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English: A Reason for Hope in Congo’s Perpetual War

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FARDC en action— Rocket after rocket ripped across the sky. By Saturday evening, after two straight days of pitched battle with artillery, tanks and mortars, the Congolese Army had driven the M23 rebels out of the strategic town of Kibumba.

“We are victorious,” sang ecstatic soldiers from the back of a truck as dusk fell. “We are the winners.”

The officers were more circumspect.

“It’s not finished yet,” said the commander, Maj. Gen. Bahuma Ambamba, adding that the area was still being cleared.

Still, the battle was a dramatic turnaround from barely a year ago, when the rebels had the upper hand. Ill-disciplined, corrupt and often drunk, the Congolese soldiers were only somewhat more popular than the mutineer rebels who had taken up arms against them.

Last fall, after the rebels briefly overran Goma, the regional capital and a city of one million people, the United Nations peacekeeping forces here were exposed as little more than blue-helmeted mannequins.

That bitter defeat jolted both the Congolese government and the United Nations Security Council into action, bringing new leadership and vigor to the long war in eastern Congo.

Congo recalled dozens of officers to the capital, Kinshasa, and streamlined the command structure. The United Nations authorized an intervention brigade to bolster the peacekeeping force and put in charge a Brazilian general known for battling street gangs in Haiti.

In August, the Congolese Army, with air and artillery support from United Nations troops, routed the M23, reclaiming strategic high ground around Goma and forcing them back to the negotiating table.

Last week, the negotiations broke down and fighting resumed. A spokesman for M23 said the Congolese military had started the latest round of fighting, but General Bahuma said they were only responding to a rebel attack.

This time, the peacekeepers observed but did not engage. And the retooled army appeared to have passed a test.

“You cannot compare the present army with the army of yesterday,” said Kuba Honoré, a traditional chief in the Goma area, who said his people, convinced that the M23 had been driven out, had begun returning from displaced-person camps and even planting beans and sweet potatoes again.

“What is needed is only to provide the soldiers the necessary support,” he said. “We have the confidence that they’re able to defeat the enemy and drive them out of our country.”

No one thinks the war is over. The fighting in eastern Congo is one of the world’s most intractable, prolonged and deadly conflicts, claiming millions of lives over a decade and a half. The region is rich in gold and diamonds, and minerals like coltan and cassiterite, but instead of making its people wealthy they have only tempted invaders and local warlords. Goma, a bustling commercial hub on the Rwandan border, has been plagued by violence and poverty.

The latest chapter began last year, when more than 1,000 former rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese Army mutinied, breaking away and naming themselves M23 after the date of a failed peace deal between the two sides, March 23, 2009. The majority of the rebel commanders came from the same Tutsi ethnic group as the leadership of Rwanda, which Congo and the United Nations accuse of backing the rebels. Rwanda denies involvement.

Last November, hundreds of rebels, machine guns on their backs, marched into Goma, setting off a national crisis. As Congolese soldiers retreated, they raped more than 102 women and 33 girls, some as young as 6, according to United Nations investigators. Riots erupted across Congo, even in the capital, Kinshasa, a thousand miles away, threatening the government of President Joseph Kabila.

“For about 12 years now, Kabila has been kind of failing the Congolese Army,” said Fidel Bafilemba, a field researcher in Congo with the Enough Project, a nonprofit anti-genocide group. “Only lately has he realized people have been waking up and saying, ‘You are the traitor.’ ”

Less than two weeks after they seized the city, the rebels withdrew, the result of heavy international pressure, doubts about whether they could hold and administer a major city and the promise of negotiations with the government. They left waves of assassinations and disappearances, lootings and carjackings in their wake.

The loss of a major city, even temporarily, humiliated the government. Abroad, it reawakened fears of a return to the dark days after Mobutu Sese Seko’s ouster in 1997, when militias and foreign armies rampaged across the country.

The government revamped the officer corps in the east. “So far the army seems to be better behaved,” said Ida Sawyer, a senior researcher in Congo for Human Rights Watch, though she said there were still abuses and accountability was lacking for the spree of rapes. “It seems that they have gotten very clear instructions from the top of the hierarchy and that seems to be filtering down.”

In March, the United Nations Security Council authorized a new intervention brigade that would, according to its mandate, take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. The United Nations also brought in the new force commander, Maj. Gen. Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, who had won praise for his assertive, even aggressive posture in Haiti. An internal document described his goals as to “recapture the initiative” and to defeat “emerging threats.”

Many analysts say that the mandate has always given peacekeepers the authority to use deadly force to protect civilians, and that what was needed were more aggressive commanders.

“There’s been a lot of hype about the intervention brigade, some of it justified, some of it not so justified,” said Jason Stearns, an author, blogger and Congo expert. “It’s a matter of interpretation. Others have chosen to interpret the clause in the mandate very loosely, very passively. The new force commander thinks it means to take pre-emptive action, disarm before events occur.”

The rebels had pulled back just a few miles outside Goma and continued to shell the city. In August, when the fiercest fighting began, Congolese forces were backed by the new peacekeeping brigade, including air support from Indian helicopters. Lt. Col. Olivier Hamuli, a spokesman for the Congolese military, described the fighting as “eight days without stopping, day and night.”

“There does seem to be a determination to get the job done that wasn’t there before,” Mr. Stearns said. “But this is just one victory really. Let’s see what happens next time.”

It is the sad fate of the Congolese that since the days when the Belgian King Leopold II was exploiting the country’s vast resources, there always seems to be a next time.

It remains to be seen if the Obama administration’s increasing pressure on Rwanda will have any effect on the fighting here. The United States cut off military aid to Rwanda this month over its alleged support for M23, which is believed to use child soldiers and depend heavily on Rwanda for supplies.

On Saturday, along the road between Goma and Kibumba, soldiers brought up two young men, both defectors from M23. One, who claimed to be 20, looked 16.

“You are good boys. You have made a good decision to come,” General Bahuma told them as they stared on, sullen. “You should fight for your country.”

Back in Goma, it was clear that after years of war, residents finally have reason to hope.

In front of a tin-roofed shack, green ferns nosing out of piles of volcanic rock, uniformed soldiers and civilian women in brightly patterned dresses prayed and sang. They were asking for a victory over the rebels in Kibumba.

“God acts,” the women called in unison. “Kibumba falls,” the soldiers responded.

New York Times