people go through,” he said, after initially refusing to be interviewed through an interpreter.



“Our country seems to be cursed because the only things that befall the people are calamities. All the promises we were made [following earlier wars] by the government, MONUC [UN peacekeeping force in eastern DRC] and by Okapi Radio [a UN-funded radio station] have come to nothing. They assured us if we voted [in the 2006 elections], peace would return to Congo.”



Rosamaria Habimana said that even before the latest bout of fighting, there were no schools for her children to go to and medical help was difficult to find.



Despite his criticism of the DRC government in Kinshasa, Augustine Habimana blamed Nkunda and his forces for his family’s current plight.



“The international community has failed Congo. Why don’t they arrest him?”, he said. In his view, Nkunda should be arrested by the ICC, which has already detained Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a militia leader in the neighbouring DRCprovince of Ituri, on charges of crimes against humanity.



“Those disc jockeys on the radio tell us that Ituri is peaceful after the capture of Lubanga by the Europeans,” said Habimana. “Nkunda should be arrested too and taken away so that fighting stops. A lot of atrocities have been committed by his soldiers.”



Malu Mutamba, a 38-year-old refugee from Masisi, a town deeper inside DRC which serves as Nkunda’s headquarters, said the ICC owed people an explanation as to why the general is not detained.



“There is no will to arrest him from MONUC,” he said.



In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda where the government is led by Tutsis, there is more sympathy for the renegade general. At a September 10 press conference, President Paul Kagame said, “Nkunda has some political grievances which are legitimate.”



Nkunda, he said, was protecting fellow-Tutsis from “extermination”.



In 1994, Kagame and his allies overthrew and ousted the Hutu militias Nkunda is now fighting in DRC.



The Rwandan president denied newspaper reports alleging that his country is sending arms and other supplies to Nkunda.



Goodluck Musinguzi is an reporter with the Uganda Radio Network (www.ugandaradionetwork.com), an IWPR project.