Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) say they are trying to arrange for the assembly and disarmament of rival ethnic militias implicated in the massacres of hundreds of people in Masisi territory in the eastern province of North Kivu.
Congolese army spokesman Lt-Col Olivier Hamuli told IRIN that following a visit to Masisi in September, the commander of the DRC's land forces, Gen Amisi Tango Fort, called on the militias to ‘regroup’ and disarm. Regrouping refers to the assembly of combatants in specific locations where they can be monitored prior to disarmament.
Since May, the UN has documented more than 45 attacks by militias or armed groups on some 30 villages and towns in the Ufamandu area of Masisi.
"Some of the attacks have been carried out by the Raïa Mutomboki and others by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), at times in coalition with the armed group Nyatura," the UN stated on August 29. "This has resulted in serious human rights violations including civilian massacres."
The FDLR is a Rwandan rebel group, while the Raïa Mutomboki, which means 'angry citizens', is a multi-tribal Congolese alliance, and the Nyatura is a Congolese Hutu group.
“Proclaiming to protect local populations against the predominantly Hutu FDLR, the Raïa Mutomboki are targeting civilians of Hutu ethnicity whom they consider to be foreigners and allies of the FDLR. In turn, the FDLR retaliate against civilian populations they believe to be associated with Raïa Mutomboki,” an August statement by the UN Human Rights Office said.
Community leaders in Masisi welcomed Amisi's visit to the territory, which seems to have raised hopes that the Nyatura, and perhaps the Raïa Mutomboki, could be integrated in the armed forces.
"It's good to see the army is doing something… We've heard, although it's not confirmed, that the Nyatura group has already been integrated into the army," said Innocent Kibindi, an administrator in the Rubaya area in southern Masisi.
However, FARDC's Hamuli told IRIN that the militias were not eligible for recruitment by the national army, which is intended only for civilians, aged 18 to 25, who had attended school for at least six years, did not have a criminal record and had not already taken up arms. The message for the armed groups, he stressed, was to regroup and lay down their arms.
No classic integration
He added that "there will not be a classic integration of armed groups as in the past when PARECO ['Patriotes résistants congolais'] and the CNDP ['Congrès national pour la défense du people'] joined the army. That integration programme closed last year".
Hamuli's statement could, however, leave room for army deserters who have joined militias returning to the ranks. Sadiki Murenge, a self-styled 'lieutenant-colonel' of the Nyatura, told IRIN that his militia consisted of soldiers who had deserted their units to defend their families from the Raïa Mutomboki, adding that Nyatura fighters had been integrated in September, but Raïa Mutomboki had either not been invited to join the army or had refused to do so.
Rather than integrating with the Congolese army, some armed groups might ally with it, as they often have in the past. Analysts say since a mutiny broke out in the army in April, giving rise to M23, Kinshasa has been in need of allies and could turn to the militias.
"There have been several informal agreements in the past between the Congolese army and the Raïa Mutomboki against the FDLR in Shabunda Territory [in South Kivu Province] and perhaps also in Walikale [North Kivu]. This is often the case between the Congolese army and militia groups," central Africa analyst Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group told IRIN.
Commenting on the rumours of integration initiatives, Christophe Beau, coordinator of the North Kivu protection cluster, a grouping of humanitarian agencies concerned with civilian protection, said that peace initiatives should always be welcomed, but cautioned that if there were further integrations of armed groups, these should not preclude prosecution of those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Residents of Rubaya denied claims that the Nyatura had been involved in civilian massacres, and said they were just protecting their community.
Sources at the UN peacekeeping mission to the Congo, MONUSCO, told IRIN that the violence in southern Masisi had subsided since August. However, Kibindi in Rubaya said security incidents were still occurring and that the area remains unsafe for people to return.
The protection cluster wrote to MONUSCO in August asking for peacekeepers to be redeployed to two locations in southern Masisi - Remeka and Katoyi - from which they withdrew in July after attacks by the Raïa Mutomboki. Witnesses to those attacks told IRIN there had been fewer than 50 peacekeepers at Katoyi when the settlement was attacked by several militiamen, who forced a whole battalion of the Congolese army to abandon the site.