With the Eastern DRC town of Bunagana all but deserted, a bishop steps forward to speak for the rebels
At 9 am on July 11, with cameras strapped across chests, notebooks and pens in hand, I and a group of other journalists cross the Uganda border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically the eastern border town of Bunagana.
Armed rebels dressed in the blue military outfits of the DRC police force let us across without any security checks. They do not even ask for passports or other identification documents.
Bunagana looks and feels like a ghost town. Shops, homes and schools are all closed. Roads are deserted. The only facilities open are a few bars and make-shift hotels patronized by hungry-looking military men with guns. The recent fighting has emptied the border town, as locals fled in their thousands, across the borders to Uganda and Rwanda.
We are told that the rebels tried to encourage some of the locals to stay and conduct their business as usual, but most civilians were scared and refused to stay.
Top rebel commanders have taken over some of the more posh houses as their residences and for the most part stay out of sight behind gates guarded by heavily armed soldiers.
An atmosphere of fear and desolation clings to the town. Men in an assortment of military uniforms roam the streets of the tiny dusty town, the walls on the street whose semi-permanent buildings are ridden with bullet-holes from the recent fighting between rebels and government soldiers, and possibly even from older skirmishes.
On Uganda’s side of the border, cargo trucks are parked waiting to be cleared to enter DRC but drivers are worried of their safety and some stay put even after they get the green light. Border authorities have advised truck drivers to try other border points into DRC which are perceived to be more peaceful.
Rebels are in charge in Bunagana, after government troops fled across the border to Uganda. They manage the border post and control movements in the tiny, dusty town. They patrol the town on foot, in groups of 3 to 7, AK47s in hand, fingers ready to pull the trigger. Some commanders carry pistols.
As we tour the town, a Toyota Surf without a registration number plate emerges to pick us up. It drives about 4 km into the town and parks in front a black-gated residential house guarded by a thin-looking young rebel soldier holding an SMG gun. The rebel commander driving the Toyota Surf speaks to the guard in fluent Kinyarwanda and the gate swings open. Inside the house, about two dozen rebel soldiers have taken positions with fingers at the trigger, perhaps unsure who is driving through the gate. It feels like war and we are all quite scared.
As we sit under a porch on the brown plastic chairs, another soldier hurriedly but without much success tries to clean away clotted patches of blood and blood-soaked cotton wool that form a ghastly sight on the verandah, a sign that there was fighting or the wounded were brought here.
Three minutes later, a middle aged man in a blue police uniform wearing a broad smile introduces himself as ‘Colonel Moses’. We don’t dare ask for a second name, and he walks away.
Another tension-packed 90 minutes later, another lean-looking soldier walks up to us. “I am Colonel Vianny. You are welcome,” he says, without a smile. There seems to be a first-name only rule among the M23 colonels. We learn that Col. Vianny doubles as both an escort to M23 rebel commander Col. Sultani Makanga and M23 commander in Bunagana.
Col. Vianny is dressed in army green camouflage and brown sun-glasses. He tells us to wait and goes back in the house. As we wait two boys (wearing oversize army green uniform) looking to be about 15 years come out, they are given rifles and move behind the building to guard three men who just arrived with sacks of rice and a 20-litre jerrycan of cooking oil.
Col Vianny soon returns, escorted by 7 heavily armed rebel soldiers, all wearing black gum boots, carrying SMG, RPG and AK47 rifles. They lead us to a nearby bungalow on top of a green hill with lush gardens and flowers. Soldiers carrying an assortment of guns surround the posh residential house. Three armed soldiers stand at the entrance, nine men in the blue Police uniform stand in a line not far off, scrutinizing whoever enters the compound.
Here, less than a kilometre from Uganda’s border, a thorough body and equipment check is done and identity cards closely examined before entry.
It is in the green gardens of this a white iron-roofed bungalow that the rebel group’s political wing attempts to articulate its aspirations.
As we take our plastic chairs in the compound, a medium-height man dressed in a bistre suit, white-and-blue striped shirt and a matching blue neck tie emerges from the house, sandwiched between heavily armed M23 colonels. He looks and is treated like a VIP.
This is Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga, head the M23’s political wing.
After he is introduced by a man in military uniform, Bishop Runiga begins his speech in fluent French.
“Look at me, I am a bishop,” Runiga proclaims in an angry tone as he begins the press conference we had waited 4 hours for.
“I didn’t join M23 because I was jobless. I have a job. But things have to be changed in this country.”
