GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo – The return of Congolese refugees from neighboring Rwanda remains a particularly contentious issue here in North Kivu, eastern Congo. As Enough’s new field researcher based in Goma, I recently traveled to some of the areas where displaced people are settling, and spoke to people closely involved in refugee returns in the region. This Dispatch presents a closer look at some of the patterns of returns and specific types of land disputes that have emerged during the past months, and their potential to further destabilize the region.
The arrival of “genocidaires” and substantial numbers of Hutu civilians caught up in the conflict from Rwanda following the 1994 genocide, in turn, triggered the massive displacement of Congolese Tutsis from eastern Congo, who fled from Masisi, Rutshuru, and Walikale territories across the border into Rwanda. In February 2010, the governments of Congo, Rwanda and the U.N. Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, signed a tripartite agreement that set the stage for the facilitated return of those refugees who have been living in camps in Rwanda. But there is a growing controversy over how many people will actually return to Congo, and over who exactly is a refugee and who is not. UNHCR registration reports indicate that approximately 54,000 individuals have been living in camps in Rwanda. But the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, the Tutsi-dominated former rebel group that signed a peace accord with the government but maintains autonomous control over some of its former strongholds in Masisi and Rutshuru, claims that as many as 100,000 additional Tutsi refugees live outside the camps in Rwanda. The Rwandan government uses an even higher figure, estimating that 150,000 refugees live outside the camps.
Stalled returns and squatters
The return of refugees is not entirely a recent phenomenon. During a visit to Kirolirwe, a spontaneous transit camp established in 2004 located 25 miles west of Goma, I spoke with refugees who told me they first came back to Congo in 2000, when the Rwandan-backed rebel group RCD-Goma controlled much of eastern Congo. These returns continued under the CNDP, but these refugees were largely unable to return all the way to their villages of origin, which remained under the control of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, the rebel group led by some of the architects of the Rwandan genocide.
Following the rapid integration of the CNDP forces into the Congolese army and subsequent military operations against the FDLR, the CNDP has entrenched its de facto control over much of North Kivu. Karekezi Etienne, a teacher and refugees’ committee secretary in Kirolirwe said his fellow refugees feel secure under ex-CNDP soldiers’ protection. But this has yet to lead to meaningful returns, as the FDLR has maintained control of many of its strongholds, and their retaliatory attacks have actually caused thousands more people to flee their homes. According to UNHCR statistics, over 700,000 people have been newly displaced as a result of the numerous U.N.-backed military operations while only 550,000 have gone back home. Meanwhile, most of the “returnees,” whose villages of origin remain insecure, either settle in transit camps or simply squat on the outskirts of Virunga National Park where they partake in the lucrative, but illicit, trade in charcoal made from timber harvested within the park.
Recent population movements from Rwanda to Congo have exacerbated relations between Hutus and Tutsis who speak Kinyarwanda, and other local ethnic groups, including the Hunde, Tembo and Nyanga. According to Laingulia Njewa, the provincial coordinator of the National Commission for Refugees, some 12,000 families of controversial identity returned to Congo at the beginning of this year around the time of the signing of the tripartite agreement, with large herds of cattle in tow. These families are rumored to be economic migrants, rather than returning refugees. Local authorities I met in the towns of Burungu and Kitchanga said that many of the returnees have joined squatter communities in Magera and Bwiza, near the border of Virunga National Park, while others have bought up large tracts of pastureland. Local authorities and villagers, especially those of Hunde and other non-Rwandaphone origin, fear that these new returns and settlements are part of a coordinated effort by the CNDP to seize lands and shift the demographics of Masisi and Rutshuru to consolidate their political and economic control of the area. Such suspicions have been bolstered by the CNDP’s continuing operation of a parallel administration in Masisi, from which it has illegally taxed the local economy, with what seems to be the tacit approval of Congo’s government. On June 1, the Congolese home ministry appointed Gatemba Kalema, a CNDP official as new assistant administrator in Masisi. This news was widely covered in the local media, and many people I spoke to in Masisi believed this would be accompanied by the abolishment of the parallel administration with its illicit taxation, as promised by the provincial officials in Goma. However, contacts in Masisi say they have seen no change so far.
