Faction Uproots Thousands in Congo

At least 100,000 people have been displaced by recent fighting in Eastern Congo, with villagers fleeing into camps such as this one in Goma.
At least 100,000 people have been displaced by recent fighting in Eastern Congo, with villagers fleeing into camps such as this one in Goma. (Photos By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 15, 2007

GOMA, Congo, July 14 -- At least 100,000 people have been displaced in the volatile eastern region of Congo since January, when the government and a powerful renegade general agreed to combine their troops in an attempt to pacify the area, according to a U.N. Security Council report released Saturday.

Instead of diminishing the power of Gen. Laurent Nkunda, the process has strengthened his position and led to more violence, according to the report and interviews here. The report called the situation "disastrous."

The general's troops are now spread over a wider area, and though in theory they are under government command, they remain loyal to Nkunda, a fierce, charismatic military leader with close ties to neighboring Rwanda.

The failure of the so-called "mixage" process is a serious setback for this vast country, which last year held its first multiparty elections in more than four decades and is struggling to pull out of more than 10 years of a civil war that has left an estimated 4 million people dead, many from hunger and disease.

Though a peace agreement was signed in 2004, militia groups have remained active in eastern Congo, and attempts to return the fighters to civilian life or integrate them into the regular army have had only marginal success. The top U.N. official in Congo has called this latest attempt to integrate Nkunda's troops a failure, and the report said the move has destabilized the region.

Instead of forcing the general's troops into the regular integration process, in which former militias are deployed to other parts of the country, the government agreed to allow them to stay in place in the east under a joint command, with one officer from Nkunda's forces and one from the government.

Over the past six months, however, Nkunda's faction has carried out military campaigns in villages in the North Kivu province of eastern Congo, killing unknown numbers of civilians and driving thousands from their homes.

Nkunda has said his intention is to protect Congo's Tutsi minority by fighting Hutu militias who committed the 1994 Rwandan genocide and fled en masse to Congo. Villagers caught up in the recent fighting, however, say the killing has been indiscriminate.

"Nkunda's men come to attack the Interahamwe," said Ngulu Shakatwa, 43, referring to the Hutu militias from Rwanda. "But it is us, the population, who are the victims. The Interahamwe run away, and we stay, and when Nkunda's troops find us there, they kill us. They loot everything, and they burn down our houses."

Shakatwa and more than 2,000 others who fled their villages are living here in a camp of banana-leaf huts that sprawl across a stretch of inhospitable land. He said that before attacking, Nkunda's troops often accuse villagers of supporting the Interahamwe.

In the past, Rwanda has used Nkunda to fight the Hutu militias, but he says he is no longer supported by that country.

According to the U.N. report, Congolese President Joseph Kabila is interested in finding a political solution to the Nkunda problem but has not ruled out a military one.

The United Nations, which operates its largest and most expensive mission in Congo, has recently begun deploying more troops to the eastern region.

The Congolese government is also preparing to deploy thousands more troops to the east, and a top military official is considering whether to impose a deadline for Nkunda's troops to join the regular army through the normal integration process, a U.N. official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Analysts here said that such a deadline could touch off another major episode of fighting between Nkunda's troops and the Congolese army.

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