Bishop Runiga, provides an alternative and possibly more charismatic face to the M23 mutineers, something the group may desperately need following the indictment of renegade General Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda, the group’s leader who was recently indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes. He also provides the rebel movement with a credible voice.
A bishop for 24 years now and the leader of various Christian churches in the Eastern DRC, Runiga said he is the former spokesperson of DRC’s Anti-Corruption Bureau. He worked as a rapporteur for the RCD (Rally for Congolese Democracy) rebel-group-turned-political-party and calls himself an “ambassador of peace”. He is married with six children.
The bishop says the DRC government must agree to talk peace with the M23 movement so that “everyone can go home and stay in peace”.
“If the DRC government chooses to fight instead of negotiating, M23 will fight until the problems of Congolese are solved,” the Bishop said. “The people of Congo will stand and defend their rights. If the problems of Congolese are addressed, we will then go home and sleep in peace.”
But before we look at the problems, what is the cause that compelled M23 rebels to pick up arms and point them at their own government?
For the past three months eastern DRC has been at the centre of international and regional attention after a group of soldiers from the region mutinied and broke away from the national army, forming the rebel group M23. In full, this is March 23 Movement, in reference to the March 23, 2009 agreement the National Congress of the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels signed with the DRC government to integrate its forces, which the rebels say never amounted to anything more than ink on paper.
The deserters, mainly ex-rebels integrated in the DRC army (FARDC), have since taken over several strategic towns, including Rutshuru and Bunagana in North Kivu province, on the border with Uganda.
The agreement was that CNDP rebel soldiers would be integrated into the rank and file of the army and police, and the group consolidated into a political party. Both parties agreed to work toward reconciliation. The DRC government agreed to release CNDP prisoners, enact an amnesty law to pardon crimes committed since June 2003, and to create a ministerial portfolio in charge of internal security, local affairs and reconciliation.
DRC government agreed to create local reconciliation committees, facilitate the return of refugees from neighboring countries and declare North and South Kivu as “disaster areas” to speed up public development projects there.
Both sides agreed that the electoral framework needed to be reviewed to promote greater inclusiveness and prevent hate speech. They agreed on economic reforms, including certification of minerals.
Three years down the road, they say none of these commitments had been met.
While over 4,500 CNDP fighters were conscripted into the national army, they say for many the only thing that changed was their uniform.
Discontent was widespread among ex-CNDP members and in March this year, ex-CNDP officers in Kivu disobeyed deployment orders from Kinshasa. When international pressure mounted on President Joseph Kabila to arrest Ntaganda, the CNDP leader, it galvanized the mutiny into outright rebellion.
It wasn’t as sudden as it might seem. The dual systems in the national army, with ex-CNDP officers treated worse than juniors, and perception that ex-CNDP troops followed a parallel chain of command in the Kivus, had always been a source of discomfort for authorities in Kinshasa.
Runiga argues that contrary to widespread, including international opinion, it is not Rwanda, which has been variously accused of supporting the rebel movement and fanning Tutsi-Hutu sentiments. The bishop claims that this is a ploy by the DRC government to deflect scrutiny and avoid undertaking necessary reforms. He said M23 has allied with other DRC rebel groups to push the fight.
“The DRC government has delayed the solution by blaming its problems on Rwanda. Politicians in DRC should look beyond rhetoric and begin solving the problems people face,” he said.
“We have no support from the Rwanda government. Our support is from the Congolese people. We are using guns abandoned by FARDC [the DRC national army].”
Runiga was careful to distance the M23 from Ntaganda, and fell just short of disowning him.
“Ntaganda was being guarded by the DRC government,” Runiga said. “M23 should not be reduced to Ntaganda, or Tutsi. It encompasses all Congolese and their problems. It is not Rwandaphone.”
Most rebel commanders The Independent spoke to, including Bishop Runiga, said the arrest warrant against Ntaganda was his personal fate not their problem as the Congolese Tutsi community, and expressed no strong sentiments for or against it.
This is hard to believe. The leaders of M23 are former fighters of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a rebel group that fought a bloody uprising from 2006 to 2008. Then they were led by Laurent Nkunda, who is under house arrest in Rwanda, and Ntaganda.
The territory now held by M23 is the same that CNDP controlled before it launched devastating attacks on Goma and other towns in the eastern Kivu provinces. That conflict ended with a peace agreement brokered by Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Benjamin Mkapa of Nigeria and Tanzania respectively, signed on 23 March 2009, which the M23 now says that DRC President Joseph Kabila has breached.
