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Fresh Nightmares in Congo's Drive Against Rwandans

Villagers Describe Atrocities on Both Sides of Conflict

Kanyabayonga has been attacked several times in recent months by Rwandan Hutu militias known as the FDLR. Locals claim they burned at least 70 houses here on June 10th. Video by Miguel Juarez for The Washington Post
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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.

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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.

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