In eastern DRC, facing M23 rebels, Goma holds its breath

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Distribution of cookies to people fleeing the M23 rebellion at an informal camp in Kanyaruchinya, in the northern district of Goma (DRC), on November 2, 2022.

The stalls are almost empty. Blackened bananas and some onions are still found in fruit and vegetable bins. “There are no more avocados and the tomatoes are almost finished”observes mom Elisé. Her store, located in the heart of the Goma bus station, is often one of the best stocked in the regional capital of North Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). “I have not been resupplied due to the resumption of the war”laments the shopkeeper.

On October 20, the Mouvement du 23-Mars (M23), a Tutsi-dominated rebellion, launched an offensive against the Congolese army. The insurgents, who had laid down their arms in 2013 before taking them up again in December 2021, are only about forty kilometers from the city. Since October 30 they have controlled a large part of the territory of Rutshuru, considered the breadbasket of Goma. In this crossroads city of the Great Lakes region, supplies have not yet been exhausted. But Congolese garden produce is increasingly struggling to feed Goma’s two million residents and the estimated 75,000 displaced people who flock there.

Also read: Article reserved for our subscribers In DRC, M23 rebels gain ground in the east

Maman Elisé would like to make reservations, but her financial means do not allow it. This mother has already experienced shortcomings and fears “relive the same situation” than in 2012, when the M23 besieged the regional capital before occupying it for more than a week. “Oil has already taken 7 dollars [7,05 euros] in a few days ! » She worries. Here, “Most of the basic needs come from abroad, mainly from the neighboring countries of Rwanda and Uganda”, emphasizes Delliance Matata, president of the Congolese Association of authorized customs agents. Of the nine border posts in North Kivu, only three remain under government control and are functional. Bunagana, one of the most important crossing points, has been under rebel administration since June. Like Kitagoma, since October 28.

Hundreds of displaced people who fled the advancing M23 rebellion (March 23 Movement) wait for a food distribution at an informal camp in Kanyaruchinya, North Goma district, on November 2, 2022.

The others, particularly Ishasha or Kasindi, are almost paralyzed. The trucks are blocked and their drivers do not dare to take the RN2, the only passable road that leads to Goma. The M23 controls the strategic communes of Kiwanja and Rutshuru, necessary steps to supply the city. “The same strategy was implemented in 2012”remember the expert.

Ready to “serve the flag”

At the border post “great barrier” between the DRC and Rwanda, some vendors still manage to pass through customs with their products on their heads. But they have been trickling in since the office reduced its opening hours in June. A decision imposed by the Kinshasa authorities, who protest against the problematic role of Kigali, accused of supporting the M23.

In their report published in July on the period from July 2021 to July 2022, the UN experts, as well as the Kivu Security Barometer (which maps conflicts in the region) in November, they say they have proof of Rwanda’s involvement in the conflict. He continues to deny Kigali, accusing the Congolese army of being an ally of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Rwandan Hutu rebellion that has taken refuge in the DRC since the genocide of the Tutsi in 1994.

In reaction to the advance of the insurgents, the Rwandan ambassador in Kinshasa, Vincent Karega, was expelled on October 31. But the border between the two countries has not been closed, as several citizens’ associations claim. “It would be a social crime. We would run the risk of economic suffocation”warns Delliance Matata.

Also read: In DRC, President Félix Tshisekedi calls on young people to “organize into vigilante groups”

The rebellion ensures, for its part, that traffic is not completely cut off. A dozen vehicles were authorized to reach the provincial capital. “With us, the people are king”affirmed, during a meeting in Rutshuru, at the beginning of November, Willy Ngoma, the military spokesman of the M23, positioning himself as the liberator of the population.

The security escort of the governor of North Kivu province, General Constant Ndima, leaves an informal camp for displaced people fleeing the advancing M23 (March 23 Movement) rebellion in Kanyaruchinya, northern district of Goma, on last November.  2, 2022.

But in Goma, many young people now say they are ready to “serve the flag” In a speech to the nation on November 3, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi called on the population to organize in “watch groups” to defend the country. “There are already more than 2,000 who have committed themselves since the call from the Head of State”General Sylvain Ekenge, the army spokesman, said on Saturday, November 5.

Tactical withdrawal of the blue helmets

President Tshisekedi also encouraged solidarity with the displaced, who number 200,000 according to the Congolese presidency. At the gates of Goma, plastic sheets invade the fields of Kanyaruchinya. Those who fled the M23 advance are building shelters out of scrap materials. Others find shelter in existing buildings. At the Mwanza site, a local parliamentarian’s office, a wooden shack without electricity, has been transformed into a makeshift dormitory crammed into 115 families. ” We didn’t see the rebels, but we went out as a precaution.” Theodore explains.

This teacher comes from Kibumba, the last lock before Goma since the DRC armed forces left Rumangabo, one of the main military bases in the region, and former M23 headquarters in 2012. This headquarters was also abandoned by the mission United Nations peacekeeping. Nations MONUSCO, which claimed, in early November, to have operated a “tactical retreat”. An unpopular decision, especially since the blue helmets, present in the DRC since 1999, have been harshly criticized for several months for their inability to resolve the conflicts in the east of the country. 1Ahem November, a UN truck was attacked by civilians about ten kilometers from Goma.

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Highly anticipated, can Kenyan troops who should be deployed as part of an East African force turn the tide? Nairobi confirmed, on November 2, the dispatch of a contingent following the decision, in June, to create a regional force aimed at restoring peace during a summit of the East African Community. But these troops are way behind. However, since October 30 the fighting has ceased.

Are the M23 offensive and the isolation of Goma means to force Kinshasa to start talks? Officially, the DRC does not negotiate with the “enemies”. But the Congolese and Rwandan foreign ministers met again on November 5, in Luanda, within the framework of the Angolan mediation. In 2012, the promise of dialogue and international pressure convinced the rebels to liberate the city. The inhabitants hope not to see the same scenario again.

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