By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 25, 2009
MINOVA, Congo -- A Congolese military operation against Rwandan rebels who have caused years of conflict in eastern Congo is unleashing fresh horrors across this region's rolling green hills.
The mission, backed logistically by U.N. peacekeepers and politically by the United States, aims to disband the remaining 7,000 or so Rwandan Hutu rebels who fled into eastern Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
But since the operation began in January, villagers have recounted nightmarish stories that raise questions about whether the military action will ultimately cause more destruction than it prevents.
At least half a million people have fled a rebel campaign of village burnings and retaliatory killings, including a massacre of more than 100 people in which several civilians were decapitated. At the same time, people are also fleeing the advance of their own predatory army -- a toxic mishmash of mostly unpaid, underfed, ill-trained former militiamen churned into the military after various peace deals.
According to an army spokesman, the deputy to the commander in charge of the operation is an ex-militia leader and wanted war crimes suspect known as the Terminator. Villagers say soldiers are killing people accused of collaborating with the rebels. And in scenes that conjure the brutalities of Belgian colonial rule, commanders are forcing locals to carry supplies across the forest, killing those who collapse from exhaustion.
"Pastors, teachers, students, everyone must carry, and not for one day, for weeks," said Kalinda Hangi, a former teacher who has filled a notebook with names of people killed by the rebels and the army in his area. "They make you build their tents, take water -- if you don't obey, they kill you."
In its mission, the army is being supported by trucks, food, attack helicopters and other equipment provided by the U.N. peacekeepers, but the cooperation has spawned criticism.
Humanitarian workers say the operation has paralyzed assistance to the newly displaced, and a U.N. interagency committee last month described "a fundamental conflict" between the U.N. support of the army and the world body's mandate to protect civilians.
"This operation is definitely doing more harm than good," said Julien Attakla, who heads the U.N. human rights section in North Kivu province, where the operation has been centered. The rebels "have never been as dangerous to the population as they are now. And the Congolese army -- what are the chances of them carrying out a successful operation? They are looting houses, looting farms, raping everywhere, using forced labor -- that's the real face of this operation."Preying on Villagers
Diplomats from the United Nations, United States, Europe and especially neighboring Rwanda have pressured Congo for years to act against the Hutu rebels, who are known as the FDLR (Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda) and include leaders accused of helping organize Rwanda's genocide.
Although they are no longer considered an immediate threat to the Rwandan government, the rebels have in the past collaborated with the Congolese army, sharing weapons and fighting against common enemies. The rebels have set up parallel administrations in many areas, preying on villagers and controlling much of the region's lucrative mineral trade.
Their presence has prompted Rwanda to invade Congo twice and to back two Congolese rebel movements, fueling a complex conflict that has become the deadliest since World War II. By some estimates, the fighting and related turmoil have left at least 5 million people dead over the past decade.
U.S. and U.N. officials say the operation -- initially supported by thousands of Rwandan soldiers -- is a crucial part of a wider political and economic deal to mend the destructive relationship between Rwanda and Congo and return stability to Congo's long-suffering east. They say the operation has forced hundreds of rebels to desert, disrupted their command and weakened their hold on the mineral trade, though analysts dispute the latter two gains.
Top U.N. officials say that if they were not cooperating with the army, human rights abuses would be worse.
"We've been mandated to support this army, and we are trying to the best of our ability to improve their performance and protect civilians," said Hiroute Guebre Sellassie, head of the U.N. office in North Kivu province. "Our coordination with the army has helped us control the damage."'Our Bullets Are Finished'
Still, there have been dozens of rebel attacks since the operation began, many advertised in advance by rebels who have left leaflets in villages promising death to anyone who helps the army. The most brutal attack came last month in the village of Busurungi, where at least 100 people were massacred, according to several survivors.
The army had taken up position in the formerly rebel-held village, but most of those soldiers had moved on by the time the rebels arrived one night. A few militiamen tried to fight back but ran out of ammunition.
"They called us civilians and said, 'Our bullets are finished, try to run,' " said Angelus Bahavu, secretary to a traditional king in the area.
As he ran, he saw rebels force screaming women and children back into their huts, which they set on fire. Rebels guarded the doors to prevent anyone from escaping, he and others said. The rebels slammed babies against trees, and people fleeing were killed with arrows, machetes and guns. And in a tactic aimed at terrorizing those who might cooperate with the army, rebels decapitated several people, whose heads were placed on tree branches planted at the entrance to the village.
"They told people, 'You are bringing these troops to hunt us, now we will hunt you,' " said Bahavu, who eventually made his way to a sprawling camp of banana-leaf huts.
The rebels "are clearly pursuing a strategy of reprisal attacks against civilians," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher with the group Human Rights Watch, which has documented more than 300 reprisal killings, a number she described as probably only "the tip of the iceberg."
Although less is known about the army's tactics, villagers said the Busurungi massacre was payback for an army massacre of rebels and their families in a nearby village.
Soldiers are looting farms and markets, and rape cases are rising in areas in which they are deployed, according to aid workers. Forced labor is becoming common.
Inaye Mifuti, 27, said soldiers forced him to haul ammunition and a sack of salt for a week. He escaped, only to meet a second group of soldiers who ordered him to join a weary line of conscripted porters.
"I said: 'No, I've been carrying. I'm tired,' " he said. "When I answered like that, they started hitting me with the knife attached to the gun."
Mifuti, who now lives in the camp and wears a scarf over his ruined left eye, said he saw soldiers force 20 primary school students and their principal into slavery. When the principal got tired of working, Mifuti said, "they killed him with a knife."
A spokesman for the Congolese army, Col. Seraphin Mirindi, said the army is stepping up efforts to prosecute such abuses.
But he defended the participation in the operation of Bosco Ntaganda, the man known as the Terminator, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for allegedly conscripting child soldiers and is separately accused of commanding militiamen who killed at least 800 civilians in 2002.
"In Congo, there are general interests and particular interests," Mirindi said.
"The peace is a general interest in Congo. Bosco is a particular interest. For now, we are arresting people who are committing crimes during this operation. For the rest, after this war, there will be time to act," Mirindi added.