The tensions over refugees are further exacerbated by longstanding land use and tenure questions,such as disputes in North Kivu between farmers and herders. This has taken an ominous form as of late in Congo, as well-armed, self-professed returning refugees from Rwanda bring with them large herds of cattle, sparking conflict with local farmers who resent the imposition of what are locally known as “cows without borders” on their crops.
Yet another source of land conflict in the area is occurring when displaced persons and refugees return to the villages, only to find their lands sold by relatives or occupied by armed groups. Women are particularly impacted by this dynamic. This issue requires special attention.
Land Conflicts and shifting alliances
Conflict over land in eastern Congo has a long and complex history. While land use is often determined by traditional authorities, these practices have not been harmonized with official land laws, creating significant potential for conflict. The United Nations Human Settlement Program, or UN-HABITAT, is the lead international agency working to help mediate land disputes in the context of returns in North Kivu. But mediating land conflicts has proven very challenging, and they have successfully handled only 42 over the 337 land dispute cases received since starting operations in Masisi in September 2009. Lawyer Liévin Shakanya, UN-HABITAT’s representative in Kitchanga, says collective land disputes are the most difficult to resolve. For instance, new landowners have been threatening to evict some 3,000 families who reside in the Bukombo, Bishusha, and Makoto plantations, where they’ve worked as laborers for more than half a century. There is a similar situation for another 1,500 families in Kamuronza. These families fiercely oppose any forced adjudication of the process and fear that it might lead to a violent confrontation.
Meanwhile, armed groups opposed to the rapprochement between the Congolese government and the CNDP are skillfully playing upon these grievances to garner increased support. Representatives I spoke with from two militias, the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance, or PARECO, and the Alliance of Patriots for a Congo Free and Sovereign, or APCLS, both claim that they are fighting to protect their homelands from CNDP domination. But in the aftermath of the rapprochement between Rwanda and Congo, and the ensuing realignment of armed groups in eastern Congo, some unlikely new alliances have formed. For instance, the APCLS, a predominantly Hunde militia, has aligned with the predominantly Tutsi forces of the Patriotic Front for the Liberation of Congo, or FPLC, a new rebel group operating near the Congo-Uganda border that was led by Gad Ngabo, who was just recently arrested in Kampala. The FPLC claimed responsibility for an attack on an arms cache at Burungu earlier this month in which 14 Congolese soldiers, mostly ex-CNDP, were killed. Ngabo and the FPLC represent a faction disaffected with the arrest of former CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda, so for them to ally, even temporarily with a Hunde militia like the APCLS indicates the extent to which mutual enemies can bring together opposing armed groups in eastern Congo.
Tracking the internal dynamics within the CNDP and its factions, with the complex relationships between these groups and sponsors in neighboring Rwanda, is beyond the scope of this dispatch. But it is an issue that Enough will continue to watch closely in the weeks and months ahead.
Reversing a dangerous trend line
Tensions over refugee returns and land disputes are rapidly worsening, while efforts to resolve these issues and successfully reintegrate returning populations are time-consuming, complicated, and suffer from lack of coordination and coherence. Most importantly, the political arrangements between the Congolese government and the ex-CNDP are exacerbating tensions at the local level. For instance, when asked about the persistent illegal taxation by the CNDP’s parallel administration, members of the provincial assembly attribute this to a secret deal or unstated understanding that the government has granted the CNDP de facto control in Masisi. And yet it is precisely the political, economic, and increasingly demographic dominance by the CNDP that is increasing ethnic tensions and impeding the proper integration and reform of the armed forces.
International actors must keep the pressure on the Congolese government to properly integrate the CNDP and push them to dismantle their parallel administration, and to ensure that the refugee return process is implemented in a transparent and inclusive manner that eases the growing tensions in North Kivu. Otherwise the situation may continue to erode.