The New Times (Kigali)

Congo-Kinshasa: Quest for Peace in the Great Lakes Region

The International Community is weighing options to help the embattled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) address the crisis in its east, following a break out of fighting between government troops and mutinous soldiers.

As the government in Kinshasa finds itself in an awkward situation - against the M23 rebels led by Col. Sultan Makenga - its neighbours are pushing for peace talks.

By last weekend, more than 600 Congolese government soldiers and 60 policemen had fled into Uganda, after abandoning ammunitions following M23 attack on the strategic border town of Bunagana.

Envoys from various African countries accredited to Rwanda visited Nkamira Transit Centre in Rubavu District, to get first-hand accounts of the situation and contribute to better understanding of the conflict, so as to fruitfully contribute to efforts to come up with solutions.

The Nkamira camp hosts thousands of refugees who have fled the conflict - figures indicate that more that 17,000 had crossed into Rwanda.

In an interview last Friday, the Dean of Africa's envoys in Kigali, and Uganda's High Commissioner to Rwanda, Richard Kabonero, explained why the visit was important.

"We are very, very concerned by the instability and displacement of citizens. It affects all of us. No one wants to be a refugee. Violence has never helped solve issues. Political dialogue is the only way forward," Kabonero said.

Other envoys on the tour included those from Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, DRC and South Africa

They were also accompanied by representatives from various international agencies including World Food Programme (WPF), UNHCR, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank. The visit was organised by the UNHCR.

Anouck Bronee, the External Relations Officer, UNHCR Rwanda, says the organisation mobilised the visit by the envoys to allow them an opportunity to understand what is happening.

"There is need to brainstorm and work together to find a solution. This is a regional issue. We have to focus on what the international community can do to address the humanitarian problem. We all have a role to play based on how we view this conflict," Bronee says.

Ambassador Kabonero underscored that it's the responsibility of the Congolese government to help resolve this conflict by involving other African countries.

"We hope that in the near future the refugees will return home. It's up to the government of Congo to help resolve this conflict and protect its citizens from abuse," said Kabonero.

The envoy added they hoped the African Union would, in due course, come up with a solution, saying much as the conflict was an internal Congolese issue, it had far reaching consequences to the wider region.

The AU recently issued a statement urging President Kabila and the fighters to stick to an earlier agreement made between Kinshasa and the CNDP (whose members are spearheading the new rebellion. That agreement, signed on March 23, 2009, was brokered by Rwanda and had provided for integration of CNDP fighters into the national army.

As expected, the conflict has attracted lots of debate with several "leaked" reports giving the media a field day.

It has been alleged that Rwanda is fuelling the conflict by supporting the rebels. Kigali and M23 have denied any links, and dismissed the allegations as lacking concrete evidence. Similar allegations were made in 2009 in regard to the former leader

of National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), Gen Laurent Nkunda, before his arrest and subsequent detention in Rwanda.

His arrest by Rwanda came months after a report of the so called UN-Panel of experts accused Rwanda of supporting Nkunda.

Humanitarian crisis

By the time you read this, more refugees will have entered Rwanda and Uganda, as it has been the case since April.

Rwanda's western border with the Congo remains open for Congolese refugees displaced by the fighting, a very challenging situation.

More than 17,000 Congolese citizens are reported to have made their way across the border into Rwanda.

Many who are still fleeing are welcomed at Nkamira transit Centre, resettled, provided the basics like water and provided security among other things, courtesy of the government, UNHCR and other partners.

About 7,000 of the refugees have since been transferred to Kigeme refugee site in Nyamagabe District.

"The refugees now outnumber the local residents in that area," the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees affairs, Antoine Ruvebana told The New Times on Friday.

So far, the government has spent above Rwf60 million in resettling the refugees.

Close to 100 Nyamagabe residents were expropriated to give way for the surge in refugee numbers.

"The impact of refugees can be summed up as socio-economic," Ruvebana says. Socially, he explains, the refugees children have to go to school, so schools have to be built and health centres have to be built to cater for their health needs.

Who benefits from the Congo conflict?

The current conflict presents an opportunity to several groups, mainly Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels. They are said to be taking advantage of the situation to involve in mass rape, looting and slaughter of innocent civilians in the DRC.

The FDLR also makes millions of dollars every year from gold and tin mines as well as charcoal and marijuana production and taxation, according to numerous reports, including one published by UN investigators.

Incidentally, Rwanda's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo, pointed out that too many observers have

entirely forgotten the central role of the FDLR in fomenting almost constant crisis in the region since fleeing into the DRC from Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, during which its members killed more than one million ethnic Tutsis.

"Unfortunately, these real-life horrors barely rate a mention in recent media coverage, which has focused instead on false allegations against Rwanda. And Human Rights Watch is not alone in ignoring the FDLR, whose escape to the DRC was all but facilitated by the international community in 1994, and which has never wavered from its intention to finish what it started," she wrote in a recent opinion piece.

"In its eagerness to deliver high-profile scalps to The Hague, the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) has lost sight of its original purpose, which is to quell the FDLR threat."

To experts, pacifying the region would benefit the Congo by attracting mining companies to vast reserves of gold, tin, coltan,

and wolframite.

The last thing Kigali needs is war in eastern DRC as it directly threatens vital investments the country's western province.

Yet, Kigali is also keenly aware that regardless of what it does, short of intervening in such a war on the side of the Congolese government, many in the international community would blame it for inciting the conflict.

Both Rwandans and Congolese are resident and conduct their businesses in either state. In Kigali and other Rwandan towns Congolese dominate the beauty industry.

An estimated 1000 Rubavu residents have serious businesses in Goma, eastern Congo, according to Sheikh Hassan Bahame, the Mayor of Rwanda's border district of Rubavu.

Peace efforts

Several efforts have been made aimed at finding a lasting solution to the mutual suspicions between both countries.

One of the high-profile ones is the June meeting when the Minister of Defence Gen. James Kabarebe and Chief of Defence Staff Lt. Gen. Charles Kayonga met with their Congolese counterparts in the eastern Congolese town of Goma as well as MONUSCO representatives.

A joint DRC-Rwanda verification report, which said that several young men who turned up at a UN base in eastern DRC after allegedly defecting from M23, had denied reports they were recruited by Rwanda - as previously alleged -, was signed by both sides, as well as a MONUSCO observer.

Similar high-level meetings have taken place or are being scheduled both in Rwanda and DRC.

But one thing for sure, it is through dialogue between affected parties that will reinstate peace and stability and not leaked reports or unsubstantiated allegations.

The 2009 agreements have proved so.

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