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D.R. Congo: Confusion Reigns in Goma

Two months ago fighting resumed in the DR Congo's Eastern province of North Kivu between the rebel group led by Laurent Nkunda and government forces, in violation of a peace accord signed in January. As many as 250,000 people have been displaced since the violent conflict re-ignited in August, bringing the region's total displacement figure to over 2 million. Mobs of angry civilians have been attacking UN offices in Goma, North Kivu's provincial capital, infuriated that the UN hasn't been able to protect them.

Fred R. at Extra-Extra gives some background to understand the population's frustration:

… the task [of bringing peace and security by ending the plague of foreign armed groups and local militias] fell to cautious, over-stretched UN forces and a corrupt, inept national army barely that was composed of former warring factions. With the huge country split into myriad, inaccessible local enclaves, it was never going to be easy to resolve all the problems of corruption, mismanagement, inter-ethnic rivalries and power struggles. But the immediate post-election period offered a real window of opportunity for the new government to unite the country behind a clear vision and (with UN support) determined backing for the rule of law. They blew it.

Mark Leon Goldberg at the UN Dispatch comments on the population's frustration towards the UN:

Local's are understandably upset that the peacekeeping force had not done enough to stall the rebel advance. Protests outside the UN compound turned violent earlier this week as residents of Goma hurled rocks at the compound in frustration. Unfortunately, the peacekeeping mission cannot repel this attack without reinforcement.

It needs help. Fast.

Fred's post offers a detailed recent background on the situation in North Kivu. Michelle F. at the Stop Genocide blog offers a breakdown of the “alphabet soup of armed elements” in the DRC for those confused about the actors in this conflict:

-General Laurent Nkunda and his Congres National pour la Defense du Peuple (CNDP) claim to fight for the protection of the Congolese Tutsi population from the DRC's most uninvited and unwelcome guests,

-The Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), or Interahamwe, the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, who set up shop in the eastern DRC following their reign of terror in their own country. The FDLR's ranks now include a substantial number of Congolese recruits, including chidlren.

-The Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), the Armed Forces of the DRC, past masters of doing everything a national army is not supposed to do, and

-MONUC, the United Nations Mission to the DRC, which, as Michael described, is currently under attack by civilians angered over the force's inability to offer protection. Refugees International describes MONUC's rock-and-a-hard-place here.

Four days ago the CNDP rebels seized a major military camp at Rumangabo as well as the headquarters of the 3,000 square mile (7,800 square kilometer) Virunga National Park that is home to 200 of the 700 endangered mountain gorillas in the world. The rebels have used the park as a base but had never seized its headquarters before. The director of the park, Emmanuel de Merode, wrote about the events on Sunday at the official Virunga Park blog:

Fighting [..] has now totally engulfed the park station and our Rangers have been forced to flee into the forests for their lives. The rebels now are the only occupants of the park station at Rumangabo. This has never happened before.

This is a serious time. We need to get our 50+ Rangers back to safety in Goma, 45km south of Rumangabo. The main road is blocked because of the fighting so they are walking through the forests of the park south, to Kibumba, about 20km away, where we aim to pick them up in trucks. We are trying to maintain phone contact but they don’t have much battery life in their phones.

Two days later, 12 of the 53 rangers that had to flee into the forest were rescued and brought to Goma. Innocent Mburanumwe described how tired, thirsty and hungry they were when the Goma team found them:

The Rangers started off on Sunday at 9am as a group of 14 – and also with 4 members of the military who were also fleeing the rebels. They walked through the park, often trying to emerge onto the road, but heard many bombs and mortars and so had to go back into the forest. With no water they tried licking rocks to quench their thirst, and also tried sucking up the moisture from the mud, by putting a piece of clothing between their mouth and the moist mud.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson of the CNDP announced a unilateral ceasefire, although the situation on the ground in Goma remains chaotic. As Kate Cronin-Furman from the blog Wronging Rights points out, “everyone seems to be preparing for war anyway, probably on account of Nkunda's previously-demonstrated questionable grasp of the word cease-fire.”

