27 June 2012

Congo-Kinshasa: Rebel Soldiers Gain Men and Might

Goma — More and more Congolese soldiers from Kivu are deserting the army for the increasingly popular FPC rebels.

In the last few days, alone, 250 armed troops from the DRC state army, the FARDC, have joined. More are expected. To get some answers, our local correspondent went to one major rebel group's hideout.

It took about eight hours to reach the rebel camp. A very bumpy ride over roads that have been neglected ever since independence from Belgium - 52 years ago this coming Saturday. To get there we had to cross Virunga National Park, a wildlife area with lions, antelopes and elephants.

The Forces Populaires Congolais (FPC) currently comprises 13 armed groups. This, thanks to the charismatic organizational work of longtime rebel leader Kakuli Lafontaine, also known as 'Mai Mai Lafontaine'.

"We urgently ask the international community to stop giving support to Kabila," Lafontaine says. "Come to us. We have credibility, the government hasn't. The international community must stop backing the evil in our country."

These rebel soldiers have united for ideological reasons. They want Kabila out. They say they want peace in Kivu.

Bumpy roads

At their hideout, the rebels we see, approximately 60 soldiers and six FPC officers, are not all wearing uniforms. Three out of ten are in civilian clothes - ragtag, but warm. It's cold up in the hills of Lubero territory, about 300 kilometres north of Goma.

Reaching them was not easy. Besides the geographic challenges, there were the military posts in zones held by the Congolese army. The Congolese soldiers are badly organized, badly trained, badly fed, badly housed and badly paid. They rob the population and the cars that pass by, though we got away with paying them 20 packets of cigarettes, two pineapples, one kilo of tomatoes and three cauliflower heads to get through.

"We are popular"

Lafontaine serves as commander of the FPC, the armed wing of the Union des Patriotes Congolais pour la Paix (UPCP). He denies cooperation with M23 - a several hundred-strong group of soldiers supporting Bosco Ntaganda - or getting help from Rwanda.

"It's the government itself that is supported by Rwanda," he says. "Weapons and arms come from Kabila himself," he adds with a smile.

"President Kabila has to go, because he is no leader and has not a thought for his population. We gave him an ultimatum, because he does not lead this country in the way it should be governed. That's why we have said he has to go."

Right behind stands his second-in-command, Colonel Albert Kahasha. This past January, the colonel deserted the Congolese army and, with him, took a massive amount of weaponry, trucks and soldiers.

Sometimes voluntarily though more often forced, villagers give food to the FPC. "We are popular," says Kahasha. "We are better fed than the Congolese army. We all are prepared to die for this cause."

He refuses to say how many men are fighting for the FPC, only stating: "That's strategic information."

Fire or ceasefire?

On the way home we hear that Angolan soldiers were spotted in the area. If Angola decides to step in and is backed by the Southern African Development Community (SADEC), eastern Congo could be in for another big war.

Rwanda would never allow Angola to fight on the side of the Congolese army. Question is if Rwanda will get support from other African countries, like Uganda. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has isolated himself in recent years, without many friends left.

For now, soldiers and civilians fear what may be this Independence Day. The wealthy are already fleeing Goma. Come 30 June, all major military players from the DRC and Rwanda will be assembling here or across the border in Gisenyi. Will there be a ceasefire? Or will hell break loose?

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