In Congo, Fresh Anxieties

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 1, 2009

NYAMILIMA, Congo -- By late afternoon, an unusual delegation of Congolese and Rwandan army officials, ex-rebel lieutenants, spear-carrying militiamen and shiny-shoed politicians had arrived at this dirt-road village in a dusty convoy -- a kind of roadshow aimed at explaining perhaps the most improbable twist yet in the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Stepping onto a stage, a politician told a gathering crowd of an extraordinary deal between Congo and Rwanda that has suddenly made friends of enemies and enemies of friends, bringing 7,000 Rwandan troops to Congo for a potentially ruthless joint military operation.

"Aren't you happy?" the politician shouted at the villagers, who mostly stared, seeming to calculate what fresh calamity or possible hope the operation might imply. "Can't you clap? The president of the republic has decided to end the war!"

On paper, the Congolese-Rwandan operation aims to disarm an estimated 6,500 Rwandan Hutu militiamen who fled into eastern Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide and have wreaked havoc ever since.

The operation is part of the wide-ranging military, political and economic deal between Congo and Rwanda, which represents a significant rapprochement between the two countries and offers the prospect of finally sorting out a conflict that by some estimates has killed 5 million people over the past decade.

As part of the deal, Rwanda agreed to pull the plug on its proxy, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, whose advance across eastern Congo last year displaced at least 250,000 people and posed a serious political threat to President Joseph Kabila.

Congo, in turn, agreed to allow Rwandan troops in to fight the Hutu militias, whose leaders allegedly participated in the genocide and are now entrenched in lucrative mining businesses in the east. Rwanda also has enormous economic interests in eastern Congo.

In villages across these green hills, however, there are signs that the joint operation will be messy and brutal.

Human rights groups have warned that the operation could easily degenerate into a bloodbath for civilians around villages such as Nyamilima. Most people here are from the same ethnic group as the Hutu militiamen known as the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, or FDLR, and many have married and had children with them. An estimated 15,000 women and children live with the fighters in villages or camps in the bush. And one of the operation's top Congolese commanders, known as the Terminator, is wanted on war-crimes charges.

Then there is the almost zany task of cobbling together the joint operation itself. That entails mixing Rwandan soldiers with the Congolese soldiers who once fought them, with the rebels who were fighting the Congolese, with the ragtag militias that were fighting the rebels -- and the entire operation is targeting a group the Congolese army has collaborated with for years.

All has not gone smoothly so far.

In the past week, a key Nkunda commander failed to show up for a ceremony at one camp to integrate hundreds of his men into the Congolese army. At another camp, a few dozen tents set up to receive the rebels remained empty.

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