The return of a long dormant rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is overstretching an underfunded humanitarian relief operation and piling hardship onto communities that are already contending with dozens of other armed insurgencies.
For several months, the March 23 Movement (M23) rebel group has fought Congolese troops in North Kivu province. UN experts say its sights are set on Goma – a city of nearly two million people – though the group discounts this and has called for dialogue.
M23’s revival, almost ten years after it was thought defeated, has undermined regional stability. DRC accuses neighbouring Rwanda of backing the group, while a UN expert report states that individuals in Rwandan army uniforms were seen in M23 camps. Kigali denies the charge.
Civilians are facing the worst of the crisis, just as they did a decade ago: 170,000 have escaped their homes since late March, hundreds of children have been separated from their families, and hate speech is rising across the country.
“Every time there is a new rebellion, the civilian population pays the price,” said a man in his 30s who fled to North Kivu’s Rutshuru town and asked not to be named for security reasons. “These are political problems that need political solutions.”
The New Humanitarian visited Rutshuru, the epicentre of the conflict, and Goma, North Kivu’s provincial capital, earlier this month. We spoke with displaced people, civil society leaders, aid workers, and officials from the M23 and Congolese army.
All offered different perspectives on the causes and consequences of the crisis, which presents a major test to President Félix Tshisekedi, whose government is based some 2,000 kilometres westward in the capital, Kinshasa.
Rebel demands: ‘Nothing that had been agreed has been implemented’
Tshisekedi made security in the east a priority when he came to power in 2019. He has since imposed martial law; allowed Ugandan troops into the region to battle Islamist militants; and approved the deployment of an East African force.
Yet more than 100 foreign and local armed groups remain active in eastern DRC – a legacy of the regional wars fought in the 1990s and 2000s. And even vanquished movements like the M23 are now bouncing back.
“We realise how weak this government is, and that Félix Tshisekedi's leadership is non-existent”, said Aloys Tegera, a researcher at Pole Institute, a Goma-based think tank that specialises in conflict prevention and resolution.
“This [M23] crisis is adding to a worsening situation in eastern Congo. It comes on top of a series of other crises that we can’t forget in the region.”
At a glance: The rebel crisis stirring regional tensions
- M23 was thought defeated in 2013 but has bounced back in recent months.
- 170,000 people have escaped their homes since March, bringing the total number displaced in the country to nearly six million.
- Children constitute half of those recently uprooted, and many have been separated from their families.
- Funding is limited for aid groups and insecurity is hampering their response to the current crisis.
- DRC accuses Rwanda of backing the M23, though Kigali denies the charge.
In total, some 700,000 Congolese have been displaced this year, bringing the overall number of people uprooted in the country to nearly six million. The displacement crisis was the third biggest in the world in 2021, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“This [M23] crisis is adding to a worsening situation in eastern Congo,” said Joseph Inganji, head of the UN’s emergency aid coordination agency (OCHA) in DRC. “It comes on top of a series of other crises that we can’t forget in the region.”
M23 led the last major rebellion in eastern DRC in 2012 and 2013. It seized chunks of North Kivu, including Goma, before the army and UN peacekeepers forced its fighters into Rwanda and Uganda, which were both accused of supporting the rebels.
The group is now asking Kinshasa to respect the terms of a 2013 accord that sketched plans for demobilisation and amnesty for its fighters. “Nothing that had been agreed has been implemented,” said M23’s spokesperson, Willy Ngoma, in a telephone interview.
Little aid and separated families: ‘We ran back home but our parents had already fled’
Though details on the M23’s return to arms are hazy, the civilian toll of the crisis is clear. Many of the displaced in Rutshuru town are living in cramped public buildings and must contend with the regular thud of artillery fire echoing through nearby hills and forests.
“We pray that the war will end, and that we will come out of it alive.”
Access to water and other basic services is scarce in the camps, while displaced people told The New Humanitarian that they had not received any food aid for the past two months. Some were begging local residents for supplies.
“Sometimes people are generous, sometimes we stay hungry,” said Jean de Dieu Iyakaremye, a teacher and father of four living at a camp in a sports stadium in Rutshuru. “We pray that the war will end, and that we will come out of it alive.”
Thousands of Congolese have also escaped to Uganda, but conditions there are “very bad”, said Anuarite Kanyere, a mother of six from Bunagana, an M23-occupied town and cross-border trading hub.
Kanyere left for Uganda in March – carrying a four-day-old baby – but returned to DRC soon after. “I hoped we would be able to get some help here,” she said from a camp at a school in Rutshuru town. “But there is nothing.”
Displaced children, who constitute half of the total number uprooted, are facing particular challenges. Many have been separated from their families after escaping towns and villages in chaotic circumstances.
Aline Mwavita, a 15-year-old girl, said she and her 5-year-old brother were working in fields near their family home in Rutshuru territory when they heard explosions and gunfire drawing closer.
“We ran back home but our parents had already fled,” Mwavita told The New Humanitarian. “They didn’t even take the time to put the padlock on the door.”
Both children are now living with a host family in Rutshuru town, but the 5-year-old is struggling. A local social worker said the boy can’t stop talking about sheep he lost when fleeing the rebels. He worries his parents will rebuke him when they are reunited.
