Goma — In the crucible of conflict and instability that is the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it is often hard to unpick the countless grievances, ideologies and interests.
There are as many armed groups as there are claims of injustice and, for at least two decades now, the threat of violence has never been far away. A year or so ago, fighting flared up once more in the region - with the M23 rebels gaining control of certain areas - and, as usual, it has been civilians that have suffered most.
Since fighting restarted, hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced in North Kivu, while tens of thousands have fled across the border to neighbouring Uganda. However, many remain. Some of these have strong opinions about the M23, the Congolese military (FARDC), and the UN peacekeeping force. Heated rhetoric rebounds from here to Kampala where negotiations between the rebels and Congolese government have been ongoing since December 2012. But for the majority of locals living in rebel-held territory, the priority is simply to be able to get on with their lives.
As a resident of Kiwanja, a town under M23 control, told Think Africa Press, "I don't mind who is in charge, I just need to be able to work and live in safety".
People's protectors or great pretenders?
In the areas controlled by the M23, the group attempts to paint itself as legitimate governors. According to Bertrand Bisimwa, president of the M23, it is the central government that engages in "negative governance that kills its people, that rapes its citizens". By contrast, he says, the M23 is the people's protector, aiming "to ensure the security of this part of the country which has experienced insecurity for many years". The M23 levies taxes and claims to maintain security and perform public services such as repairing roads in return.
Indeed, in Rutshuru, some residents emphasised the comparatively good state of the roads that they claim the M23 repairs. Indeed, 10km into M23 territory, a team of labourers could be seen working on the main road from Goma, with taxes being levied at barriers to pay for the repairs. However, over several days, only one road-repairing team could be seen, and the taxes collected - which some sources said were as high as $300 per truck - do not seem to be delivering improved roads overall.
Payment of such taxes is a contentious issue across M23-controlled territory. In urban areas, taxes are paid in cash, with every adult taxed 700FC (about $0.80) every three months. On payment, the resident receives a receipt bearing the mark of an M23 stamp which they are expected to carry with them at all times. Failure to produce the receipt on demand can result in arrest. Taxes are also levied on businesses, with each small shop expected to pay a $3 contribution and a 2,500FC ($2.70) tax over the same period. One resident told Think Africa Press that these payments significantly affect business.
In rural areas, taxes - or 'contributions' - take the form of food. Residents in Rutshuru explained that each family is expected to contribute two goblets of beans, or the equivalent, to the rebel group every quarter. Colonel Vianney Kazarama, the M23's military spokesperson, insisted that these contributions are voluntary and show locals' appreciation at improved security, but some farmers claimed that failure to pay can result in higher fines or arrest.
To back up their claims, M23 authorities invited Think Africa Press to speak to a local farmers' association. The M23 did not attend the meeting but requested a day to convene the farmers, explaining that they were "not yet prepared". When they were deemed to be ready, the farmers echoed the M23's line, saying that the region has been safe to work in since August 2012 and that the population is very happy as a result. August is the month the M23 consolidated control over the area.
However, not everyone in the area agreed with the farmers' reported experiences. In the centre of Rutshuru, one resident claimed that "money does not circulate easily". He explained that businesspeople are afraid to travel to banks in Goma for fear of being robbed at road barriers in both FARDC- and M23-controlled areas.
Similar security concerns have also made it difficult for farmers to transport and sell their food, resulting in a surplus of food in the town and a dearth of other goods. "We are all farmers here," one local said, explaining that few people really benefit from reduced food prices when what is needed is hard currency to buy non-food items.
In Kiwanja meanwhile, the M23 has been blamed not just for failing to maintain security but for actively contributing to insecurity. Many people there blamed the rebel group for nightly armed looting and the systematic targeting of different streets each night. The M23 by contrast claim to be policing the area.
These conflicting narratives came to a head on July 28. That morning, M23 soldiers gathered around the bullet-riddled bodies of the three men who had been killed the night before. Around them, the crowd grew, children jostling to catch a glimpse between onlookers' legs. The M23 line was clear: these were thieves who had been stealing from houses and had been killed during a gun battle with security forces. "The M23 have done well," a lady in the crowd commented. In public at least, most observers expressed gratitude to the M23.
However, the official version of events wasn't necessarily matched in private. In fact, standing by the bodies, one member of M23 speaking on the phone in French just within earshot could be heard saying, "it has been confirmed; these are FDLR soldiers", referring to the Hutu rebel group.
Later that day, locals suggested that the three dead men had not been ordinary bandits but prisoners who had been released and forced to steal from houses by the same M23 soldiers who then hunted them down. People described this as a "chasse à l'homme", or manhunt.
Back on the offensive
Life under the M23 is thus a complex and often conflicting experience. The rebel group purport to form some kind of popularly-mandated government in the region, and, whilst they may have some support in this, it seems that the reality is often very different. In Kiwanja, the population fears nightly raids, while across M23 territory, many people struggle to deal with compulsory contributions, ongoing insecurity, and lack of access to markets.
In the towns of Rutshuru and Kiwanja, this discontent has sometimes been palpable, and on August 18, the M23 was forced to call a meeting with community leaders in Kiwanja to address these grievances. One member of civil society in Kiwanja commented that the meeting was a mere façade, but the fact the gathering took place at all at least suggests the M23 is aware of its responsibilities.
However, there is also the chance such meetings will prove academic, not because they are superficial, but because of broader dynamics in the region. Last week, fighting restarted after a lull and seems to be going in favour of FARDC forces backed by the UN. If offensives against the M23 are ramped up and continue to go against the rebels, they could be swept out the area. As the region's history tells us, however, what this would mean for those living in the likes of Kiwanja, Rutshuru, and the broader area is far from certain.
Joseph Kay is a consultant with StandProud. Currently based in DRC, he tweets and blogs in his own capacity at @joseph__kay and http://josephkayblog.wordpress.com