GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — On Wednesday, May 2, the Enough Project witnessed FARDC troops firing artillery on the mountaineered forces of Bosco Ntaganda, in the town of Sake, 27 km west of Goma. The fighting forced Ntaganda's rebels to lose ground and reportedly retreat to Kirolirwe near Virunga National Park, 22 km north of Sake.
This recent clash is part of the widespread violence that has flared up in eastern Congo since Ntaganda and his fighters defected from the national army on March 29, displacing thousands of people in the region. Across Masisi territory, roughly 50,000 individuals have been displaced in less than three days and the situation is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, administrative sources in Sake told the Enough Project.
The area remains unstable, and even as we interviewed IDPs staying at Mubambiro elementary school in Sake, in less than an hour seven artillery rounds were fired from a nearby army camp. The IDPs included many people who were separated from their families as they ran for their lives when the fighting began. When we arrived at the school, the IDPs had been confined there for several days without any outside assistance. Their living conditions were alarming—sleeping on bare soil, with no access to food, latrines or safe drinking water.
In Mugunga camps near the city of Goma, UNCHR has registered approximately 15,000 newly arrived IDPs from the Kamuronzo, Bashali Kaembe, and Muvunyi/Karuba areas. The provincial government organized food assistance to the camp, which included 22 tons of rice and beans. Most of the food, however, did not make it to its intended beneficiaries. During the evening of May 4, armed men from Virunga National Park dressed in uniforms—who are suspected rebel forces, but this has not yet been confirmed—stormed the camp and stole ten tons of rice and two tons of beans.
North Kivu’s Governor Julien Paluku Kahongia attempted to downplay the importance of the breakaway of ex-CNDP officers from the Congolese army by denying both the existence of a rebellion and the rebels’ control over several villages in Masisi territory. However, the massive displacement of people fleeing the confrontations between Ntaganda's loyalists and government troops has proven otherwise.
During a press conference on May 3, the governor acknowledged the reality on the ground. He stated:
The DRC government has asked me to communicate that everything that is happening in Masisi is due to Bosco Ntaganda and he should be sought for that. If our units get hold of him, he will have to answer for all his actions before Congolese jurisdictions, and if he imposes war on the government, we will do it.
Congo’s ruling party, Kabila’s PPRD, also followed suit. Secretary General Evariste Boshab told reporters that Ntaganda will not be handed over to the International Criminal Court, or ICC, for trial. Instead, he said, “Bosco’s indiscipline can be fairly dealt with by Congolese military court.” This “indiscipline” rhetoric by the Congolese government and its unwillingness to hand Ntaganda over to the ICC highlight the underlying fears that an ICC trial could open up a pandora’s box of potential indictments for war crimes, and crimes against humanity, particularly for other high-ranking government and FARDC officials.
On May 3, news of another significant defection by a top brass ex-CNDP began to spread. Col. Sultani Makenga, South Kivu’s Operations Deputy Commander who was formerly the CNDP armed wing’s second-in-command after Bosco Ntaganda, left the army to join Ntaganda’s rebellion. But Col. Makenga didn’t go alone. He was followed by Col. Birinda, Lt Col. Masozerane and some of Ntaganda’s bodyguards who were disarmed on May 2 at his main residence in Goma.
Through intense fighting on the frontline, Congolese troops, including the Belgian-trained special forces who recently deployed to the East, have succeeded in dismantling Ntaganda’s main military base at Kagundu/Mushaki, reportedly seizing weapons and ammunition and forcing the mutinous troops to give up their stronghold and retreat to Kirolirwe. Government troops also reportedly captured the towns of Burungu and Kitchanga, which are near Bwiza—Ntaganda’s long time training camp for new recruits. School boys in transit to Rwanda told the Enough Project they fled because they feared forced recruitments both in Kitchanga and Kirolirwe by Ntaganda's men—a crime Ntaganda has been indicted for by the ICC.
“But while mutineers are near capitulation, an earsplitting news has astounded our troops on the battlefield,” a loyalist colonel who is closely monitoring the operations in Masisi told the Enough Project. An announcement by the Congolese army printed by Radio Okapi on May 6 stated:
Operations aimed at neutralizing indiscipline soldiers are halted since Friday [May] 4 in this part of the country…and commanders of FARDC units in the operational sectors are required to create favorable conditions to let in those [among of the mutineers] who want to serve under the [Congolese] flag.
This shift in strategy has come as a surprise to many, especially the FARDC troops.
On another North Kivu frontline, in the territory of Walikale, security remains tense. Approximately 300 defecting soldiers have reinforced rebel forces led by Ntaganda’s ally in Walikale territory, Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka. On April 27, Sheka’s new coalition forces stormed the Luvungi police station kidnapping 28 policemen and stealing more than fifty AK47 weapons. A UN contingent intervened, saving the lives of the abductees and recovering eleven weapons. The humanitarian situation in Walikale remains dire with displaced and other vulnerable people having nowhere to turn since aid agencies evacuated the area due to increased conflict.
Photos: Internally displaced persons in Sake Town, 27 km west of Goma. May 2, 2012 (Fidel Bafilemba and Sarah Zingg Wimmer/Enough Project).