Over the last six weeks, more than 150,000 people have fled their homes as fighting reignited in Congo. This week, Congolese army tanks pounded rebels in North Kivu in a two-day battle against Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda‘s militia.
The conflict began almost 15 years ago when Rwandan Hutu rebels spilled into Congo from the neighboring genocide in Rwanda. In the last year, hundreds have been killed, thousands of women have been raped and over 800,000 Congolese have fled their homes.
Tutsi General Nkunda recently expanded his crusade to liberate all Congolese people. Last week, the Congolese government gave the U.N. Security Council photographs as proof of Rwandan soldiers‘ involvement in Nkunda’s attack. Rwanda has denied any involvement.
Since 1998, an estimated 5.4 million people have died in the conflict, and about 45,000 die every month, according to an International Rescue Committee survey.
Worldfocus correspondent Michael J. Kavanagh is currently reporting from the North Kivu region of eastern Congo. He is a also a journalist for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Below is a collection of journal entries from Michael’s reporting in Goma. His entries lead up to the intense fighting over the last couple days.
October 11, 2008: Curfew in Goma — NGOs grow anxious
I just came home from several days in the field. When I turned on my phone again, I got a text saying there was a 6 p.m. curfew for fear that UN vehicles would be attacked – at this point, it seems anyone who’s not Congolese or driving in a white 4×4 is considered U.N.
It’s becoming incredibly difficult to operate in North Kivu. It’s not just the insecurity – tensions are so high between the government and the CNDP that aid groups are having a terrible time moving across front lines. This means it’s even worse for journalists – more than ever I need the aid groups to get around but they’ve become paranoid about transporting journalists for fear of jeopardizing their access and – more importantly – the safety of their staff.
Before I move with aid workers I need to agree to a series of rules about what I can and cannot report on. This means that most of what I’m doing I can’t write about here.
October 9, 2008: Waiting for the Rwanda invasion
The Congolese Ambassador to the U.N. just told the Security Council that Rwanda invaded eastern Congo last night, and the Rwandan army is waiting along the border outside Goma, ready to take the town over. Here in Goma — where we can see Rwanda across Lake Kivu — I live about a five-minute walk from the border, and we’re drinking tea.
Blaming Rwanda is a fallback tactic for the Congolese government and army when things go wrong. It inflames nationalist sentiment and brings up memories of past Rwandan invasions — this has the added effect of turning the population against Kinyarwanda speakers in the east, particularly against Tutsis. There may be some truth to it this time – the RDF is not at the border waiting to get in (I was back and forth over the border a few times this weekend).
But it wouldn’t be out of the question for small groups of Rwanda Defense Forces (RDF) soldiers to cross the border to help the CNDP [Nkunda’s National Congress for People’s Defense]. Of course, as one prominent former government minister told me yesterday, “So what, Rwanda sends a battalion. DRC has eight brigades here. It shouldn’t be a fight.”
October 9, 2008: Nkunda’s forces overtake Congolese army base
This morning Laurent Nkunda’s forces took over the Congolese army’s biggest base in the east, about 45 minutes from Goma. I was there only two days ago, and was planning on going back this weekend to film the displaced communities. Now it looks like those displaced people will be moving elsewhere, and we’ll need to find another place to film because the Congolese authorities will never let us cross that front line.
When the news was passed around this morning – by phone calls or in meetings or by sms — you could see the frisson move through people’s bodies. Rumangabo is close – we’ve all been plenty of times. It’s been FARDC [Congolese army] land as long as I’ve been reporting here and I never would have thought that it was under threat. Yesterday the CNDP looked weak. Now they’re just 45 minutes down the road with an enormous cache of weapons.
Congolese are rioting against MONUC [UN’s mission in Congo] in protest. The aid groups aren’t sure how they’ll be able to move in the coming days – it’s completely unpredictable where the next fighting will be.
It’s always strange to be in Goma during times like this. The U.N. will never let significant violence move into the city, so we blithely sit in bars by the lake and drink beers while trying to make plans with fixers and aid workers by text message. Every hour or so, someone at the bar will receive an sms from an army commander or rebel spokesman or fixer or U.N. insider about which town just fell or which village people are fleeing from. Each town that falls means horrible things for the people there. At the bar in Goma we keep score: three towns to one, fifty casualties to twenty one, ten thousand displaced – half of them for the second time in a month. From Goma, we treat the fighting uncomfortably like sport.
October 8, 2008: Day of Prayer for Peace
Today the government declared a national day of prayer for peace and gave everyone a holiday. The army commemorated the day by attacking Nkunda positions in at least two places by 6 a.m. As one national aid worker told me, “We’ve been at war for 15 [sic] years and now they choose to tell us to pray for peace.”
In the city, the roads were quiet, and in the morning people went to the cathedral or the local churches to pray. By afternoon, dozens of men were drunk in the streets.
I met a taxi man named James who wouldn’t work past dark because it would be too dangerous to get home to his neighborhood – he’s a Tutsi – and so he gave my friend his taxi to keep for the night and took a moto home.
October 6, 2008: War returns
I just came back from the Médecins Sans Frontières office. As I arrived, they were finishing a press release saying that “violence has reached its highest level in years.” Yesterday on my way back to Goma from Rutshuru, where the Congolese authorities were more paranoid than I’ve ever seen them, I saw dozens of jeeps full of soldiers speeding faster than anyone ever should up these dirt roads. About 10 miles outside Goma there were tanks mobilizing to follow.
This morning we began getting text messages from aid workers and rebel groups about fighting all across North Kivu. There are already a 100,000 newly displaced people. This weekend I visited a church and school where several hundred people were sleeping on the floors — they get kicked out once classes start or services begin. If it rains during school hours or church services, the people stand outside and just get wet.
The rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, declared a “total war of liberation” in a BBC interview two days ago. He’s actually said even worse, but the main national radio station supported by U.N. money decided not to broadcast his interview for fear of inciting riots against Nkunda supporters. Large crowds of Congolese are still throwing stones at UN convoys as they patrol the roads.
– Michael J. Kavanagh