For the first time in 20 months, the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo flew over the town of Chanzu on November 6. With resources dwindling, the rebel group calling itself M23 surrendered to the Congolese army. Now, the war-stricken nation is taking up the work of rebuilding, disarming rebel soldiers and negotiating a sustainable peace.
“This is a hopeful first step toward peace and prosperity in this region,” Russ Feingold, the U.S. special envoy to the Congo, told reporters after news of the surrender broke.
BBC News reports that M23 is made up of army deserters, mainly ethnic Tutsis, who accused the government of failing to abide by a March 23, 2009 peace agreement (the date of the agreement being the source of the group’s name). Fighting broke out in March 2012 and has since displaced more than 800,000 people in eastern Congo, a volatile region that borders Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
In October, the Congolese army — with help from UN peacekeeping forces — had the rebels on the ropes and was pushing M23 back into the mountains and away from major population centers.
“We’re going to pursue M23 and push them into a corner, wherever they hide, because they are criminals,” army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli said of the offensive, according to Reuters. “They have martyred the Congolese people for too long. Now is the time to bring peace.”
At its peak, M23 seized control of the city of Goma in November 2012. The capture of Goma, the major eastern city in Congo with a population of one million, prompted the UN to step up efforts to contain the conflict. Human rights abuse allegations also arose, prompting a reorganization of the army. Using a combination of air and ground attacks, the peacekeeping forces and the Congolese army were able to force M23 into retreat, reports News Hour.
The M23 rebellion is just the newest wave in more than two decades of nearly unrelenting violence. Much of the conflict stems from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. After the killing of many of Rwanda’s Tutsis, Hutu militias fled across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo. The region has been in chaos ever since as it struggles with ethnic tensions that frequently turn violent. The fighting intensified with the discovery of — and subsequent struggle to control — the immense mineral wealth of eastern Congo, which includes vast deposits of copper, gold, tin, coal, uranium and oil.
What made this rebellion particularly intense was Rwanda, which is now understood to be pulling the strings of the rebels. “For years, the United States and Rwanda’s other Western friends turned a blind eye to this meddling,” writes Jeffrey Gettleman in a piece for The New York Times. “But recently the United States and Britain have been presented with such a mountain of allegations about how Rwanda funneled arms into Congo and even directed the recent capture of Goma that they had no choice but to change tack. So the Western powers recently slashed aid to Rwanda because of Congo, sending a simple but forceful message: Get out.”
With Rwandan aid cut and the Congolese advancing, the M23 movement began to disintegrate. Their leader, General Makenga, disappeared across the border, leaving behind 300 tons of weapons. Now, preparations are being made to systematically disarm the rebels and reintegrate them into the national army. Still, one victory doesn’t spell the end of eastern Congo’s troubles.
“M23 has only been the most active group in the east. Its defeat does not mean instant peace,” Stephanie Wolters of the Institute of Security Studies, told the BBC. At least 10 other militia groups are active in the region. “For years, Kinshasa has lacked the political will to really deal with the political problems for many different reasons. It is now up to them to decide what they want to do with the latest victory.”
By Jonny Eberle – Grey Cell Staff Writer