Aimless Soldiers Plunder in Congo

Tens of thousands of refugees displaced by fighting in eastern Congo are desperate for food rations and other international aid.
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 31, 2008

GOMA, Congo, Oct. 30 -- After giving up their fight against rebel forces, Congolese soldiers resorted Thursday to shaking down residents and the tens of thousands of displaced people here for cash, cellphones and skinny chickens and goats. With this important provincial city essentially surrounded by rebels, the exhausted and now aimless government soldiers roamed the streets looking for liquor, food and money.

"Go!" one soldier yelled to another, ushering him toward a clanking, idling truck full of bananas at a checkpoint on the muddy edge of the city. "Ask them for $5. And if they don't give you $5, they cannot pass!"

The fighting in eastern Congo began in August, when renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda launched a major offensive after declaring he would "liberate" Congo. Over the past few days, his forces fought their way closer to Goma, reaching the city Wednesday.

The conflict has many interconnected causes: There are the Hutu militias, including many fighters who fled to eastern Congo after participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered. The militias were never disarmed and settled into lives in the eastern forests. They have become a cause for Nkunda, who has close ties to Rwanda and casts himself as a protector of Tutsis.

A mad scramble for minerals has also helped fuel a thriving business in private militias that guard mines.

And then there is the Congolese army, a notoriously underpaid, ill-equipped and poorly trained force that has proved unable to provide security and deal with the complex task of disarming the Hutu militias, much less handle Nkunda's well-organized rebellion. Instead of guarding the city, some soldiers spent Wednesday night looting. Fire from machine guns overnight apparently came from soldiers who had turned their weapons on civilians.

In one lantern-lit neighborhood of wood-slat houses, two soldiers went door to door asking for dollars and cellphones, shooting one boy when he refused, according to residents of the neighborhood. After robbing several houses, the men ordered three residents -- a doctor and two women -- into an empty house and shot them.

"They slept in the room where they killed those people," said Claudine Ndakola, 19, whose aunt was one of those killed. "I don't have any idea why."

Thursday morning, streets were mostly empty as the police and soldiers drove around with megaphones telling people it was safe enough for them to return to work. But the looting continued, with doctors at one hospital forced to fight off soldiers attempting to steal an ambulance.

There were heroes, here and there, for instance the lone soldier who ordered another's arrest for trying to steal a chicken from a woman who had been chased from her home. The soldier argued with other troops, who did not want to carry out the arrest.

In the crowds milling in the streets near shuttered shops, some people said they did not know who would protect them.

"The population is protecting itself," said Richard Bulambo, 29, a medical student who was helping watch over some shops to prevent looting. "There is no security."

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