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In Congo, a March Behind Rebel Lines
Renegade General Compels Thousands Displaced by War to Return Home and Sing His Praises

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.

In his first in-person interview with reporters since his major advance last week, Nkunda, wearing fatigues and carrying a cane topped with a gold eagle, said he wasn't forcing people home, but welcoming them.

Saying elections are not about winning votes but delivering services, he challenged the legitimacy of Kabila, who was elected president in 2006. If Kabila refuses to negotiate, Nkunda said, he will expand his rebellion west toward the capital, Kinshasa.

In particular, he denounced a multibillion-dollar deal that gives China valuable mineral concessions in return for building roads, calling the agreement "economic colonialism."

Nkunda, who is 41 and occasionally preaches at a local Christian church, spoke in the former home of a tribal king in the town of Kichanga, reached after a muddy, seven-hour hike west from here.

He was greeted by rows of saluting soldiers and later danced outside the house with a small group of local people who came to greet him.

Nkunda said his movement was not a physical or military one, but "spiritual" in nature. He also said that the suffering his rebellion has helped to create is necessary.

"That's the cost of freedom. . . . You have to suffer sometime to be free forever," the renegade army general said, referring to the more than 200,000 people who have run for their lives, hidden in the forests and slept in the mud or in the sprawling camps of banana-leaf huts since his advance began in August.

Nkunda's rebellion is partly a result of the unresolved aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu militias who later fled into this region of neighboring Congo and never left.

To the frustration of Rwanda, the Congolese government has not followed through on promises to disarm the militias and instead has used them as a proxy force for the notoriously ill-disciplined and weak Congolese army.

Nkunda, a Tutsi who trained in the Rwandan army, began organizing his rebellion around the cause of protecting Congolese Tutsis, who include some of the wealthiest landowners and businesspeople in this region.

The Hutu militias are under the command of a core of leaders who participated in the Rwandan genocide, but the rank and file is a mishmash of much younger men and other recruits who have married and settled down in villages, making them difficult to uproot. Congolese government officials say that the Hutu militias pose no real threat and that Nkunda's -- and Rwanda's -- complaint is just an excuse to grab land and minerals.

"Nkunda is just being used by the Rwandan government so they can keep destabilizing eastern Congo," said Julien Paluku, the governor of North Kivu province, where most of the fighting has taken place. "There is no possibility of a genocide here."

Lately, Nkunda has expanded his cause, saying that he's fighting for the liberation of all Congolese people from the bonds of poverty and bad governance. He has seized the second-largest military base in this country, including weapons he says were supplied by China.

Here in Rutshuru, rebel officials meandered in and out of the town's main administration building Saturday, making themselves at home in offices full of yellowing files.

Besides taking territory in the east, Nkunda is winning over regional business and political leaders. Among those on the stage at Saturday's rally was a provincial lawmaker who had given up a $6,000-a-month salary to join the rebellion, the provincial budget and planning director and others who praised Nkunda in almost messianic terms before a crowd that was more silent than enthusiastic.

"The son who brought us peace after so much prayer will be standing before us soon," one speaker said, referring to the general, who never did show up in Rutshuru, saying he was too busy with meetings.

Among those listening to the speeches was Volvo Abiman, who fled his nearby village when fighting broke out last week between rebels and the Congolese army.

Over the years, Abiman said, he has endured occupation by various militia groups, who preyed upon villagers, taking their food, their money and even their mattresses. As Congolese soldiers retreated from rebels last week, they also looted his village.

Now that his area has been "liberated," Abiman said, he is not expecting things to be too different.

"So far they have not committed any crimes against the population," he said of the rebels. "Maybe they will do it later on."

Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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