IN THE FIRST WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 2013, I travelled into the province of North Kivu, on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to territories held by the military outfit known as the M23. The group, formed in March 2012, had been in open rebellion against the Congolese government since April 2012, but surrendered to the bloody offensive of the Congolese military in partnership with the United Nations peacekeeping force MONUSCO (the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in November 2013. In December, the government and the M23 signed a peace agreement, officially marking the end of the rebellion.
Before the offensive, I had been invited to the M23-held regions of the DRC by Benjamin Mbonimpa, who was the group’s acting administrator while its leader, Bertrand Bisimwa, was away in Kampala, Uganda, conducting negotiations with the DRC government. Mbonimpa, an engineer by training, met me in the town of Bunagana, in a sparsely furnished office. As we spoke, he repeatedly denied the common charges levelled against the group: no, there was no illegal logging, no gold mining, and no recruitment of child soldiers. “We’re up against a UN army with armoured vehicles,” he said. “Boys would be scared and useless against such vehicles.” Mbonimpa suggested that I ride along with him to Rutshuru and Kiwanja, towns to the north-west of Bunagana. “This way you can see the real M23,” he said.
The M23’s predecessor, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), was a Tutsi rebel group that rose in opposition to the Congolese government and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Congolese remnant of a group of militant Rwandan Hutus, many of whom had been among the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide of Tutsis. In March 2009, the CNDP signed an agreement with the government that, among other things, would absorb them into the Congolese army. But over the next couple of years many of its members began to feel that the government had betrayed the terms of its agreement, primarily its pledge to fight the FDLR’s Hutu extremists, who were still active in eastern DRC.
The rebels regrouped in 2012 under the name M23, an ironic nod to the date on which the failed agreement was signed. Its supporters maintained that the M23 was vital to protecting Tutsi interests in the region against remnant Hutu groups. Many members of the M23 were Congolese Tutsis, who as part of their training were shown propaganda images and videos of the gory attacks on Tutsis perpetuated both during and after the Rwandan genocide.
The day after I met Mbonimpa in his office, I set out for Rutshuru and Kiwanja with him. Although there were only three M23 soldiers accompanying us when our Nissan Pathfinder left Bunagana, we picked up and dropped off several of their comrades on the way, and at one point there were nine people packed inside the vehicle.
About half an hour into the journey, we reached the main highway that runs north–south from Goma, a city M23 had briefly captured in late 2012, to Kiwanja. Two UN peacekeeping tanks were parked at this junction. Our driver, Leon, slowed the Pathfinder to a crawl as we approached, and exchanged a few anxious sentences in Swahili with his fellow passengers, presumably about whether the tanks were a threat, before saying in French, “No, the direction is wrong,” and pointing to the tanks’ turrets, which were turned away from the road—a recognised non-hostile stance.
The jeep picked up speed and headed north. We soon passed two squads of Indian peacekeepers at a checkpoint, lounging about their vehicles, the men wearing either blue helmets or headscarfs. (With a 4,000-strong detachment, India is the single largest contributor to MONUSCO’s peacekeeping force of 20,000.) As the SUV rumbled past, the soldiers looked at the M23 guerrillas with annoyance; I was surprised that we passed through the checkpoint without being stopped. “We don’t know why they fight us only in the south [in regions like Goma] … the Indian guys here, they are just tourists,” a guerrilla named Edward said dismissively. The M23 had learnt from experience, he added, that MONUSCO soldiers in this part of the Congo were apparently ordered only to protect the local population, not engage the M23.
As we approached MONUSCO’s base at Kiwanja, I saw other tanks dug in at key points around the base, their guns pointed out at would-be attackers. Adjacent to the camp were two internally displaced person (IDP) camps where as many as 2,000 people lived under the watch of NGOs, with constant patrolling by MONUSCO forces. Alighting from the jeep, I entered one of the IDP camps, accompanied by Leon and Edward. After making some enquiries, we met the leader of the camp, Biterexaho Mathias, a 56-year-old man who looked far older. Mathias said he had spent seven years in the camp, living in a hut made largely from palm fronds and a tarp provided by the UNHCR. Some of the camp’s inhabitants were just 16 kilometres from their native villages but feared returning because of the threat of the FDLR. The camp included Hutus, like Mathias, as well as Tutsis and members of an ethnic group called the Nande, mostly fleeing the FDLR. “MONUSCO doesn’t help, only the NGOS help us,” Mathias said. “MONUSCO does patrol to keep the place safe, but our main worry is food. They don’t care that we haven’t been given food in four months.”
