Congolese deal with M23 rebel violence

BENI – Kavira Mathe was preparing dinner for her two sons when bullets started flying. M23 rebels in eastern Congo had attacked their village, killing scores of civilians. She and others fled for their lives, she said.

“I’ve lost several friends,” Mathe told The Associated Press over the phone from Kanyabayonga, where she is now seeking refuge. She hiked 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) to safety and saw roads littered with bodies that appeared to have been tied up and shot, she said.

“It was really horrible to see,” Mathe said. “We’re sick of this war.”

Communities in eastern Congo are struggling to survive after this and other massacres that have left at least 130 people dead by M23 rebels in what the UN has described as “unspeakable violence” against civilians.

According to the UN refugee agency, nearly 26,000 people have been displaced since the attacks in late November, adding to hundreds of thousands who have been uprooted since fighting between the M23 and a coalition of armed civil defense militias began more than a year ago.

The Associated Press spoke to four people who fled the attacks in North Kivu province. They said M23s shot people indiscriminately, raided businesses and chased them from their homes, leaving people trekking for hours to safety across rough terrain and through rivers without food or water. Many now live in deplorable conditions, cooped up in small spaces with no money or access to fields for farming.

The M23 rebel group, made up largely of Congolese ethnic Tutsi, rose to prominence 10 years ago when their fighters captured Goma, the largest city in eastern Congo bordering Rwanda. She derives her name from a peace agreement of March 23, 2009, which she accuses the Congolese government of not having implemented. The rebel group was dormant for nearly a decade before resurfacing late last year.

Since October, M23 violence has increased and the rebels have seized more areas, including Rutshuru Center and Kiwanja, and destroyed a newly constructed site for displaced Congolese recently returned from Uganda.

“This situation has directly brought thousands of families into very poor living conditions. In the makeshift camps they live in there is no food, no shelter, no drinking water, no basic medical care. In short, families are suffering unprecedented suffering,” said Francois Kamate, spokesman for LUCHA, a local human rights group.

Aid organizations are struggling to cope with the increasing need. In the areas around Goma, water is extremely limited, contributing to an outbreak of cholera. More than 100 cases have been reported in recent weeks, said Caitlin Brady, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Congo.

“The humanitarian community is responding, but we need more resources to scale up,” she said. The nearly 400,000 newly displaced people since October are in addition to nearly 5.5 million people already displaced in Congo, and the situation is quite desperate, she said.

Many civilians living under M23 are not receiving any assistance at all as some of the areas are too difficult to access due to the insecurity. Those living among the rebels say they live in terror.

“The situation is very bad. People are being killed,” said a resident of Rutshuru Center, a town now occupied by the group. The AP does not use its name to protect its identity. People live in fear and the rebels are demanding food and money, he said. M23 also beats and jails those taking photos in the city because they are concerned people will leak information, he said.

Efforts to hold peace talks have yielded little so far. Both sides accuse each other of violating a fragile ceasefire agreed in Angola last month. This week, M23 officials met with regional leaders, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo and the Congolese army and said they welcome efforts to resolve the conflict, Lawrence Kanyuka, the group’s political spokesman, said in a statement.

The Congolese government has accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 with troops and superior firepower, findings backed by the UN. In a speech to the country this week, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi called on the international community not to do enough to contain the fighting.

“The East is plagued by violence because of the presence of many armed groups in almost complete indifference to the international community,” he said.

Continued external support for the rebels, compounded by escalating violence, could threaten regional stability, conflict analysts say.

“The militia problem in Congo has increasingly become a powerful regional security threat,” said Trupti Agrawal, senior analyst for East Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “The rebel groups’ ability to escalate attacks despite ramping up counterinsurgency operations shows their strength.”


Mednick reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press reporter Jean-Yves Kamale contributed from Kinshasa.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Congolese deal with M23 rebel violence

Sarah Y. Kim

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