26 November 2012

Congo-Kinshasa: 'All We Want Is Peace'

It was Tuesday evening, a few hours after the M23 rebels had captured - or rather, walked into - Goma. While the situation had calmed down, it was immediately clear that Rubavu had been profoundly affected by days of fighting in its neighbor on the other side of the Rwanda-DRC border.

For one, none of the five persons whose contacts I had obtained was actually anywhere near Rubavu. Like many other residents of the town, they had taken the precaution of putting themselves out of potential harms way.

That was mainly triggered by events the previous weekend, when several rockets had landed on Rwandan territory, killing two and injuring another seven civilians according to security officials in Rubavu.

Transport companies smelled a deal, hiking the fares to Kigali from Frw 3000 to 10,000. Among those remaining behind, many resorted to getting drunk to distract themselves.

One of those still stuck in Rubavu was Charles Izidoro, the neighbor of one of my contacts. Not that he hadn't wanted to leave, he admitted. "I didn't have the money, so I tried to sell some of the spare parts I have in stock in my garage business, but I failed to get a buyer."

While many Rubavu residents wanted to get out of town, those of Goma on the other hand had wanted to get in. At around 6 pm, several white expatriates from NGOs in the DRC were hanging around at the Rwandan side of the border, having fled the capital of North Kivu after fighting broke out several days earlier. With the capture of the town by the rebels, and fighting having stopped six hours earlier, they came to take stock of the situation.

If they were counting on getting back into Goma, they were disappointed. At the small Congolese border post, the officials told me they were under strict instructions from the rebels not to let anyone through, to prevent looting. "Come back tomorrow, that's when everyone will be free to move in," he advised me.

Superintendent Felix Bizimana, the district police commander of Rubavu, agreed that would be the best thing to do. "The situation is now calm as you can observe, but I would suggest you wait until tomorrow to cross into Goma because we aren't entirely sure what is ahead of us here," he said in one of the rare moments he wasn't on the phone talking to his superiors in Kigali.

It seemed indeed best to be cautious - as attested by a 2-meter hole in the road caused by a Congolese missile, its fragments shattering the windows of a nearby booth of the Rwandan immigration services. "Luckily, there was no official in there at the time," Bizimana said.

According to him and other officers, those were not accidental hits - the Congolese army (FARDC) had deliberately targeted Rwanda security positions, in line with the baseless accusations by the Congolese government that Rwanda is the driving force behind the M23.

Gama, a short middle-aged army veteran, later confirmed that the situation had been tense. "What we saw here was like a movie. UN helicopters flying in the air and shooting missiles at rebel positions, the heavy gunfire and people fleeing - it took me back two decades," said the man who was himself part of a rebel force eighteen years ago.

With nothing left to do at the border, I headed back to town to find some accommodation. That was easier said than done, because despite Rubavu being a tourism hotspot with many hotels and lodges, most rooms were occupied due to the influx from Goma. I finally found a bed, but had to share the toilet and bathroom with three other guests, all Congolese. It came at a hefty Frw 15,000 -it wasn't only the transport sector taking advantage of the situation.


If on Tuesday it had been impossible to get into Goma, it wasn't exactly easy on Wednesday either. My passport wasn't Rwandan so I had to pay $50; the problem was, the visa section wouldn't work until Thursday.

The immigration official did his best to give the impression that he was trying to find a solution, but it quickly became clear that he was expecting a bribe. Since I refused, it took an hour of his theatrics before I was saved by an M23 soldier who, upon hearing I was a journalist, told the officials to let me through.

Walking through Goma, it quickly became clear that there were little or no signs of the impact of rockets or bullets, confirming the reports that the rebels had take the town unopposed. Life was apparently getting slowly back to normal - many shops were open, but a good number of others was still locked.

I finally found my destination, the local sports stadium, where rebel spokesperson Lt. Colonel Kazarama had been scheduled to give the rebels' first address to the population. Due to my delay at the border, by the time I arrived the meeting was already over.

Many residents were still lingering on the black volcanic dust that serves as the stadium's turf, talking excitedly. One of them had recorded the speech, which allowed me to catch up.

"Should we march to Kisangani?" I heard Kazarama asking.

"Yes!" the people roared.

"Should we march to Bukavu?"


"Should we march to Kinshasa?"


I might have missed Kazarama's speech, but not its impact. About a hundred young men and two girls were queuing to join the rebels, while hundreds of police officers had just surrendered their guns and sworn loyalty to the new authorities. Many residents did likewise. "It's not the color of their uniforms or faces, or the language they speak; all we want is peace," said Allionce Tayeda, a roadside vendor.

For a town that had just been captured, there were surprisingly few rebel soldiers in Goma. As I learned later, most of them had continued to try and take Sake, 30km away. One of the few I encountered, a young man in his late 20s and a graduate, said he was not fighting for himself, but for the people.

"Our country is wealthy but our people are poor and that hurts me," he said, adding that it would be different under the M23 because already their discipline and efficiency had won them the loyalty of the locals and thousands of police and military officers that had defected to their ranks.

"Ask any shop owner here if any of their property was looted, and their answer will be no," he challenged me.

That discipline was also evident from the fact that none of the rebels raised a finger against the UN peacekeepers, who were still present in Goma, despite them having fought alongside the FARDC against M23. A group of Bluehelmets was for instance still guarding the airport; they looked bored, watching kids nearby play with empty bullet shells. "We shall sit, watch, wait and earn," one of them said when asked how they saw their role.


On the Rwandan side of the border, attitudes were less relaxed. During a meeting with local leaders and security officials in Rubavu, Local Government Minister James Musoni urged them to stay vigilant and caution the population against traveling to Goma, as their security could not be guaranteed.

"The people operating on the other side of the border are not members of a recognized government," Musoni warned. "You are advised to cross only when it's really necessary."

Thursday afternoon, the M23 had announced a press conference by their chief commander, General Makenga, to be held in the posh Ihusi hotel on the shores of Lake Kivu. Yet the dozens of local and international journalists gathered there were quickly disappointed, since it was announced that the rebel leader had left for Kampala.

By press time on Saturday, the outcome of the talks was not yet known. Yet for the residents of Goma, those negotiations are their only hope for peace and calm in the foreseeable future.

"Our only hope is that the Kampala talks succeed," said Franco Kwizera, a businessman in Goma. "Because if the rebels refuse to cooperate and the government chooses to use force, then we shall be in trouble once more."

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