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29 Nov 2013 00:00
Some of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s M23 rebels who surrendered to the Ugandan army stand in an isolated location in the village of Rugwerero in the Kisoro district, about 500km west of Kampala. (AFP/ Isaa Kasamani)
It is too soon for the villagers to start planting the potatoes, carrots, peas and cabbage on the fields they left behind when this latest war started.
But if the victory by the Congolese army (the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo or FARDC) and the special United Nations Intervention Brigade over the M23 rebels proves to be decisive, the villagers of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could start to try and get their old lives back.
Eddy Byamungu, programme officer for the civil society organisation Aid and Action for Peace (AAP) in Goma, North Kivu province, says several hundred displaced people are waiting to go back to their villages, following the defeat of the M23 earlier this month.
“People want to make sure that it is a lasting peace before they return,” he said in a telephone interview last week.
“When the M23 was around, people were too scared to work their fields. They would drive people away, burn down crops and steal livestock.”
In the first week of November, following heavy clashes with the FARDC and the Intervention Brigade — made up of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian forces — the M23 surrendered and agreed to hand in their weapons.
But who can blame the inhabitants of the eastern DRC for being prudent when it comes to announcements that the guns have been silenced?
Ever since the start of the two wars that followed the demise of former dictator Mobutu SeSeseko in 1997, people have been the victims of recurring cycles of violence from militias, rebels and even their own military, who have been accused of rape and pillaging in the area.
The victory over the M23 was not met with jubilation.
People had grown used to their army suffering humiliating defeats over the years.
The turning point, some say, was when the M23 captured the eastern capital Goma in November 2012 and held it for a brief 10 days before peace talks started. The experience prompted the DRC government and the UN to act decisively.
Juliette Lusenge, co-founder of the Fund for Congolese Women (Fond des Femmes Congolese, FFC), an NGO operating from Bunia in the Ituri province, says people are relieved that the government finally listened to their appeal for help and to “the women who consistently denounced the abuses by the M23”.
“We’re happy things have calmed down, but this is not the first time. We’re still worried, we can’t sit back now.”
Lusenge says she believes the government and the international community should continue to make sure Rwanda — accused of supporting the M23 — hands over those soldiers who have committed crimes.
“The international community has woken up. This is good, but we’ve seen this before. They accompany the Congolese people halfway down the road and then stop. And then we’re back to square one.”
For lasting peace to take root and to break the constant outbreak of new rebellions and new wars in the DRC, experts say, former rebels and militias will have to follow a successful disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme. This is, of course, much easier said than done.
Over the last decade, millions of dollars have been spent, countless strategies drawn up, but with mixed success.
Although up to 300 000 combatants were demobilised between 2002 and 2009, at a cost of $200-million, according to the World Bank, few of them were actually reintegrated into society.
Cheryl Hendricks, professor at the department of politics at the University of Johannesburg, who has done extensive work on military reform in the DRC, says there are multiple reasons why DDR programmes weren’t followed through.
This includes the insufficient capacity of the government’s National Commission for DDR (CONADER) to run the programme; corruption within the system; a lack of co-ordination between the various donors such as the World Bank, the United Nations Development Fund and other donors; and reluctance on the part of the DRC government to implement reforms in its own ranks.
Security Sector Reform and professionalising the FARDC was a prerequisite for those paying for the DDR.
“The reintegration, training and sensitising of demobilised troops were not sufficiently thought through. The question is: what are you being reintegrated into?” asks Hendricks.
Some demobilised soldiers were promised $150 a month to help them get back into society.
“To do that you need a job, a house and the region just doesn’t facilitate that.”
Militias and armed groups
The result of the failed DDR was that many of the soldiers simply went back and joined the militias or armed groups again.
The M23 movement was in fact the result of the failed reintegration of former rebels of the National Congress of the Defence of the People (CNDP) into the army, following an agreement signed on March 23 2009, hence the group’s name.
No clear plans have been announced on what will become of the M23 — many have also fled to Uganda and Rwanda — but according to some reports, plans are now being made to move those who have surrendered to the western region of the DRC.
This is to avoid these “veterans of several wars” from becoming a nuisance in eastern DRC again.
Security experts had already envisaged this during the previous demobilisation attempts.
“The problem with the CNDP was that they were left in the same region,” says Hendricks.
Apart from the M23, there are more than 20 other militias and smaller armed groups operating in the eastern DRC.
In a recent study for the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey on demobilisation in the DRC, researcher Joanne Richard says these groups are better organised than is generally believed.
Soldiers who want to give up arms and join the DDR programmes are prevented from doing so by their superiors.
“Brutal control mechanisms were used to deter desertion among low level combatants,” she found.
She suggests, among other things, that protection of deserters might prevent them from being forced back into militias.
Thierry Vircoulon, Africa director at the International Crisis Group, also says, in an interview published on the website of the French television programme Geopolis, that defeating the M23 is only the first step in bringing peace to the DRC.
“The UN Intervention Brigade now has to follow up on its mandate of ‘neutralising armed groups’ in eastern DRC, which could be a long and difficult task,” he says.
Building new lives
If only peace can return to the area — rich in a multitude of minerals and with abundant rainfall — locals say they can start rebuilding all that has been destroyed. They believe the government should urgently start rebuilding infrastructure and providing minimum services.
“So many children have never gone to school because they’ve been displaced over and over again,” says Lusenge.
Although aid organisations such as Doctors Without Borders have helped with providing a minimum of health services, the farmers urgently need roads to be repaired so that they can transport their goods to the markets in Goma and further afield, says Byamungu.
His organisation works with local chiefs and community leaders to try and resolve disputes that arise when internally displaced people (IDPs) return to their homes after having being displaced.
For now, he says, the several hundred displaced at the three IDP camps at Mungunga, North Kivu at Luofo and elsewhere in the region are still staying put.
This article was produced in partnership with the South Africa Forum for International Solidarity (Safis) safis.org.za. Views expressed here do not necessarilly reflect those of Safis or the Mail & Guardian
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