As rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo initiated what may turn out to be only a feigned withdrawal from the city of Goma on Nov. 28, a Catholic organization said the region’s civilians remained either on the run or terrified that their community would be the next target for a rebel attack. “We fled into the forest with only one objective in mind, our safety. And we don’t have any idea of when or how we will return home,” a Congolese identified by a pseudonym, Paluku, told a representative from the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Paluku fled his home in Masisi, northwest of Goma, on Nov. 25 following the outbreak of fighting between the Congolese army and an ethnic Mai-Mai militia group; he currently is in hiding. J.R.S. has reported that Mai-Mai fighters have aligned themselves with M23 rebels in eastern Congo. “We don’t have anything to eat or drink. Above all, the women and children are in a state of shock. And we don’t have any idea of when we’ll finally have peace,” Paluku said. “Today we fled from the Mai-Mai militias; tomorrow it may be from M23.”
M23 forces, named after the peace accord of March 23, 2009, that attempted to integrate rebel fighters into the Congolese army, are believed to be supported by neighboring Rwanda. The accord broke down last April. Since then Amnesty International has documented numerous human rights abuses attributed to M23 fighters, including unlawful killings, forced recruitment of children and young adults and rape. Humanitarian agencies report that since the M23 rebellion started, some 650,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes. There are reports that Goma has been looted and as much as $17 million stolen from Goma’s Banque Centrale du Congo.
In response to the capture of the city, the Congolese bishops issued a statement on Nov. 22, arguing that the territorial integrity of the Democratic Republic of Congo “must be protected and respected by all.
“To this end,” the bishops said, “we believe that the illegal exploitation of natural resources, the main cause of this war, must end. Natural resources should be used and managed in a legal, transparent way and thus contribute to the development of all and peace in the D.R.C.” North Kivu Province, where M23 operates freely, is rich in natural resources and has been besieged for years by various forces seeking to assert control over its mineral wealth. Congo’s bishops have called for an end to “balkanization” of the Congo, referring to interference from neighboring countries like Rwanda and Uganda.
Bishop Bernard Kasanda Mulenga of the Diocese of Mbujimayi in the Democratic Republic of Congo condemned the United Nations and world leaders for an overall inattention to problems in North Kivu and an ineffectual response to the M23 advance. “The political authorities and the blue helmets [U.N. forces],” Bishop Kasanda said, “have not stopped repeating, ‘Stay calm, have no fear and nothing will happen to you,’ and at the present time, when the rebels have seized the east of the country, there is no sign of a reaction from them. How are we to understand this?” The M23 are currently in negotiations with the government of President Joseph Kabila, mediated by representatives from Rwanda and Uganda, but M23 leaders have threatened to march on Kinshasa and topple Kabila.
Bishop Kasanda accused the international community of “complicity” in the crisis in the region. He was especially troubled by a U.N. General Assembly vote that elected Rwanda to a two-year seat on the U.N. Security Council, a move he called disastrous, given that Rwanda is “accused of serious violations [against] the territorial integrity of the D.R.C.”