RUTSHURU, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - When Faustin joined a recruitment drive in his village in Rwanda, he thought he was headed for a stint in the Rwandan army.
Instead, he says he was marched at night into neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo to fight for a mutinous general against the government there, in a conflict that is once again stirring up one of the world’s most war-scarred zones.
Faustin, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said it was only when day broke that he found he was on a low hill called Runyoni within sight of the Rwandan border where hundreds of mutineers from Congo’s army are holding out.
“They said we were joining the Rwandan army, when we realized we’d been tricked into coming to Congo, that changed everything and we ran away,” said Faustin, who gave himself up to peacekeepers from the United Nations.
His story is part of a growing body of testimony pointing to the involvement of Rwandan military officials in providing arms, ammunition and recruits to the two-month-old revolt in eastern Congo by the rebels who call themselves M23.
The latest fighting, in a conflict zone known across the world for brutal killings and rapes, has forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes. The Red Cross say the humanitarian situation could - once again - become “disastrous”.
Rwanda’s government strenuously denies allegations it is backing the mutiny initiated by General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes.
But Kigali’s alleged involvement, after a thaw in relations with its former arch foe Congo, is fanning fears of a slide back to war in a region that is a tinderbox of ethnic violence.
Like a larger eastern rebellion from 2004 to 2009 by another renegade Tutsi general, Laurent Nkunda, the current mutiny has its roots in unhealed ethnic and political wounds dating back to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Later invasions of Congo by Rwandan forces and Kigali’s backing of Congolese rebels fuelled two successive wars that killed several million people.
The trigger for this year’s revolt was moves to arrest Ntaganda, nicknamed “The Terminator”, following international pressure on President Joseph Kabila, who was re-elected last year in a vote widely seen as flawed by foreign observers.
“Behind everything, the reason for Kabila’s push to arrest Bosco (Ntaganda) was the contested elections,” said Philippe Biyoya, a professor of politics at Kinshasa University.
He said major donors, like the United States and Britain, reluctantly accepted Kabila’s win, “but they wanted a gesture in return”. Hence the move against Ntaganda, a militia warlord who had been serving as deputy chief of Congo’s integrated army despite a lack of success so far at the ICC in prosecuting others for alleged crimes committed in the conflict.
“What does concern the international community is Bosco Ntaganda,” said Human Rights Watch’s senior Africa researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg. She added his capture would give additional impetus to the ICC’s efforts to bring other wanted war crimes suspects to justice, for example in Libya and Sudan.
In a clear reference to the allegations of Rwandan backing for the rebels in North Kivu province, the United States expressed concern over “reports of outside support to M23”.
The conflict risks rupturing what some observers have called a “volatile calm” in eastern Congo since the government signed March 23, 2009, peace agreements with several rebel groups, including Nkunda’s Rwandan-backed CNDP insurgents.
The M23 mutineers, who deny they get help from Rwanda, took their name from the date of the accords, saying Kinshasa did not respect commitments about salaries and treatment in the army.
While Nkunda’s rebellion, which involved 5,000-6,000 combat-hardened fighters, for a while posed a serious military threat to Kabila from the east, the latest mutiny is much smaller, numbering around 600-1,000 members.
Nkunda once held sway over large swathes of territory, but M23 only occupy a handful of hills on the Rwandan border. They were driven there after being pushed out of strongholds in Masisi by the Congolese army, known as the FARDC.
The army is now apparently better trained and more confident than a few years ago, but the rebellion draws attention to delays and deficiencies in faltering security sector reforms as some Rwandaphone soldiers refuse to leave their native east.
Many villages in the area are deserted as locals flee bombardment of rebel positions by the FARDC. Nearby roads are full of army pickups and FARDC troops wearing Wellington boots and toting AK 47 automatic rifles and rocket launchers.
Despite outnumbering the rebels 10 to one, the FARDC has been unable to dislodge them from hilltop hideouts. Some troops complain of shortages of food, medical supplies and ammunition.
“We must militarily finish with these mutineers,” North Kivu province governor Julien Paluku told Reuters.
Given the apparent weakness of the rebels, Fred Robarts, former head of the U.N. Group of Experts in Democratic Republic of Congo, says it is unlikely that Kabila’s government will agree to another peace deal like the one in 2009. “The government won’t be prepared to concede so much ground.”
But some see risks too if the government crushes the mutineers without regard to wider regional consequences.
“Total victory would be a trap. If we destroy (the rebels) totally without Rwanda’s agreement, there will be war with Rwanda,” said political analyst Biyoya.
Robarts said the help provided by some members of the Rwandan military was helping to keep the mutiny alive. This looked like a replay of Rwanda’s old tactic of waging a “proxy war” inside its vast and unstable neighbor.
Experts say this Rwandan strategy serves the goals of keeping a buffer in eastern Congo against Rwandan FDLR rebels opposed to President Paul Kagame, and maintaining a stake in the neighboring region’s rich mineral resources and influence over the large Rwandophone population living there.
“This can only challenge relations between the two countries. It comes down now to what extent the international community can speak with one voice and put Rwanda on a different course,” Robarts said.
Human Rights Watch and U.N. sources have estimated that half the rebels’ forces could have come from Rwanda. The M23’s Colonel Vianney Kazarama denied receiving cross border support.
A Reuters reporter spoke to numerous civilians who said they witnessed fighters with Rwandan identity cards being captured by the FARDC. The Congolese government’s official position is that it is investigating, but privately high-ranking army officers express rage at what they see as Rwanda’s interference.
As government troops redeploy to tackle the M23 mutiny, other armed groups still present in the region, including the mainly Hutu FDLR, are taking advantage to prey on civilians.
Hiding in the forest, a pregnant Tembeya Kiboko watched suspected FDLR fighters ransack and torch her village of Remeka in North Kivu. Her 12-year-old son, too sick to flee, was among at least seven people burned to death, survivors said. Escaping with her remaining children, Kiboko suffered a miscarriage.
Aid workers and U.N. officials say the latest conflict has touched off new ethnic violence which has already killed scores, perhaps hundreds, of civilians.
Self defense groups armed with spears and machetes, called Raia Mutomboki - “enraged population” in Swahili - are targeting anyone whom they view as Rwandan, and Rwandan FDLR rebels are retaliating by attacking villages, according to locals.
“We hope the authorities can end this war quickly ... If (not) people will turn into rebels,” said Jacques Niyo.
Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar, Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Elizabeth Piper