The accusations that Rwanda is supporting rebels in DRC are not new. Following the 1998 – 2002 Congo war, in 2004, Rwanda was accused by the UN of supporting Laurent Nkunda, then rebel leader of RCD Goma. Nkunda who had been integrated in the Congolese army (FARDC) deserted and began fighting under the pretext that he was protecting the Banyamulenge, an ethnic Tutsi community living in Eastern DRC.
The recent African Union summit in Addis Ababa pushed the task of resolving the DRC conflict to heads of state within the Great Lakes Region. The chairman of the Great Lakes Region Summit, President Yoweri Museveni, promised that the conference would find a solution and dialogue was the key.
“The situation in Congo will be dangerous if not attended to,” Museveni told the BBC.
Museveni said that with or without Rwanda’s involvement, DRC had a crisis that needed to be resolved, especially as the lawlessness in the country’s east harboured dangerous groups like Intarahamwe and ADF.
However, DRC Minister of Information, Lambert Mende, says Rwanda is the root of the problems that plague the plague Eastern DRC, and will be the source of its solutions.
But Runiga disagrees.
DRC’s problem, the bishop argues, is its leadership. “People in Congo are businessmen in seats of authority and they have neglected infrastructure, the roads are poor,” says Christopher Kibanzanga former MP who represented a Ugandan constituency that borders DRC, agreeing with the bishop.
Runiga cites tribalism, neglect of the eastern part of DR Congo, lack of accountability and poor governance (especially regarding election) and lack of respect of human rights as some of the problems that prompted them to take up arms.
“If the DRC government wants the problem to be solved by war, we are ready to fight,” a rebel colonel told The Independent at the M23 base in Bunagana, whose sentiments were echoed by Bishop Runiga.
“If they want peace talks, we shall have talks. If we have to march to Goma, we will do it.” Eastern DRC rarely attracts attention with good news. The region has not seen stable government since the death of Patrice Lumumba. It suffered the worst form of colonialism under Belgian King Leopold and when President Mobuto Sese Seko was overthrown, the communities inside Congo re-allied around into mercenaries and militias that have made stability near-impossible. Some analysts blame the desire to control the vast minerals in the area for the country’s unrest.
Refugees flocking into Uganda are telling stories of ethnic cleansing taking place in DRC, but say the UN and international community are silent about it.
At 5 am on July 5, M23 rebels attacked DRC’s Bunagana border town. The 600 DR Congo soldiers and 60 policemen could not withstand the rebels’ fire and retreated across the border into Uganda. By 7 am the same day, the rebels had taken full control of the town, according to a truck driver who was transporting goods to DRC’s Goma town. The DRC soldiers were on July 11 handed over to the DRC authorities where Uganda made a request to be allowed in to chase the ADF rebels hiding on Congolese soil. The ease with which the M23 rebels, allegedly led by Ntaganda and Col. Sultani Makanga, have marched across broad swaths of the country’s east and taken over towns threatens the credibility of the DRC government in North Kivu province and that of the UN mission. Bunagana is just 40km from Goma, the capital of North Kivu province and headquarters of the UN mission. But despite their notoriety, the M23 are not the only armed group the DRC government and UN have reason to worry about roaming this mineral-rich region.
The conflict in Eastern DRC is more complicated. Encouraged by a weak government presence, several militias like the MaiMai, Allied Democratic Front [from Uganda], FDLR, Forces pour la défense du Congo (FDC) and Sheka Ntaberi’s Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC), and other armed bandits, are all wrestling to control the exploitation of minerals, smuggling rackets and taxes in the area. Neighbouring countries like Uganda and Rwanda have worried that Eastern DRC is fertile ground for insurgents seeking to destabilize their governments.
More interested parties keep joining the fray.
A few years ago Rwanda entered DRC to fight the Interahamwe FDLR rebels, whom it accused of plotting to topple the Kigali government. In fact, until the M23 war with DRC forces broke out in May, some Rwandan special forces were in Congo fighting the Intarahamwe. As the M23 battle against government troops flared in May, the UN issued a report accusing Rwanda of arming the M23 rebels, a claim that Rwanda denies. Presidents Joseph Kagame and Joseph Kabila met in Addis Ababa and reportedly agreed to work together to resolve the Eastern Congolese conflict. Only time will tell the outcome of such efforts.