Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Day Marked By Congo Violence

Mortar and grenade blasts echo through the mountains where I spent Labor Day weekend last year. Recently, fresh fighting broke out between the Congolese Army and rebels under renegade commander Luarent Nkunda. Just a year ago, I was wandering around that region on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda researching Heart of Diamonds. At the time, there was a lull in the fighting, although skirmishes had been reported farther north and west. Today, it looks like the Third Congo War is about to erupt.

Captain Tabaro Kiconco, a spokesman for the Ugandan Second Army Division, says they have stepped up already-heightened security and surveillance on the border near where I was camped a year ago. Several Ugandan rebel groups operating from eastern DRC use the tense security situation in the region to launch raids across the border.

The recent fighting in North Kivu in the DRC is the first major clash between forces since the Goma accords were signed in January, 2008, when some twenty-odd insurgent groups, gangs, and rebel factions agreed to a ceasefire under the aegis of the UN’s peacekeeping force, MONUC. Since then, the armed groups, including Nkunda’s breakaway army, have continued to attack civilians and loot the countryside, causing one of the most severe humanitarian crisis in the region since the Second Congo War officially ended in 2003. Estimates of the number of displaced civilians run as high as a quarter million people.

Tensions have been mounting in past weeks, with DRC forces (the FARDC) increasing troop strength while Nkunda’s CNDP ( National Congress for the Defence of the People) maneuvered to gain control of more territory. Western diplomats warned last month that the situation in the east of the DRC was becoming increasingly tense as various groups rearmed. The FARDC and CNDP blamed each other for starting the fighting which broke out in the village of Kanombe about 30 miles north of Goma and spread to several other towns.

MONUC said it has sent armored vehicles to patrol the region and increased contact with both sides to encourage an end to the latest clashes. It might seem that the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force would be easily dominant, but there are nearly two dozen insurgent groups in the region and many of the rebel forces receive outside help. Nkunda’s army, for example, has the near-overt backing of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who uses them as a proxy force to battle the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which includes many original members of the Interahamwe that carried out the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

More than five million people have been killed in the Congo since 1998 according to the International Rescue Committee. Peace treaties have been signed, but there is no end in sight.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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