CONFUSION REIGNS ON CONGO'S FRONT LINE
By Jeffrey Gettleman
New York Times
November 18, 2008
KIBUMBA, Congo -- The moment the truck pulled into town, the whole village began to sprint.
Into the road dashed old men in threadbare sport coats, teenage boys with mismatched flip-flops, and 7-year-olds with protruding bellybuttons who should have been in school. They all swarmed the truck, hoisting cabbages, carrots, kebabs, papayas, and toasted ears of corn they hoped to sell, yelling “Gari ! Gari!” Truck! Truck!
A group of rebel soldiers lounged nearby, most with assault rifles, one incongruously carrying a spear. Just up the road, a captain from the Congolese Army, with whom the rebels have declared a tenuous cease-fire, sat atop a mound of biscuit wrappers and cigarette butts, studiously reading a paperback titled “The Way to Happiness.”
A certain sense of desperation -- and weirdness -- seems to be creeping across eastern Congo as more territory slips into a jumbled world between government and rebel control.
Most of the fighting has stopped, and on Tuesday the rebels agreed to vacate certain areas to allow aid workers unfettered access to the thousands of needy Congolese. But it seems that the longer the instability continues -- it has been about three weeks since the rebels began a major offensive, casting this whole region into crisis mode -- the more dysfunctional and confusing life here gets.
The front line, as people here call it, is basically a blurry edge, where the government and rebel zones peter out. There are no checkpoints or fortified positions. No troops eyeballing each other through carefully calibrated rifle scopes. Definitely no formal demilitarized zone.
On Tuesday, a few Congolese soldiers boiled potatoes over a small campfire. After a gap of 300 yards, most of it thick, uninhabited bush, five or six rebels sat in the wet grass, listening to a radio.
Some of the Congolese soldiers on patrol do not even speak Swahili or French, the two most widely spoken languages in eastern Congo. This has fueled rumors that the Angolans are back in the fray. In 1998, Angola sent thousands of troops into Congo to repel a Rwandan-sponsored rebel group. On Tuesday, a Congolese lieutenant named Joao rushed up to a Western journalist, flashed a huge grin and yelled, “Hola, amigo!”
He said he had trained in Angola and Spain, but was indeed Congolese. His tight-fitting uniform, cut with boxy shoulders and a trim waist in the spirit of a finely tailored Italian suit, was completely different from the other Congolese soldiers’ attire.
Congo has been in turmoil for more than a decade. But this round of fighting seems different from the scattered battles in the past several years over strategic sites like gold mines and airfields. This time, the conflict seems broader and more focused politically, with the rebels’ leader, Laurent Nkunda, talking at times of marching to the capital and toppling the government. On Sunday, he ditched his signature military fatigues for a crisp suit and met with United Nations officials to negotiate about negotiating.
The situation has left large swaths of the country in limbo. It is not so much that the government is in charge or the rebels are in charge. Nobody, it seems, is in charge.
In Kibumba, a village at the edge of rebel territory about 20 miles north of Goma -- the provincial capital the rebels were poised to seize before declaring a unilateral cease-fire late last month -- hundreds of children have been turned into desperate street hawkers because their schools were looted last month and no authority has decided what to do about it.
A boy named Severai, who said he was 12 but did not look much more than 8, was scampering after the few trucks that passed through Kibumba on Tuesday, trying to sell their drivers armloads of onions for the equivalent of 20 cents.
“Haven’t sold one yet,” he said, smiling shyly. “But I’ll keep trying.”
The land around here is amazingly fertile. It is the rainy season, and everything seems green and ripe.
Still, many people are refusing to go back home after fleeing the recent fighting. Kahombo Sebeyeko, a 50-year-old farmer with six children, stood in the rain on Tuesday at a camp for internally displaced people. Behind him, for miles, stretched tents, lean-tos and little domes made from dried banana leaves, the same type of flimsy structures in which hundreds of thousands of people across eastern Congo now live.
“We are waiting for the order to go back,” he explained.
A blank stare.
“The government,” he said, in a way that was less an answer than a question.
Ear to the ground
SOON THE GUNS OF GOMA MIGHT BE HEARD IN KAMPALA
By Charles Onyango Obbo
Monitor (Kampala, Uganda)
November 19, 2008
In 2006 after many years of turmoil in which nearly a staggering four million people were killed either directly or indirectly as a result of war, the Democratic Republic of Congo held its first free, almost-free, elections in nearly 50 years. It seemed the worst was over and the Great Lakes region, with a fragile election in Burundi -- and the Lord’s Resistance Army finally agreeing to talk peace with Kampala -- was finally going to get a shine again.
Not any more. A few weeks ago, the Kivu-based rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, let his dogs out, accusing the Kinshasa government of giving the exile militia that committed the genocide in Rwanda free rein to massacre the Banyamulenge (the Congolese cousins of the Tutsi) and other Congolese.
Because the fighting and humanitarian crisis it has sparked is concentrated at near Goma, it seems so far away from Uganda. Uganda began withdrawing from the DRC in 2002 in the wake of the peace agreement that ended its disastrous campaign there during the so-called “Second Congo War” (1998-2002). The government and UPDF’s reputation was in ruins, as it and its officers were portrayed by an international report as having turned into pillaging bandits.
