AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The 20-year-old conflict in eastern Congo can feel like an alphabet soup of armed groups, scrambling for land and minerals. Today, we're going to hear about just two of those groups: one defeated, one still at large. And both key to a high-stakes diplomatic deal that's drawn in the new American special envoy to the region, Russ Feingold.
NPR's Gregory Warner has that story.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The former senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold, is stuck in traffic in eastern Congo.
RUSS FEINGOLD: Yes, I'm in traffic in its Bukavu and that's exactly where I should be if I want to take this seriously.
WARNER: We're in Bukavu just over Lake Kivu from Rwanda. And the traffic he's up against in this city is due less to a surfeit of automobiles, than of potholes, wider sometimes than the remaining pavement. The potholes often cited as a sign of the neglect of eastern Congo by a government seated 900 miles to the west. Go out of Bukavu for just 25 miles you can run into some armed groups.
FEINGOLD: This absolute cauldron of armed groups because it's ungoverned. And people realize that you can just form an armed group and come into a community, and take what you want, treat the people however you want, and there's impunity.
WARNER: Last year, the countries of this region signed an agreement to work together to get rid of the armed groups one by one, and the U.S. appointed Russ Feingold special envoy to hold these countries to that agreement. First armed group to go was the M23, a brutal rebel group allegedly supported by the hand of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who Feingold then met with.
FEINGOLD: The conversation would go like this: Mr. President, we see a credible body of reporting that Rwanda is giving external support to the M23. To which they would respond: That's not true. To which I would respond please stop doing it. Very civil. Move on to the next topic.
WARNER: When the M23 was roundly defeated, it was a diplomatic coup for Feingold and the other high-level envoys from Europe and the U.N. and the African Union, a team that called themselves the E-team, for envoy.
FEINGOLD: I had an idea that was only briefly in currency to call it the SWAT team. Possibly not as consistent with peace as it should be, but it had this quality that we just kind of swooped in.
WARNER: Swooped in and made the Rwandan president an important promise.
FEINGOLD: We will go after the FDLR after this is over. That was an important assurance.
WARNER: The FDLR is not just another armed group. Their name comes from the French acronym for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. It was founded by some of the leaders of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. After their killing spree they fled across the border and they now live with their troops, sometimes their families, in the ungoverned jungles of eastern Congo.
FEINGOLD: Knowing that those individuals are over here and have not been brought to justice has to be very difficult.
WARNER: Sort of like if the Nazis are just a border over.
FEINGOLD: I don't know how they could see it any differently.
WARNER: So Feingold and the E-team offered Rwanda a kind of diplomatic quid pro quo: Rwanda would stop funding its rebels, the M23, and then the United Nations and the Congolese army would go after the FDLR. That was the promise.
TIMO MUELLER: Rwanda is pretty frustrated, is pretty angry that promises made earlier were effectively broken.
WARNER: Timo Mueller is an analyst in eastern Congo with the Enough Project based in D.C. and he says Congo has not held up its side of the bargain. The Congolese army enthusiastically went after M23, which is the Rwandan rebels, but the FDLR is said to enjoy cozy economic relationships with some Congolese politicians. A leaked United Nations report found that the Congolese army has been selling weapons to the rebels, the rebels they claim to be fighting.
The head of the UN mission in DRC is Martin Kobler. He's the fifth member of the E-team, and says the promise was not broken. In fact, he took the U.S. delegation up in a helicopter over areas once controlled by the FDLR.
MARTIN KOBLER: You have just seen FDLR positions taken out. We have several actions against FDLR positions and they were successful.
WARNER: But the UN mission, called MONUSCO, has only dispersed the guerilla fighters. It hasn't defeated them.
KOBLER: They are scattered, they are hiding in villages, and above all, they do not want to fight. You see, they declared clearly, also publically, we do not want to fight MONUSCO so try to fight a ghost.
WARNER: The lawless scramble for loot in eastern Congo can seem like an endless episode of "The Wire."
MARK DWYER: I just see the FDLR as another armed group. There are many other armed groups.
WARNER: Mark Dwyer of Mercy Corps said that going after FDLR would not make the Congolese people any safer. The real issue is the potholes problem, Congo's lack of government.
DWYER: There are so many armed groups if you get rid of one, unless you're able to control the region, another armed group will just take the void.
WARNER: But in a interview afterward, Russ Feingold said the U.S. position would not soften.
FEINGOLD: There is no excuse for inaction against the FDLR.
WARNER: Because 20 years ago, when those genocidaires first fled into the DRC, the United Nations met them with food and free shelter. You could say the world has something to prove to Rwanda.
FEINGOLD: This is about creating a diplomatic confidence-building so they not just believe the DRC, but that they believe the international community and they believe the United States when it gives them solemn assurances that these efforts will be made.
WARNER: Rwanda, for its part, seems to be hedging its bets. M23 leaders, accused of horrendous crimes, pushed out of Congo last year when they were defeated, are said to be roaming freely in Rwanda, re-arming and recruiting, maybe preparing to re-enter the fray. Gregory Warner, NPR News.