Samantha Newport writes about the confusion on the Virunga Park blog:

It’s total chaos in Goma. I am being told, through various phone calls and text messages, that the army have now laid down their weapons at Kibumba, 12 miles north of Goma, and are fleeing the rebels. In other words they have totally given up.
[..]
The governor of North Kivu has apparently also left town.

Now there is only the UN peacekeeping forces stopping Nkunda’s rebels from taking Goma.

There is lots and lots of speculation right now – and panic.

On another post at the Virunga Park blog, Emmanuel de Merode also writes about the confusion reigning in Goma:

Confusion is probably the only way to describe the situation. There is a lot of shooting in town, with some heavy weapons further away. Everyone is staying at home. There has been some looting, mainly armed men stealing cars and motorbikes. Laurent Nkunda made a statement on television and radio announcing a unilateral cease-fire, which is encouraging, but unfortunately does not translate into a peaceful evening.

We’ve suffered a barrage of rumours including the invasion of the Rwandan army, Angolan mercenaries coming in from the west, just about everything, none of which is terribly helpful.

This morning Samantha is giving another update on the situation, including a few photos from the compound where she's staying:

The CNDP rebels – Nkunda’s rebels – are in total control of Kiwanja and Rutshuru and have put in their own administration for the area. The national army, police and administators have all left – so a vast swathe of the province is now in CNDP control.

Innocent had an uncomfortable night. His neighbor’s house was looted by fleeing military. Fortunately Innocent, his wife and 5 kids are okay and they were not robbed.

Dawn Hurley, an American expat living in Goma, writes in her blog From Congo about the uncertainty and fear when night falls:

The night here can be a scary thing. During the day, life seems tenable in Goma. But night falls around 6:30 here and from then until morning everyone is on their own. Most people don't have cars, so they can't go anywhere after dark. And these days, even driving around in a car at night isn't recommended. Most people don't have power, so they are often sitting in small shacks with their families, praying for the best, listening to shots echo through town, and waiting for daylight. There is no 911 to call if you have a problem. At best people call their friends, who have little to offer, other than a voice on the other end of the line.

Colette Braeckman, a Belgian journalist and author of several books on Central Africa, reproduces in her blog [Fr] the account of Dunia Ruyenzi, a human rights activist in Goma:

Nous avons passé la nuit enfermés, des coups de feu retentissaient partout. On parlait de militaires congolais mais il y avait aussi, j’en suis sûr, des infiltrés envoyés par Nkunda afin d’accentuer la panique. Certains étaient aussi là pour chercher l’argent et ils ont tué trois personnes. Ils intimident aussi la MONUC et tirent sur ses avions. Malgré cela l’aéroport n’est pas pris et les appareils peuvent se poser. Les prisons débordent de gens qui ont été arrêtées par la police et l’armée. Nous essayons de faire la liste des prisonniers, de les retrouver dans les cachots. Les soldats gouvernementaux n’ont pas tous fui, certains se battent encore du côté de Rutshuru…

We spent the night locked up, gunshots resounding everywhere. The Congolese army was blamed but there were also, I'm certain, soldiers infiltrated by Nkunda in order to raise the panic. Some of them were here also looking for money and they killed three people. They intimidate MONUC as well and they shoot their plances. In spite of this the airport hasn't been taken and the aircrafts can land. The prisons are bursting with people that have been detained by the police and the army. We are trying to make a list of the prisoners, to find them in the dungeons. The government soldiers haven't all fled, some of them are still fighting around Rushuru…

In the latest update from the Virunga Park blog, at 10 in the evening, Emmanuel writes:

There is a bit of sporadic firing in the streets but it is much less intense than yesterday. The tension is beginning to diminish. Tomorrow, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa is supposed to be coming to Goma to help with the negotiations. Louis Michel, the European Commissioner for International Development is in Kinshasa and the Belgian Foreign Minister Carol de Gujt, is supposed to arrive in Kigali. Let’s hope…

Two weeks ago the journalist Jina Moore, formerly based in Rwanda and who covered the DR Congo as well, wrote on her blog News from Central Africa:

I finally understand that thing I’ve read about in books, where hardened correspondents talk about the desperation they feel to return to the completely screwed places they’ve covered when things take a turn for the worse. It means something different when you know how that place looks in real life, and something gnaws at your gut, beckoning you back.

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