Lieutenant Kongolo Nadiane and his comrade Komayombi Kaposho are the two most loyal soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

We found them cooking a pot of beans in the fifth row of dilapidated colonial-era army barracks at the Rumangabo Military Training College.

The compound is the most important military base in the country’s east, with some 2,500 soldiers normally based there. On this day, however, all of them, apart from Nadiane and Kaposho, had deserted their posts.

The absent soldiers had fled the day before, running from an advancing rebel army known as the M23. The rebels were looking for their next conquest after capturing the strategically vital towns of Bunagana, on the border with Uganda, and Rutshuru, further to the west.

Rumangabo sits in hills about 30km south of Rutshuru, right in the way of the rebel push to their next big target – the provincial capital of Goma.

On Friday, Bunagana fell after the rebels attacked a key army post on a hill overlooking the town. Then, Rutshuru’s defenses collapsed much faster, with angry, demoralised troops abandoning their positions after a brief, but fierce, pre-dawn fight.

By the time the rebels turned their attention to Rumangabo, the collapse in army discipline had spread. When it became clear that the rebels were approaching, only Nadiane and Kaposho – a pair of aging instructors with a couple of AK-47s and a few magazines of ammunition between them – were prepared to stand their ground.

“We are among those who were teaching the soldiers,” said Nadiane. “We were not given any orders to leave. Those who wanted to go, went. But as leaders, we couldn’t leave.”

If more government soldiers had stayed, there might have been a bloody fight for the base. In the end, the M23 rebels decided to stay in the hills, and leave the tumbledown barracks to its chickens and goats, a handful of villagers who picked through the personal belongings that the fleeing soldiers couldn’t carry, and the last two old and stubborn hold-outs.

Apart from its symbolic importance, though, there isn’t much to recommend the Rumangabo army base.

At one point, in the distant past, it must have been a grand sight – ranks of smart, Belgian-style, white-washed and gabled barracks set in bucolic hills. It once boasted an expansive parade ground overlooked by the base commander’s office on a prominent outcrop.

Today, the buildings look as though they haven’t seen paint in decades. Steel doors hang off their hinges and the space between the barracks is occupied by overgrown vegetable patches planted by soldiers who simply couldn’t survive on the thin government rations.

The rooms inside the barracks spoke volumes about why the troops’ morale was so fragile. 

In several rooms, piles of dried grass had been shaped into crude mattresses and chairs had been fashioned out of sticks. