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Thousands forced to flee in DRC’s North Kivu province as M23 attacks intensify

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Picture: Monusco via Flickr – A is camp set up by displaced people fleeing fighting between the FARDC and M23 near Goma in 2012. Attacks by the Rwanda-backed M23 has led to another wave of mass displacement in the province of North Kivu. The rebel group has tried to make advances towards the provincial capital of Goma, attacking the town of Sake which lies just 25 kilometres (km) away.

By Tanupriya Singh

At least 150,000 people have been displaced in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since February 2, as fighting has intensified between the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and the M23 rebel group.

According to Save the Children, at least 78,000 children are among those who have been forced to flee.

The province of North Kivu has borne the brunt of violence and displacement since the resurgence of the M23, a rebel group backed by neighbouring Rwanda, in March 2022. The rebels had briefly captured its capital, Goma, in a blitz of attacks in 2012, before being driven out.

The M23 is among over 120 armed groups believed to be operating in the eastern provinces — North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri — of the DRC, which hold its mineral wealth. The region has seen violence and warfare for decades, including direct invasions and proxy warfare by Rwanda and Uganda, as its critical resources such as cobalt, coltan, gold, and diamonds, have been looted and exported.

Despite a ceasefire being announced under what is known as the Luanda peace process, led by Angola, the M23 continued its offensive, seizing significant areas of North Kivu’s Rutshuru, Masisi, and Nyiragongo territories. In November 2022, the East African Community (EAC) deployed a regional force (EACRF) to the eastern provinces, with troops from Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, and Burundi.

After a year-long deployment, marked by protests by local populations who had condemned the forces’ inability to ensure security in the region, the mandate of the EACRF expired on December 8, following which the forces began their withdrawal. After a two-decade deployment, the United Nations is also set to remove its peacekeeping forces from the DRC, beginning with a withdrawal of forces from South Kivu by the end of April.

Meanwhile, the EACRF has been replaced by another regional force, with the deployment of hundreds of troops from members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

While the EAC-led mission had led to conflicts between the bloc and the Congolese government on the question of the forces’ direct engagement in operations against the M23, the mandate of the SADC forces (SAMIDRC) is “offensive”, with joint operations with the FARDC announced in January.

However, violence has continued in past weeks. According to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 42,000 people have been displaced from Masisi since last Friday alone.

The M23 had made advances to the town of Mweso, which is located just 100km from Goma, towards the end of January. On January 25, the FARDC accused the rebel group of dropping 120mm mortar bombs “indiscriminately” on the town, killing 19 people and wounding 27 others. Clashes took place again over the past weekend, the head of Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) team in Mweso, told Reuters on Thursday, leaving 30 people injured. At least 2,500 people, including children whose parents have been killed, remain at the Mweso hospital.

On February 7, the UN OCHA reported that fighting had intensified in the hills overlooking Sake. Also located in Masisi, the town is just 25km away from Goma. Four people were killed following shell explosions near homes while weapon fire could be heard around the town, the report added.

According to estimates by local civil society, two thirds of Sake’s population has fled to Goma. Over the weekend, at least 26,000 displaced people had arrived in the town, adding to the over 75,000 displaced people living in four sites across Sake. Fighting had ceased in Sake as of the morning of February 8.

An estimated 135,000 people were headed to Goma as of Wednesday, joining at least 500,000 displaced people who had similarly fled their homes and reached the capital. The city itself came under attack on Wednesday after a rocket landed near a university in the capital city. No casualties were reported.

The FARDC and the Congolese government declared this week that they would not let Goma, a city of two million people, come under the control of the M23. In November, the Congolese forces and Monusco had launched “Operation Springbok” to stop any invasion by the M23 of Sake or Goma.

“We decided, first of all, to establish a solid line of defence at the entrance to Goma and Sake. This is a defensive approach for the moment, but if illegal armed groups try to attack Sake and Goma, we will move from a defensive to an offensive position,” General Otávio Rodrigues de Miranda Filho, Force Commander of Monusco, had said of the mission at the time.

By that time, the International Organisation for Migration had stated that seven million people were displaced within the DRC — the highest number on record. By the end of the year, 5.69 million displaced people were registered in the country’s three eastern provinces alone. Fighting and displacement has spread to South Kivu, where 155,000 people have been displaced since December.

In a statement on February 7, the Congolese government said that it remained committed to the Luanda peace process — “which provides for a ceasefire, withdrawal, disarmament and the cantonment of the M23 as well as the withdrawal of the Rwandan army from Congolese soil” — while “using its legitimate right to defend its national territory”.

The UN Under-Secretary General for Peace Operations also issued a statement calling on the M23 to cease immediately its offensive in the eastern provinces and to respect the Luanda process.

Meanwhile, the US has called for dialogue between the Congolese government and the M23, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken having spoken to former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta about the “importance of providing a pathway to reconciliation with armed groups”. The DRC has repeatedly rejected any direct talks with the M23 and has also outlawed any possible integration of the rebel group into its armed forces.

It is important to remember that the M23’s origins lay in a group of soldiers within the army, a product of a long history of peace arrangements, with the involvement of the US, which led to the rebel group’s previous iterations being integrated into the army and even leading the DRC to surrender its territory.

The US’s now public concern for peace in the DRC, and its acknowledgement of Rwanda’s support of the group, comes after years of material, diplomatic and military support to Rwandan president Paul Kagame. Pan-Africanist advocacy organisation, Friends of the Congo, highlighted how the leader had been hosted by members of the US Congress last week, just as bombs had been dropped on Goma.

The US’s role in the destabilisation and violence in the DRC goes back to the country’s independence, when it backed a coup to oust and assassinate Congo’s first leader, Patrice Lumumba, and installed the brutal dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko.

Despite knowing the role that minerals like cobalt were playing in fuelling violence and instability in the DRC, the US Congress declined to classify it as a “conflict mineral” which would have increased oversight. The US has safeguarded its own interests, be it the development of mineral equipment, and now the transition to EV (Electric Vehicles).

The Congolese people have continued to denounce the complicity of western countries including the US and members of the European Union in violence in the eastern provinces, and their failure to ensure accountability and justice for the crimes committed. Addressing the European Parliament this week, Marc Botenga from the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB), said: “How many more territories in the Democratic Republic of Congo have to be hit, occupied or suffocated, like Goma right now, before the European Union reacts?”, pointing out that Rwanda was a partner of the “European Peace Facility”, an instrument “which in reality serves to deliver arms”, with Kigali receiving over US$ 21.5 million in aid.

“Why is Europe doing this? Clearly, there are vested interests behind it. Europe needs cobalt, coltan, resources and raw materials found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And as a result, a weakened, even balkanised Congo suits certain European governments,” Botenga said, adding that Rwanda was facilitating this plunder, particularly in the eastern provinces.

Meanwhile, on February 9, protesters gathered in the Commune of Gombe in Kinshasa, which houses the buildings of several embassies, to denounce the support of the west to Rwanda.

This follows a few days after a protest was held in the city of Goma, during which youth burned the flags of the US and the European Union, raising slogans of “No the International Community”, condemning their complicity in the war.

Tanupriya Singh is a writer at Peoples Dispatch and is based in Delhi

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch