Congolese Rebels Put Down Arms, But Will Another Group Rise Up?

The Congolese rebel group M-23 is has been condemned for its years of brutal violence against civilians. But now, they've vowed to lay down their weapons. Guest host Celeste Headlee discusses the issue with NPR's Eastern Africa correspondent Gregory Warner.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. And we're going to take some time now to look at Congo. The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo has a dubious distinction. It's commonly known as the rape capital of the world. In a few minutes, we'll speak with a doctor who's made it his mission to help victims of sexual violence there.

But first, we want to talk about one of the rebel groups that's blamed for much of that sexual violence. The group is known as M23. Earlier this week, they announced they're going to put down their arms and pursue more political means to achieve their goals. And reports are coming in that a major leader of that group, along with some 1,700 rebels, have surrendered themselves to the Congolese army. Joining us now to talk more about who the M23 are and what their surrender means is Gregory Warner. He's NPR's East Africa correspondent. And he joins us from our East Africa bureau in Nairobi. Gregory, welcome to the program.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Thanks, Celeste.

HEADLEE: So let's go back to the beginning for those who have no idea who M23 are and why they've been fighting the government so long. Give us a brief primer here.

WARNER: Honestly, even to those of us who have been watching the M23, it's not - it was never very clear what they wanted, except to steal as much as they could because when you dig into their political demands, they're vague and they kept shifting. Who the M23 were or are becomes a little bit clearer when we look at their financial backers. When we follow the money. And for the M23, the support was really coming from two places. One was the powerful business leaders and the military commanders in eastern Congo and in the provincial capital of Goma. And two, the second backer was really, allegedly, the Rwandan government.

Now if you just leave Rwanda aside, it's a bit of a different part of the story. And just - you just ask why would these powerful Congolese businessmen support these thugs? And the answer is, look, there are a lot of people in the DRC who are getting very rich off the mineral wealth in the region. They don't trust the dysfunctional, corrupt Congolese government to protect them or their interests. So they back groups like M23. You can think of the M23 almost as like hired militias gone amok in the lawless environment of DRC. They're taking over turf, committing massive atrocities in the process.

HEADLEE: So it was just under a year ago when the M23 took over a small but important town on the border between Rwanda and the Congo, Goma. And you were in that area when that happened for the conflict, and you observed - some of these refugees were talking about trying to find shelter. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

WARNER: On the far edge of the camp, a woman works a sewing machine. Not 50 yards from her tent of sticks and plastic sheeting begins a hill, at the top of which the Congolese Army has taken up position. Some of the displaced people in this camp just outside Goma are here because they fled M23. Others are here because they fled the Congolese Army. They all came seeking safe ground. Now they find themselves directly between the strategic positions of the two forces.

(Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: This elected leader in the camp, who asked that I not use his name because he's afraid of army commanders, said this camp is right at the combat zone. M23 on one side, he says, the Congolese army on the other, And an enormous lake, Lake Kivu, blocking their flight out.

HEADLEE: So what is the mood now there, Gregory? I mean, these people who are also fearing the Congolese army, which I guess is now victorious to a certain extent, do people now begin to have a feeling of security or is it much too early for that?

WARNER: I think what we need to understand is that what's happened since I did that story is a remarkable, at least temporary, transformation of the Congolese military. So we heard in that story the fear that people had of the army at that time. And around that time, the army had retreated to a place called Minerva. This is where army soldiers allegedly raped more than a hundred women and children. These were army soldiers doing the raids. And if that wasn't disturbing enough, one of the most horrifying details later reported by soldiers was that the officers ordered these rapes to, quote, boost morale. So this was right after the army was at its most demoralized.

They'd just fled M23's victorious assault. And it characterizes what the Congolese army has been for so long, which is the very opposite of protective. All the sudden, the United Nations comes in with their intervention force. This new seriousness of the U.N. approach comes with a new seriousness in the military, where at least for now, the patchwork of command structures has been streamlined, some of the corruption's been curtailed. The most corrupt generals, the most abusive generals, were taken off. It's something more like a disciplined fighting force that's been incredibly victorious. So the question really for so many Congolese is, is this our new army? Or is this going to go back to the army of old, which was the army that people feared and which has always fueled in the Congo this cycle of violence?

