Militias in the North Kivu region are facing desertions as the UN armed contingent begins to move into the embattled territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But fighting still flares.
BENI - Colonel David Lusenge surrendered to the Congolese army at dawn on the second Saturday in April.
This former officer of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), who had deserted the national army to help found the rebel group Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, had been plotting an attack for late March against the town of Beni.
“I’ve decided to come back to the FARDC. I have finally realized that I must serve my country in the regular army, and not in the bush,” he stated to representatives from civil society, who helped pave the way for his peaceful return.
Lusenge is not the only one to have turned his back on the rebel movement since the United Nations Security Council’s decision to send an armed contingent to stamp out the insurgency in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The celebrated leader of the Mai-Mai tribe, Muhindo Wikongo, very active west of Beni, has also given up the fight, along with some members of insurgent groups like the March 23 Movement (M23) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Witnesses tell of Wikongo leaving his arrows, machetes and blades behind him, followed by his lieutenants, to the surprise of the villagers who were living in constant fear of attacks.
Still, the fighting is hardly over. This past week saw the worst violence since M23 briefly overtook the regional capital of Goma last year. Observers say the remaining militia are trying to undermine the arrival of UN troops.
UN flexes its muscles
Around the town of Beni, the rebels have been turning themselves in one by one over the past month, dropping their weapons on the way. At least ten armed groups have surrendered in total. Most of them go through civil society, which has been granted authority by the local administration after last February’s talks.
“We regularly receive calls from outlaws who tell us their wish to leave the bush and re-embrace civil life,” says Teddy Kataliko, president of Beni territory’s civil society. With its 3,000 soldiers, mostly from African countries (Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi), the UN special contingent is better prepared for assaults and owns better equipment than the standing Congolese army.
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M23 troops in Bunagana, North Kivu - Photo: Al Jazeera English
According to Mussa Demba Diallo, head of the public information division of the MONUSCO (UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) in Beni, the mission has infantry, artillery, a special forces unit and a recon team. “We advised the locals to leave the bush since fighting an international force is not an easy task. We are likely to lose friends and family,” says Christophe Kambale from civil society in Beni.
Warning of the coming effects of this mission, which is expected to be operational anytime between now and July, the provincial government in North Kivu and civil society leaders are urging the dissidents to make a choice between civil life or the army. Retraining centers have already been opened since February in county seats.
“We are in permanent contact with some of the children who have been ensnared in the fighting. Truth be told, their demands are not clear. Sometimes they claim they have been drafted by politicians fighting the current authority, sometimes they say they were promised rank and gold after conquering large cities,” says Jackson Kalongero, head of the Congo governmental program of reconstruction and stabilization in eastern DRC.
“Many rebels are starting to get along with this reintegration process, others timidly return to their villages,” noted North Kivu's governor.
Spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai said that since early April, 87 rebels from the M23 already surrendered to UN forces. They were regrouped into the Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement section of the UN mission in Goma. Governor Paluku reckons that “more than 500 fighters of the M23 have been reinstated into the FARDC since 2012.”