Driven by Greed and Hatred: A Rebel Group's Quest to 'Liberate' Congo

By Jan Puhl and Thilo Thielke

The rebel group M23 wants to overthrow the government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At issue is the mineral coltan, which is used in mobile phones. The conflict could end up breaking the country apart.

Photo Gallery: Unrest in Congo Photos
AP

Wearing a freshly pressed uniform, the victor stood on a grandstand above the penalty box in the football stadium in Goma, as thousands listened below. After his rebel group M23 had driven the last government soldiers out of Goma with mortars and machine guns last Tuesday, the men marched through the city singing, their ammunition belts slung casually across their torsos.

"You have nothing to fear," Colonel Jean Marie Vianney Kazarama told the crowd in the stadium the next day. "Work together with us and help us, and everything will be fine."

The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been embroiled in war for the last decade and a half with rebels and government soldiers alike going on murderous rampages through the forested hills of the North Kivu and South Kivu provinces. The conflicts are partly triggered by the enmity between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, and partly by competition over land, natural resources, mines and a lot of money.

But this time many things seem different. The M23 rebels are trying to gain the support of the local population. They are portraying themselves as a peacekeeping power that will finally bring calm and security to the region. For them, the important eastern city of Goma is the bridgehead from which they intend to capture the entire country. But if the group doesn't succeed, Congo could very well split apart.

Bitterly Poor Despite Resources

"The journey to liberate Congo has begun," Kazarama proclaimed at the stadium. "Are you prepared to follow us?" He plans to capture the cities of Bukavu and Kisangani and, finally, the capital Kinshasa, where he aims to depose President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power for 12 years.

The rebels will have to fight their way through 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) of jungle to reach the capital, which could take weeks or even months. But their prospects -- at least until this Tuesday, when there were conflicting reports that they would withdraw from Goma in response to demands from the African Union -- have recently seemed better than ever. The loss of Goma was a severe military setback for Kabila, whose power is also waning in the rest of the country.

In many places, people are demonstrating in the streets against the government. They hold Kabila responsible for the failures in Congo. The country, almost as large as Western Europe, is rich in natural resources, and yet it remains bitterly poor. Roads and railway lines have been destroyed, schools and universities are in miserable condition, and the army is a dilapidated mess, responsible for as many crimes as its opponents.

"Come join us," Kazarama said on Wednesday, in an appeal to soldiers in the regular army. "The government hasn't even paid you in a long time." There was a spot next to the platform where government soldiers and police officers who had decided to defect could deposit their weapons. As Kazarama spoke, the pile of weapons grew to impressive proportions: Kalashnikovs, pistols, grenade launchers, the entire arsenal of cheap guns with which Africa's dirty wars are usually waged.

Kazarama's people have promised all defectors that they will be fed and rearmed in training camps. By the end of last week, some 3,000 deserters had reportedly joined the rebels. If this continues, the president could very well lose his office and his life.

A 'Weak and Despised President

The soldiers who remain loyal to the president despite their defeat have withdrawn. They are transported along the bumpy, potholed dirt roads in the Kivu region in old Chinese trucks. They crouch on the truck beds, their uniforms torn, their bazookas rusty and their eyes red and swollen from drinking Primus beer.

Shots can be heard here and there as they pass through Beni, a city north of Goma. Local residents don't leave their mud huts, knowing full well how dangerous a defeated, frustrated and inebriated group of marauding soldiers can be.

A few brave souls had announced two demonstrations in Beni on Thursday morning. One group wanted to take to the streets against the M23 offensive, while the other intended to protest against the incompetent Kinshasa government. As a precaution the mayor, who is still siding with the government, forbade both protests. Instead, he sent his police force, dressed in gray uniforms and heavily armed, to patrol the dusty streets.

Nicaise Kibel Bel Oka stares out at the withdrawing soldiers through the barred windows of his office. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper Les Coulisses is living a particularly dangerous life at the moment. He and his staff of 11 journalists have often sharply criticized both the government and the rebels in his newspaper, earning him American broadcaster CNN's Free Press Award Africa in 2009.

Kibel Bel Oka is also a hero for the citizens of Beni. "Kabila is weak and despised among the population," he says. "He's corrupt and incompetent. How is he supposed to govern this country if even his army is turning its back on him?" Kabila's biggest sin, says Kibel Bel Oka, is that he did nothing to curb Rwanda's influence in Congo.

Deadly Greed

Congo's tragedy began in Rwanda, its neighbor to the east, a country with a strong military and an authoritarian government. In 1994, Hutu militias began attacking members of the Tutsi ethnic group, killing about 800,000 people in only 100 days. This genocide is Central Africa's original catastrophe.

A Tutsi army under current Rwandan President Paul Kagame drove the Hutu killers to the west and into the Congo jungles. With support from Uganda, the Rwandan army pursued the militias into Congo. The official justification for the incursion into Congolese territory was to protect Tutsi living in Congo.

But once they were in Congo, Rwandan troops joined forces with Congolese rebels and advanced to Kinshasa, where they overthrew dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Laurent Désiré Kabila, the father of the current president, was named president in his place.

But this didn't lead to peace, as the fighting continued between militias and government troops in eastern Congo. It was the beginning of a grueling civil war that has no winners, fueled by ethnic hatred and, most of all, by deadly greed. Eastern Congo is rich in minerals like coltan, which is used in mobile phones.

In fact, most of the world's coltan reserves are in eastern Congo. Militias forced villagers to work in the mines, where they scratch the coltan out of the earth with picks and shovels. The ore is then shipped to China and South Korea via Uganda and Rwanda.

It is hard to recognize any political objectives among the parties to the conflict, which in fact revolves around control of the mines -- a ticket to wealth. War has become part of everyday life, with the local population paying the price. Five years ago, aid organizations estimated the death toll at about 1,000 a day.

Congo in Danger of Being Destroyed

Even after officially withdrawing its troops, Rwanda remained involved, supporting various rebel groups with weapons, money and logistics. In 2006, Rwanda cooperated with the rebel group headed by General Laurent Nkunda, whose troops went on a terrible rampage -- a charge Rwanda denies to this day. International pressure eventually forced Rwanda to withdraw its support for Nkunda. He was arrested and, following a peace treaty in 2009, his troops were absorbed into the Congolese army.

Last spring, however, several hundred former Nkunda men, include those who had been accused of war crimes, deserted. They established the M23 group in the jungle, naming it after the date of the peace treaty, March 23, 2009. The core group consists of no more than 1,500 men, although no one knows the exact number. In any case, it is too weak to capture Kinshasa, which is why Kazarama is courting deserters from the regular army.

M23 maintains a camp on the border with Rwanda, and many of its members were probably trained in the neighboring country. Rwanda secretly supports the rebels, supplying them with weapons, uniforms, radios and navigation equipment.

But the evidence of Rwanda's warmongering is so clear that the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany drastically cut development aid to Rwanda last summer. It was a first, because after the 1994 genocide the Rwandans were able to rely on the West's guilty feelings and were given generous reconstruction aid.

Editor-in-chief Kibel Bel Oka still doubts that the M23 rebels' march to Kinshasa will succeed, saying that it is too far, too dangerous and a logistically difficult proposition. The real threat in Kibel Bel Oka's view is that the country will break apart. While the weakened central government will hold the western portion of the country, M23 could take control of the mineral-rich east. "Rwanda would have achieved its goal. But we don't want that," he says.

There is only one problem: Rebels and regimes have never been concerned about what the Congolese want.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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