Congo is an “NGO-state”, where many of the most basic government functions are instead performed by NGOs. This system changed little while M23 had power. “We have left the NGOs to continue their work and do not impede them,” Mbonimpa said. “Same with the missionary groups. Even the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, we don’t mess with them. Tourists still come to see them and stay in lodges in our territory.”
The group I was travelling with had intended to show me an M23 court in Rutshuru at work, but when we arrived, we found that it was closed for the day. We decided to return to Bunagana, but first made a stop for lunch, driving into a dusty courtyard with a few gazebos scattered around, shaded by trees, and a dark brick room that served as a kitchen. The owner, a middle-aged woman in traditional dress, leaned out of the kitchen door and greeted Leon and the others with a warm smile. At one gazebo, a couple in their thirties sat sipping beer. M23 soldiers passed in and out of the compound. The restaurant was in a safe area, as evinced by the fact that the soldiers all left their weapons in the unlocked car while sitting at a table for their meal. I learnt that Bertrand Bisimwa had a house in the area, just up the road.
We drank local banana beers as well as foreign brews as we waited for the food. The soldiers attempted to charge their cell phones with a charger whose pin had been cut away, leaving only exposed wires. Leon extracted the battery from his phone and attempted to press the wires onto it directly to charge it, but only succeeded in giving himself a shock. After sucking his fingers to relieve the pain, he tried again, this time wrapping a plastic bag around the battery to insulate himself from shocks. He finally succeeded in creating a wad of plastic around the battery and getting it to charge, then wedged the entire assemblage onto a small ledge.
Leon then excused himself from the gazebo. Glancing out, I saw him talking to a young woman. Moments later he kissed her, only to have her glance around to see if the matron was watching, and then shoo him away. Edward told me Leon was something of a local Casanova, romancing women in the area whenever he found the time to be away from Bunagana.
Leon soon returned with a mischievous grin on his face. Picking up his beer, he pointed at Edward and said to me in English, “This man is very dangerous.” Edward put down his beer and said, “No, this man is dangerous.” They burst out laughing. It was clear they weren’t talking about each others’ prowess on the battlefield. Leon grabbed his charged phone and headed back out again.
A whole chicken was brought to the table on a massive platter—a simple dish, but cooked perfectly, with a thin tomato and onion sauce. The bird was perched on a pile of potato chips, accompanied by generous globs of mayonnaise and fufu. Everyone began to eat with their hands. Leon returned in time to eat, with an attractive young woman on his arm. “This is my girlfriend,” he announced seriously, in English. The gazebo erupted with laughter. Which one, Edward asked him. Leon smiled and sat down with the woman to eat.
Two hours later, the sun had just set as our Nissan Pathfinder crawled out of the compound, to return to Bunagana. Soon it started to rain hard, and in the darkness I couldn’t discern if we passed the Indian checkpoint or returned by an alternative route to avoid it. As we ascended the jungle roads, passing a region not far from FDLR territory, all conversation stopped. No one was drunk anymore. Seeming to follow an unspoken order, all the soldiers checked the actions on their weapons and clasped them at the ready. At a small village, two more soldiers crowded into the vehicle, one of whom constantly fidgeted with the action on his Belgian-made pistol as he sat next to me. Occasionally, through the cracked windshield, I saw farmers trudging home with logs or other goods on their heads. The road was now a soup of pebbles and brown water. Lighting flashed against the volcanic mountains in the distance. The jeep groaned and creaked across the last bridge before the final uphill climb to Bunagana.
Joseph Hammond has reported extensively on the Middle East and Africa for various publications. He began his journalism career as a boxing reporter in California and also served as correspondent for Radio Free Europe in 2011.