Rutshuru — The M23 rebel movement is using youth in territories under their control to deny allegations of rape and forced enrolment of minors. This is a report from the heart of a demonstration on 11 November in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The demonstration was meant to showcase the dynamism and independence of the youth in Rutshuru, but the marching orchestra can barely hide the crowd's lack of enthusiasm. In front of the regional affairs office, an organizer articulates what appears to be more of a rehearsed speech than the words of angry young people.
"We denounce the unscrupulous behaviour of a number of non-governmental organizations, which, in order to justify their funding to donors [...], resort to clientelism, complacency and vulgarity in writing fictional reports or made-up statements from the comfort of their air-conditioned offices, far from the scenes of the events," shouts Divine, stumbling on the words.
The aim of this supposedly voluntary event was to denounce the United Nations and Human Rights Watch reports that make allegations of rape and the forced enrolment of children into the M23 forces. According to the event's organizers, the UN and HRW have tarnished the reputation of the Rutshuru people by portraying them as victims of abuses by the rebels.
"Do I look like a soldier?"
A 20-year-old student named Brenda says: "We are taking part in the protest organized by the M23 movement. The M23 invited us to fight against the people who claim that women are being raped and young boys forcefully recruited into the army. The M23 invited us to protest against them. We have been preparing this for a week."
The M23, however, has denied any involvement in the event's organization. After the speech, the new regional affairs officer, who was appointed three months ago by the rebel movement, declares that the youth-organized march is testament to the freedom of expression and the freedom to protest that is present across the M23-controlled territory.
"The peoples of Rutshuru have been enjoying unrivalled security since our arrival," he says.
After the march and the speeches, a church is commandeered to host a show during which the young Rutshuru residents can show their talents. "We want to show the whole world that we, the young people of Rutshuru, are not all soldiers. There are football players, musicians," says 23-year-old Abibou. "Myself I am an artist, do I look like a soldier?"
"Who's going to marry them now?"
Dance troops and musicians follow one another on a stage, interspersed by introductions of the "guests of honour". They include the M23 spokespeople Bertrand Bisimwa and Colonel Vianney Kazarama, who are welcomed in a storm of applause. The atmosphere oscillates between political youth camp and funfair.
On the microphone, the howling presenter calls Kazarama "his friend" and denounces the reports' accusations. Like most of the day's speakers, he emphasizes the tarnishing nature of the allegations, especially of rape.
"Some reports claim that girls and women of Rutshuru have been raped," he says. "Who's going to marry them now? Would any boy here want to marry a girl who was raped?"
"No," the audience resounds.
The speaker retorts with a satisfied "there you go".
"We invited these young girls to show us who they really are and what they do. They practice traditional dance," he says.