Aid officials said they have limited funding to support recently displaced people and that insecurity has disrupted their operations. “For 2022, we appealed for 1.8 billion dollars, [but] we received barely 20 percent of this amount,” said Inganji, the OCHA official.
A regional crisis: ‘When they don’t get what they want, they attack’
M23 is led by Congolese Tutsis and is part of a lineage of DRC rebel groups armed by Rwanda. Support began in the 1990s as Kigali hunted down Hutu militias who had fled to DRC after committing genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsis.
Rwanda denies backing the current offensive, while Ngoma, the M23 spokesperson, said DRC officials are drawing the link with Kigali “to discredit us”. Still, UN sources and experts said Rwandan involvement in the conflict was certain.
“Each time we gain ground, the enemy comes back with even more men.”
A high-ranking Congolese army officer in North Kivu said the M23 has fired more than 100 shells at army positions on some days. He cited this as evidence that they aren’t like other local rebel groups, which are often ill-trained and poorly equipped.
“We are fighting against two armies: Rwanda and Uganda,” said the officer, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely. “We are the victims of an unwarranted aggression.”
The intensity of the fighting was evident in Rutshuru’s main hospital – now a de facto field clinic for injured soldiers. Bloodstained fatigues hung off clotheslines; soldiers nursed bullet and shrapnel wounds; and a morgue took in new bodies every day.
Photos from Rutshuru: Wounded soldiers and displaced families
“Each time we gain ground, the enemy comes back with even more men,” said a sergeant, his hand wrapped in gauze that covered an amputated finger. “They are very well armed. They even shot down helicopters.”
Analysts say Kigali may be supporting M23 to reassert its political and economic influence in eastern DRC. This comes at a time when its regional rivals – Burundi and Uganda – have deployed troops to the Kivus with Kinshasa’s blessing.
“There is a will to control part of eastern Congo to keep a military and political influence,” said Jean-Jacques Wondo Omanyundu, a security analyst. “Sometimes things are negotiated quietly. But when they don’t get what they want, they attack.”
Rwanda’s defence interests may also play into the crisis. Kigali claims DRC is collaborating with the FDLR, which includes Hutu genocidaires. The group is relatively weak but poses a symbolic threat to a controlling, security-conscious Rwandan state.
Reprisals and hate speech: ‘We know who they see as the enemy’
Despite its historic Rwandan links, analysts say the M23 should not be framed as a proxy. The group’s top brass have long been wary of Kigali, while their mobilising power draws on the discrimination Congolese Tutsis face for having Rwandan roots.
That discrimination tends to increase during periods of M23 activity. Both Rwandans and Congolese of Rwandan descent have been targeted with hate speech and physical attacks across DRC in recent weeks.
One Congolese Tutsi lawyer from Goma told The New Humanitarian that they were forced to hide at home for several days last month after protestors ransacked shops and searched for cars they suspected of transporting “Rwandans”.
“When the police commander called on the population to bring machetes to protect the city against ‘the enemy’, I told myself that things were going to go really wrong.”
The lawyer, who asked not to be named due to security concerns, said members of their community have been arrested and interrogated based on how they look, and because they were heard speaking Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s most widely spoken language.
“When the police commander called on the population to bring machetes to protect the city against ‘the enemy’, I told myself that things were going to go really wrong,” the lawyer said. “We know who they see as ‘the enemy’”.
David Karambi, the president of Goma’s Tutsi community, said local authorities and community leaders have called for calm in recent days. But Karambi believes “the evil remains in [people’s] minds" and that violence “could ignite again”.
A risky coalition: ‘Armed groups that were fighting each other… have now come together’
Tensions could escalate should the M23 push towards Goma, which is around 70 kilometres south of Rutshuru town. However, Ngoma, the rebel spokesperson, said capturing the city as they did in 2012 is not in the group’s plans.
The Congolese government has called for the M23 to withdraw from Bunagana, the border town they currently occupy, though it is unclear if the rebels would be willing to relinquish that military advantage.
The Congolese army is, meanwhile, benefiting from a rare upswell of support from local residents in North Kivu. Army officials say they’ll welcome youth who want to join their ranks, though reinforcements have been slow to arrive on the front line.
“The [army] gave us AK-47s, but they told us that we must give them back when the M23 is repelled.”
The high-ranking army officer said the military is being strengthened by other rebel groups in the region that also oppose the M23. “We are fighting a common enemy, on the same territory [so] de facto, we are fighting together,” they said.
The army officer said Kinshasa has forbidden direct collaboration between the army and armed militias. Yet a 17-year-old rebel from Kiwanja – a town near Rutshuru – told The New Humanitarian that they had been given a weapon by the military.
“The [army] gave us AK-47s, but they told us that we must give them back when the M23 is repelled,” said the fighter, whose name is not being used because they are a minor.
Jacques Mbusa Buligho, the coordinator of UPDECO, an organisation which works to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers, said even “armed groups that were fighting each other… have now come together to confront the M23.”
Displaced people aren’t convinced of the army’s ability to defeat the rebels, however. Jean-Baptiste Luribikiye, a farmer, said he’s fled his home twice since May and that each time the military retake an area “there’s new fighting and the M23 comes back.”
Luribikiye said the recent rounds of conflict have had a major impact on his village and livelihood. “Everything has been looted,” he said. “I lost my goats and my cows. I don’t even know if my house is still standing.”
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld