In Democratic Republic of the Congo, fear of new ethnic conflict is tangible
Rebels led by a warlord called the Terminator are closing on strategic Kitchanga, where people crave peace
The road south from Kitchanga snakes through some stunning landscape. Over towering hills and atop narrow cliffs with vertiginous drops on either side, lush and green, villages perch precipitously on the sides of steep embankments.
But don’t be fooled by the beauty. This hinterland in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has witnessed grotesque and prolific bloodletting in the past 20 years. People here have made efforts to heal the scars of the brutal ethnicity-based wars of the mid-1990s, but they now fear that a new conflict will open deadly divisions between communities once again.
The fear is tangible in Kitchanga, a strategic town in North Kivu province that was at the centre of the last bloody revolt five years ago. It is tangible too in Mugunga, a longstanding refugee camp that has begun to fill up again in the past two months, as an April rebellion by mutinous Congolese army soldiers sent more than 100,000 people fleeing their homes.
“I came here two months ago after the rebels and army soldiers began fighting in my town,” says Kabua Kahindo, from Kitchanga, who stood holding her baby in one of the large communal tents in Mugunga. “I came with three of my children. We had to walk for three days to reach here. I don’t know where my husband and my other child are, we lost them in the confusion as we fled.”
The region around Kitchanga was the stronghold of the Tutsi-led rebellion begun in 2007 by Laurent Nkunda, a former Congolese army general. Peace didn’t come until two years later, when the DRC and Rwanda agreed to arrest Nkunda and integrate his fighters – known as the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) – into the Congolese army.
The highest-ranked soldier was a general known chillingly as Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda, a notorious warlord who fought in Rwanda during its darkest hour in 1994, and is now wanted by the international criminal court for war crimes committed in 2002 and 2003 during the second Congo war.
It is those former CNDP fighters, led by Ntaganda and now operating under the name M23, who mutinied in April, decrying what they see as a failure to fully implement the terms of the 2009 peace accords. In particular, they are incensed at attempts by President Joseph Kabila to redeploy them out of North and South Kivu, which they have come to dominate as their own personal fiefdom. As for Ntaganda, his motive is more straightforward, driven back into rebellion by his fear of arrest by the court.
Many believe the rebels have their sights set on regaining control of Kitchanga in particular, where the hilltops are easily defended and rebel leaders own plenty of land and cows.
Pictured:Growing numbers of people are sheltering in a refugee camp at Mugunga near Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, after clashes between rebels and the army. Photograph: Junior D Hannah/AFP/Getty Images