It's pouring rain at the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda and the volcanoes are swathed in clouds. The Congolese national flag hangs dripping wet from a rotted-out flagpole. Half-finished wooden barracks squat next to the deserted customs station, "Police Nationale" is written above the entrance in white letters. The police, however, gave up this border post months ago.
Instead, heavily-armed militiamen jump down from the bed of a truck mired in the mud behind the toll barrier. A man in sunglasses and a Nike cap steps out of the truck and laughs: "Welcome to the DRC." Diendonné Rukara is the leader of a rebel group here in the border village of Bunagana, and when he speaks the name of this massive central African nation, it sounds more like a mockery. Fighting between the rebels and government troops in the eastern provinces has shown once again that this country is neither democratic nor a republic. But it is, nonetheless, still Congo.
Over the past few weeks, around 7,000 Congolese have crossed this border post, continuing up through the mountains into Uganda. Then suddenly, the flow of refugees dried up. In recent days, the border has been crossed in the opposite direction, as Ugandan women bring bananas to sell at the Bunagana market. "We've restored security," Rukara, 35, boasts. The former lawyer points to the young men toting AK-47s as they search the mud huts for their enemies, who are allegedly hiding among the local population. "National Congress for the Defense of the People" (CNDP) is the name of the rebel unit led by Laurent Nkunda, a renegade former general with the national army who is a member of the Tutsi ethnic minority and is thought to have close ties with the Rwandan government.
'The Rebels Are More Disciplined'
It seems that from the locals' point of view, the claim of restored security is not far off the mark. The market women wave and Rigobert, an 18-year-old selling bamboo shoots, nods at the rebels. Close to finishing high school, Rigobert is pleased to point out that "the school is open again" since the rebels took over. After he graduates, Rigobert wants to go to university. An old man nearby smiles underneath his slouch hat. Seleste Mahinda has experienced many wars in his lifetime -- and the situation is better now, he says. "The army scared us, but the rebels are more disciplined."
Lieutenant Manasseh Nkundima, 22, is one of those rebels. He tosses a backpack onto the truck bed, a single sack containing all of his belongings. He no longer has a home, since his parents emigrated to the United States five years ago. But Nkundima stayed in the Congo. "I can't just leave my country," he says. He swings himself easily up onto the truck bed, among bunches of bananas and anti-tank rockets, and grabs hold of his grenade launcher. His group captured the dirt road linking Bunagana to the provincial capital Rutshuru, just days ago.
All down the muddy road, people seem to be going about their lives again, at least as well as they can in this war-torn country. Children in rags with bloated stomachs play in the dirt, women peel potatoes and a man lies drunk in the roadside ditch. "Banana beer," Nkundima says, and rolls his eyes. There are many in the Congo who see alcohol and drugs as their only escape.
Thousands of Refugees
Yet there are also people who profit from the chaos. Robert, who doesn't want to give his surname, is among them. Fifty years old and a fan of the German soccer team Bayern-Munich, he honks his car's horn to greet the rebel posts along the road. Then he points out his cattle herd, in front of a large house behind barbed wire. He was a commander in the CNDP for three years, but then found his business dealings to be more lucrative. He doesn't want to reveal how much he makes from "the kind of business that happens at the border."
In Rutshuru, Robert speeds to the top of a hill, where the city's administration sits enthroned in a colonial villa behind a freshly painted garden fence. What looks like a police unit is lounging in front of the building -- in reality, these are rebels who simply donned the blue uniforms they found in the barracks.
Robert greets the mayor with a handshake. "CNDP too," he winks. After the rebels chased government troops out of Rutshuru last week, they appointed Jules Simpeze Banga to govern the city. He has a beer belly and a T-shirt that reads "Papa," a title reserved in the Congo for tribal leaders. From his hill he can observe the crowds of people below, where thousands of refugees have poured into the city due to continued fighting just nine kilometers (five and a half miles) to the north. "Once we've taken care of all the people carrying arms, we need to see about clean water," he sighs. Cholera is breaking out.
Banga doesn't come off as a plundering guerilla fighter. He describes the CNDP as a liberation movement: "The international community has invested billions in our country. But nothing has reached the people here in the east." He blames the government troops, saying they maltreat the Congolese people. And Banga's demands for President Joseph Kabila are clear: the CNDP wants direct negotiations with the government. "Otherwise we'll bring the war to Kinshasa," he warns.
Danger of Another Genocide?
Kinshasa, the capital, is over 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away, but Kabila has reason to take this threat seriously. The Congolese government calls the CNDP a puppet of the Rwandan government, the majority of which are ethnic Tutsis. And indeed Nkunda, the tall, lean rebel leader here in eastern Congo, looks like he could be Rwandan President Paul Kagame's cousin.
Nkunda, in turn, accuses the Congolese army of collaborating with the Hutu militia, which was responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Militia members fled to the Congo when Kagame and his liberation army, based out of Uganda, overthrew the Hutu government.
Its easy, at first glance, to call this conflict a war between Hutus and Tutsis. The rebels are accused of ethnic cleansing when they comb local houses in their search for enemies. The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has already warned of the danger of another genocide like the one in Rwanda in 1994. On Saturday the United Nations accused different armed groups of carrying out "war crimes" after it was discovered that civilians had been killed in the town of Kiwanja, near Rutshuru.
Banga rejects the accusations: "Always the same story," he groans. This war is not about Hutus or Tutsis, Banga says. He himself is a Hutu, and says Hutus and Tutsi are fighting side by side within the rebel units.
In a conflict like this one in the Congo, where it's every person for him or herself and the reasons for the atrocities change almost daily, such an explanation would be far too easy.