M23 rebels took over Goma without bloodbath
One knot of fugitives after another tramped into view, heads bowed under their loads, all trying to escape from the city of Goma and stay one step ahead of marauding rebels who were in the throes of capturing the biggest urban centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo‘s lawless east.
Many had feared the guerrilla takeover would become a bloodbath. Goma has at least 400,000 inhabitants – 800,000 including refugees – and Congo’s “M23″ rebel movement has already forced almost 500,000 people to flee their homes during the last seven months of fighting.
On Tuesday afternoon, however, this calamity seemed to have been avoided. The insurgents did indeed capture Goma – and the fighting was brutal while it lasted, sending thousands of refugees over the border into neighbouring Rwanda where they sought safety in the hills behind the city of Gisenyi.
But all resistance melted away at around midday, affording the guerrillas an uncontested march into the centre of Goma and down Boulevard Kanyamuhanga – the city’s version of The Mall. In fact, they almost managed a triumphant procession. One eyewitness described how onlookers waved and shouted “karibu” – the Kiswahili for “welcome” – as smartly dressed insurgents strode by.
The rebels had new uniforms, allowing them to cut a sharp contrast with Congo’s ragtag national army, whose woefully inept soldiers had abandoned Goma after four days of combat on its outskirts.
When the sound of battle died away, ordinary Congolese dared hope that Goma had, somehow, been spared the worst.
Any doubts over who was in charge were soon dispelled. Claude Mugisha, 31, left Goma when the fighting was at its peak at about 8am. He found the national army had simply abandoned their side of the border post.
When he returned at 10.30am to help a friend cross the frontier, new sentries had appeared. “The guys at the border were M23. They were in charge there,” said Mr Mugisha. “They were wearing their uniforms. When I looked, I saw it was M23. They did not make problems for anyone.”
Bitter resentment of President Joseph Kabila‘s corrupt and shambolic regime, which had minimal control over Goma at the best of times, helps explain why some people welcomed the guerrillas.
“We cannot trust this Congolese government,” said one resident, who gave his name as Prince. “Kabila is supported by the West, he is supported by your country – England. Why is he there in power? He was not properly elected. He is only there because the West are using him.”
When word spread that Goma had apparently fallen without a bloodbath, a dozen refugees decided that their flight had actually been a mistake. Having arrived in Rwanda in the morning, they walked back over the border and returned to their hometown at dusk. This handful of women and children represented only a tiny fraction of the thousands who had fled, but they were, perhaps, the fastest returnees in the recent history of refugees.
Meanwhile, scores of Rwandans gathered at their end of Gisenyi’s two border crossings, staring in fascination at scenes of normality in Goma.
The two countries share a colonial-era frontier that divides a single city between a Congolese half, Goma, and the Rwandan side, Gisenyi. Any trouble invariably spills over the line – at least two shells fell on Gisenyi on Monday – so it was telling that yesterday the mayor of the town dispatched a pick-up to broadcast this message over a loudspeaker: “Everybody can return to Gisenyi: from now on, it’s safe. And tomorrow, everyone can go back to work.”
If there is relief that Goma appears to have escaped a massacre – although the full truth of the city’s capture remains unknown – that only underlines how little ordinary Congolese expect of those who claim to fight on their behalf.
Some who cheered the arrival of M23 were, according to the eyewitness, hailing the national army in the same way. After years of civil war, ordinary Congolese have learned to praise whichever armed group happens to control their home.
And M23 is little more than an arm of the Rwandan regime under President Paul Kagame, according to United Nations investigators. They believe that Rwanda has armed and supplied the insurgents, even sending troops to fight alongside them, perhaps explaining their relative professionalism.
M23′s titular leader is Bosco Ntaganda, a renegade general popularly known as “The Terminator”, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes. Now that Goma has fallen into his hands, along with a swathe of rainforest and volcanoes along Congo’s eastern frontier, he will hold the whip hand in any peace talks. The first signs of a peace process emerged yesterday when it was announced that Mr Kabila will meet Mr Kagame.
In the meantime, Goma is a rebel capital, just as it was during Congo’s last civil war between 1998 and 2003. Ordinary Congolese know that even if M23 have refrained from inflicting a massacre this time, nothing guarantees their eternal restraint.
Sadiki Muhirwa, 22, was among the weary refugees trudging the hills above Gisenyi yesterday. He fled Goma on Monday after four people were killed by mortar bombs near his home during the rebel assault. “I will not go back,” he said. “Even if Goma is safe now, how can I be sure that it will be secure in the future?”