Still, there’s a risk that Uganda might get entangled in the war again, this time possibly even more deeply. Uganda backed the warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba in the “Second Congo War” and during the 2006 elections -- and lost its deposit when Bemba was defeated (or cheated of victory, as he claims). Bemba fled to Portugal after the Kabila government charged him with treason, and eventually settled in Belgium, where he was arrested early this year and eventually charged with war crimes in the International Criminal Court.
Bemba’s misfortunes at the hands of DR Congo President Joseph Kabila didn’t sour relations with Uganda, partly because Kabila too has old close links to sections of the NRM leadership. Secondly, Kabila Jr. agreed to cooperate with Uganda to deal with Joseph Kony’s rebels once they crossed from South Sudan and took refuge in the jungles near the DRC-Sudan border.
The first real tension between the Museveni government and Kinshasa came over oil in Lake Albert a few months ago over Uganda and DRC’s competing interests, and a failure to agree on the borderline over the water. There were exchanges of fire between the UPDF, which protect oil prospectors Tullow and Heritage on the Uganda side, and the DRC army, the FARC, which are protecting Divine Inspiration, and another firm called H which have now been granted concessions on the DRC side.
In addition, if, as has happened, Kabila is too preoccupied with fighting Nkunda and withdraws his forces from the anti-LRA duty, it gives Kony an opportunity to reorganize. The fear that the LRA is exploiting the vacuum might just be the “legitimate” reason Uganda needs to re-enter DRC. Having done that, a distracted Kabila would offer Kampala an additional opportunity to also assert control over the disputed Lake Albert oil fields.
What has complicated the situation is the re-entrance of another force from the “Second Congo War”, Angola, to back up the Kabila government against Nkunda in the Kivu region. Zimbabwe too, whose military has been hit by very difficult economic times at home and would relish an opportunity to return to the DRC and profit from the illegal mining, is itching to move in after SADC voted recently to send aid to support Kinshasa.
Rwanda will not stand by and watch Nkunda’s forces being decimated by the Angolans and Zimbabweans, because it would strengthen anti-Kigali rebels who are on the side of Kabila. Helping Kabila to reassert control will mean strengthening him militarily in all of the eastern DRC -- including securing Kinshasa’s claim to the disputed portion of Lake Albert. If the Angolans (and Zimbabweans if they jump into the fray) get drawn deep into eastern DRC to protect Kabila, and are confronted with the Lake Albert question, it is only natural that they could try and tip the scales against Museveni by backing his enemies, where they exist -- in this case the LRA!
But even without that or other overt threats from the Angolans, Kampala is unlikely to accept that a force with the might of the Angolan army be located at its western border. Because of the rapprochement between Kigali and Kampala, and the fact that they could be faced with common threat from the DRC, could take us back to either 1996 or 1998 when the two joined hands to oust dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and two years later against the erratic Kabila whom they had installed in power, but turned against them.
Kabila, the father, who was assassinated in circumstances that still remain unclear, then relied on the Angolans and Zimbabweans to keep the presidency in the family. It is a different time, and the issues have changed. But the players in the DR Congo are still the same. Be very afraid of the repeat of the nightmare of the “Second Congo War” and its disruptive effect on the Great Lakes region.
MORE PEACEKEEPERS WON'T BRING PEACE TO CONGO: U.N.
By Louis Charbonneau
November 19, 2008
UNITED NATIONS -- More U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo could help stabilize the east of the country, which has been ravaged by renewed fighting, but will not bring peace to the region, the top U.N. official in Congo said on Tuesday.
"Reinforcements are not going to resolve all the problems," Alan Doss, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, told reporters via video link from Kinshasa.
"Reinforcements will allow us to do something about the situation, which has deteriorated fast, help us to stabilize the situation a bit, and allow the political and diplomatic process to go forward."
France has drafted a Security Council resolution granting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's request for 3,000 additional troops and police for the peacekeeping mission in Congo to help contain a humanitarian disaster caused by the fighting.
The 15-nation council could vote as early as Wednesday on the resolution, which would temporarily raise the limit for the U.N.'s biggest peacekeeping mission to over 20,000, and diplomats said it was likely to be approved.
Although the increase in U.N. peacekeepers will not end the conflict, Doss said it would improve his ability to protect civilians and increase flexibility in deploying troops across eastern Congo, a region roughly the size of France.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy has said it could take months to get additional peacekeepers into Congo but Doss said he wanted to accelerate the process.
SPECIAL ENVOY'S EFFORTS
Congolese rebels loyal to renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda announced a military pullback to support efforts by a special U.N. envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, to end the fighting between the rebels and Congolese government forces.
"I hope this new proposal . . . together with proposals for a verification mechanism for the ceasefire will go forward," Doss said.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila has rejected several requests from Nkunda for direct talks, but Doss said U.N. peacekeepers were trying to arrange talks between the rebels and the Congolese military over the next few days to expand the ceasefire and improve humanitarian access to refugees.
The talks would be mediated by the peacekeeping force, known by its French acronym MONUC, and could be a first step toward restoring dialogue between the government and the rebels, he said.
Doss noted that the humanitarian situation was improving though it was still dire.
In addition to Nkunda, Obasanjo also met Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame over the weekend to try to stop the conflict from escalating into a repeat of a 1998-2003 war in Congo, in which millions of people died.