In the last few weeks fighting between government troops and “mutineers” has ended three years of relative peace in North Kivu Province, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and thousands of refugees have been streaming across the border to Rwanda.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the clashes have displaced 40,600 people since April. For many of them this is the third time they have been forced to flee their homes since the mid-1990s.
“It [war] is something they have seen and that they know,” Richard Ndaula, the UNHCR team leader at western Rwanda’s Nkamira transit camp, told IRIN. The camp has received at least 8,000 refugees since 27 April.
Who are the “mutineers”?
Bosco Ntaganda was second in charge of the Tutsi rebel group Congrès national pour la défense du people (CNDP) until 2009, when he brokered a deal to integrate its troops into the national army and take over the North Kivu command. After integration, CNDP soldiers operated a parallel leadership structure, taking orders only from Ntaganda.
However, in early April, the former CNDP soldiers began to defect, citing unpaid salaries and poor living conditions, and said the government had failed to uphold the terms of the 2009 peace accord. Commentators said the “mutineers” were protecting Ntaganda from arrest, but they denied this, calling themselves M23 in reference to the 23 March 2009 accord.
Ntaganda, already indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), stands accused in the past week of continuing to recruit children as young as 12 into the ranks of his armed group.
On 15 May ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he wanted to add charges of murder, ethnic persecution, rape and sexual slavery to the 2006 charge against Ntaganda of recruiting children.
Ntaganda was Thomas Lubanga’s successor in another militia, the Union des patriotes congolais. The ICC on 14 March found Lubanga guilty of conscripting child soldiers in the northeastern DRC region of Ituri.
Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Goma (eastern DRC), said: "There is evidence to suggest extensive recruitment of children and young men by the mutineers… Bosco Ntaganda is once again committing the very crimes against children for which the International Criminal Court has been demanding his arrest.”
Allegations of mistreatment
It took Jean-Pierre Iransi, a 20-year-old student from Burungu in Masisi, North Kivu, five days to reach Rwanda, a journey which normally takes one day. Iransi said he was detained 12 times by both government soldiers and rebels. At one point rebels forced him to carry equipment; when he refused, he said they threatened to kill him. "Many civilians were taken to become soldiers. Up to this moment we don't know where they are," he said.
HRW in a 16 May statement based on interviews with witnesses and victims, said: “Ntaganda’s troops - an estimated 300-600 soldiers who followed him in his mutiny - forcibly recruited at least 149 boys and young men around Kilolirwe, Kingi, Kabati, and other locations on the road to Kitchanga, in Masisi, North Kivu Province, between 19 April and 4 May… Those forcibly recruited were between 12 and 20 years old and were largely from the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups.” It said the actual level of recruitment during this period may have been significantly higher.
In an excerpt from the HRW statement, a woman said that in mid-April Ntaganda had personally come to her village and said: “Since you [villagers] have been with the government, you’ve got nothing. Why not join me?” The woman said: “[Ntaganda] asked us to give our children, our students, to him to fight. He came to our village himself, like [detained rebel leader Laurent] Nkunda used to do. But we refused and said our children should go to school.”
Later, Ntaganda’s fighters took children by force from schools, their homes and farms, or from the roadside as they tried to flee on foot or on motorbike taxis, said HRW. “A number of those forcibly recruited were given quick military training, but the majority were immediately forced to porter weapons and ammunition to frontline positions. Many were put in military uniforms or partial uniforms.”
According to Omar Katova, a spokesperson for a number of North Kivu civil society groups, the Congolese government should end the "new war" in North Kivu by disbanding armed groups and arresting “mutineer” defectors, amid increasing concern that other rebel groups, including the pro-Hutu Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), could take advantage of a security vacuum.
On 7 May FDLR attacked some government positions and abducted five women in neighbouring South Kivu Province.
At present, Ntaganda's location remains unknown, although according to the HRW statement, he could be in the Virunga National Park with a small group of fighters. His M23 “mutineers”, reportedly numbering 500-800, have in large part left Masisi. After gathering at the border junction between the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, they attempted a takeover of Bunagana town, along the DRC-Uganda border in early May.
The absence of Ntaganda’s CNDP troops in their Masisi stronghold, which is currently under the control of the Congolese army, is emerging as a threat to the remaining Tutsi population, with many of those who have fled to Rwanda speaking of ethnic intolerance.
"They [Congolese soldiers] beat us when they find us. They tell me I'm Rwandan. Every time, they say this is not your country. But I was born in Congo, I grew up in Congo," said a refugee.
Meanwhile, Congolese refugees arriving in Rwanda from their homes in Masisi, say they saw friends and family beaten and arrested on the way. Arsene Harnyurwa made it to Rwanda from Rubai but said soldiers took everything he had, down to his baby's milk. "The rebels and the government are the same. The people who made it here are the lucky ones," he said.
Voting with their feet
On 7 May Liz Ahua, deputy director of UNHCR's Africa Bureau, warned that "a new site will have to be found if more refugees continue to arrive on a daily basis.”
Rwanda is already hosting some 55,000 Congolese refugees in three crowded camps.
In neighboring Uganda, the challenge is different with an estimated 30,000-40,000 so-called Congolese "night commuters" at the Bunagana border point. They are refusing to seek asylum in Uganda, waiting for the situation back home to stabilize. The Ugandan government is encouraging them to seek refuge and get UNHCR assistance.
As to when they will return home, HRW’s Van Woudenberg said: "People will decide with their feet.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions