In Congo, a March Behind Rebel Lines

A ceasefire has allowed a U.N. aid convoy to make its first delivery of humanitarian aid in eastern Congo since fighting broke out in August. Video by AP
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

RUTSHURU, Congo, Nov. 3 -- On Saturday morning, Congolese rebels drove through the muddy streets of this provincial town in eastern Congo, telling war-weary residents it was time they showed appreciation for their new leaders, the National Congress for the Defense of the People. It was unclear whether the rebels were offering much choice.

By noon, a raggedy parade of a few hundred people -- most of whom had fled the fighting here last week and only just returned home -- were shuffling behind a brass band blaring a rebel anthem. Children held up signs, most made from the same paper, with the same handwriting and the same slogan: "We are happy with CNDP," the rebel group's French initials.

"The soldiers came and announced for civilians to march," said one grim-faced man who declined to give his name. "People here are still afraid."

Having seized vast new swaths of eastern Congo, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda is embarking on a new phase of his campaign to "liberate" this mineral-rich central African nation the size of Western Europe. U.N. officials, aid workers and others here say he is forcing tens of thousands of displaced people to return to their homes behind rebel lines, where a kind of indoctrination is now underway as Nkunda seeks to expand his political base.

Massive camps that used to house thousands near here have been emptied and burned to the ground, according to U.N. officials who have described the humanitarian situation as "catastrophic."

The escalating tensions between the government and Nkunda, who has close ties to Rwanda, have drawn the attention of U.S. and European officials. On Monday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would meet with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame as early as this weekend.

Ban said Monday that Kabila had indicated a willingness to heed Nkunda's request for direct talks. Nkunda has rejected a January peace deal that Western diplomats are still pushing as the basis for a resolution to the crisis.

Meanwhile, Nkunda is trying to exploit the lack of security he helped to create, urging people to return to areas now under his control.

"As you can see, this place is just peaceful," said Oscar Balinda, who described himself as a deputy foreign relations official in Nkunda's movement. He was sitting comfortably in an office that once belonged to provincial officials.

"The people of Rutshuru, they are grateful for the peace we've brought here," he said, adding that the rebels want aid groups to help people restart their lives, but not in camps. "We want to stabilize people in their places."

The parade here Saturday ended at a half-wrecked stadium, where tribal, political and military leaders who had recently joined Nkunda's movement gave speeches and sang the CNDP anthem to the crowd, who did not join in.

"Clap hands! Clap hands!" the emcee said, and after a pause, people began clapping.

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