HEADLEE: For quite some time, the U.N. forces in the Congo were a bit of a joke. People thought of them as pretty ineffective. What happened here?

WARNER: Well, I mean, if you think of the blue helmets of the U.N. peacekeeper, those blue helmets have become synonymous in Congo with ineffectiveness, with sitting around and indifference. And especially, that day last November, when the M23 literally marched in and took over the provincial capital, the city of Goma, which is a city of a million people, supposedly defended by these 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers, give or take, who never fired a shot.

And that takeover was a huge embarrassment to the United Nations. Soon after that, the U.N. authorized an intervention force. And this intervention force had a first ever mandate to engage and neutralize rebel groups. These were not mere peacekeepers. These were called peace enforcers, and these U.N.-financed peace enforcers with their tanks and their helicopters, they were backing the Congolese army when it routed the M23 positions.

HEADLEE: All right, so now they're surrendering but isn't it the fact that there's at least 30 other rebel groups that are fighting the Congolese army? How do we know that they're not going to just fill the vacuum left behind by M23 rebels?

WARNER: Look, you're right. Exactly. Thirty - 40 rebel groups, and that includes the FDLR, steered by some on the genocidaires from the Rwandan genocide. You have the Mai-Mai who wear drain plugs as magic amulets around their necks when they go into battle. These are extremely violent, very, very dangerous groups that the Congolese government will have to deal with next. Significantly, though, the army, in the midst of their celebration on the heels of the M23 surrender, said our job is not done yet. This is a lesson. This is a message to all the rebel groups out there. And then it's really a question, what is going to be the international will in continuing to fund this U.N. force and continue to turn these military victories into peace and development strategies.

HEADLEE: And what is the will, of course, of these other businessmen that you described earlier that were backing the M23? Do they just then switch their backing to another rebel group?

WARNER: There is where this whole ethnic question comes into play because if people remember the Rwandan genocide in 1994, we heard about terms Hutu and Tutsi. And this is where Hutus rose up. They slaughtered about 800,000 Tutsis in the space of several months in Rwanda. Some of those Hutu genocidaires, they fled to the Congolese jungle to plan more attacks. And that's always been the justification given by Rwanda's Tutsi-led government for getting involved in the Congo. They say they're trying to protect their people. Same thing with the backers of the M23, mostly Tutsi. Most of the M23 are Tutsi. Again, we don't want to oversimplify because sometimes you get a Hutus in there.

But the point is that if you talk to Congolese people in Goma, they'll say, you know, everything was fine here until the Hutus and the Tutsis brought their beef into our country. That's certainly an oversimplification. But if the Congolese government, on the heels of this victory, can't do something to mollify the fears of the Congolese-Tutsi population that they're not now going to be the next target, then yes, we're going to get the next iteration of the M23.

HEADLEE: Well, then let me ask you, was there land that the M23 was controlling that now reverts - I mean, there were some - what - 800,000 refugees? People who had to flee their home...

WARNER: Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...Because of the fighting. Do they get to go back to their homes?

WARNER: Oh, yeah. I spoke to someone just two days ago. She said that she's leaving in two days. So maybe she's on her way, back to these areas.

HEADLEE: She's leaving to go back to her home?

WARNER: Absolutely. You know, I mean, when I was in Goma and around Goma, I interviewed countless refugees who - internal refugees - who were just waiting for the chance to go back to their homes. They're the ones celebrating right now because they were living in these quite abysmal refugee camps - very, very poor conditions, very little employment, hardly any working schools. They're excited to go back to their farms. They're excited to go back to the schools - send their kids back to school. That's what everyone's celebrating.

HEADLEE: NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner. He was kind enough to join us from Nairobi in Kenya. Gregory, thank you so much.

WARNER: Thank you so much.

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