Injuries among South African soldiers are increasing in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC’s) war-torn North Kivu region.
With the loss of 14 soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) early this year still fresh in the minds of South Africans, the country is involved in another war in the DRC.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) confirmed on Thursday that three South African soldiers had been wounded since fighting started at the end of last week.
Defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s spokesperson Sonwabo Mbananga told the Mail & Guardian that two soldiers were wounded on Wednesday, following the first injury over the weekend when M23 rebels attacked “closer to our base and [a] mortar landed at our base”, Mbananga said.
An M&G source in the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Monusco) said some of the fighting took place “about three to four kilometres from [the SANDF’s Munigi] base.”
The base is about 20km from Goma, where Monusco is headquartered and where a growing number of internally displaced refugees are being housed.
The Times newspaper reported that South African special forces snipers killed at least six senior rebel officers. The M&G could not confirm the report independently and M23 spokesperson Lawrence Kingston denied knowledge of the killings.
In South Africa, there are concerns that the country could suffer a repetition of the losses in the CAR, where deployed troops did not have enough resources to face well-armed rebels.
The general secretary of the South African National Defence Union, Pikkie Greeff, claimed that there was panic on the ground among soldiers deployed in the DRC.
Greeff shared what he said were SMSes from SANDF members in the DRC. One reads: “Expect the bad news. Today’s engagement are increasing the number of casualties. We were promised that Rooivalks will be deployed, now our members are in the frontline. Where are our Gripens and Rooivalks? What did SA learn from BoB (CAR)?”
Mbananga, however, said “South Africans should rest assured that we are sufficiently resourced and adequately equipped to deliver on our mandate”.
DRC President Joseph Kabila’s government is battling the rebellion led by M23 in Goma and surrounding areas and the country’s struggling FARDC – a French acronym for Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo – has failed to end the insurgency.
South Africa is part of the Southern African Development Community-backed Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) under Monusco, which is now helping the FARDC to quell the rebellion.
This intervention brigade is armed with powers to use force to neutralise rebels that have been terrorising Kabila’s government since last year.
This week Monusco, jointly with the FIB, dispatched fighter helicopters to fire on the rebels in the hills of the Kibati area, about 15km north of Goma. Kibati is an M23 stronghold, together with the city of Bunagana, and the towns of Kanyaruchinya and Mutaho.
“Monusco has enlisted all of its attack helicopters and its artillery to push back the M23 offensive that is under way right now on the hills of Kibati,” Monusco’s military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Felix Basse told journalists in the DRC’s capital Kinshasa.
South African troops and their Tanzanian counterparts were providing ground support.
The M23’s Kingston told the M&G in a telephone interview that South Africa has no business fighting a Congolese war.
Very nice country
“I’m sorry to say South Africans are being deceived by Kabila. He started the fighting and then called the UN to intervene,” said Kingston.
“South Africa is a very nice country with good people. You fought for your own freedom and we want the same. Why can’t we also fight for the freedom of the Congolese people? We’d like to say [to South Africa] get out of this war; this is the problem of the Congolese people and it’s us who must solve it. There’s no need to get your soldiers killed and to kill the people of Congo. There’s no need for these injuries on your soldiers.”
Monusco’s chief public information officer for North Kivu, Alexandre Essome, told the M&G that the onslaught on the M23 rebels would be ongoing because “the objective is to remove the threat on Goma town. This joint military action is a signal to all rebel groups, including M23, that crimes against the civilian population will not be tolerated”.
In the middle of the fighting on Wednesday night, Kingston told the M&G that M23 would like to plead with South Africa to “think twice” about its deployed troops.
“We can’t leave our people, we are fighting back to protect them,” he said of areas under M23’s control.
“They cut the water and electricity so our people are suffering. We’re asking the international community to investigate these killings.”
M23 has used its Twitter account to post claims it had killed some South Africans and Tanzanians in the past few days, but Kingston struggled to back those allegations.
“We know there are some casualties because South Africans have been fighting alongside FARDC,” he said.
“We don’t have the exact number of dead South Africans. You can get that from Monusco.”
On Twitter, M23 was more confident: “Believe or not it’s true. The dead bodies are in Kinshasa. Why are they not contradicting us?”
Monusco’s Essome denied allegations that South Africans have been killed.
Mbananga said M23’s claim is “a psychological art of war”.
Kingston, who spoke to the M&G using a Ugandan cellphone number from Bunagana, said the onslaught on the M23-controlled areas also targeted the group’s communication network to prevent them from telling the world the truth about the fighting.
“They bombed … our base and destroyed our communication network completely.”
Though the rebels have ruled out any surrender, Kingston said they still believe a political solution can be found to the long on-and-off conflict.
“The UN said we need to go back to Kampala [Uganda’s capital, where talks were held]. The international conference of the Great Lakes said we must go back to the negotiating table, but Kabila doesn’t want that. We are still in Kampala. We’re waiting for them to come back.”
The intervention brigade, made up of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian soldiers, was created by the UN Security Council in March to reinforce the 17 000 UN peacekeepers already in the DRC.
M23 rebels briefly seized Goma in November last year but retreated into the hills on the outskirts of the city after the international community’s call for peace talks.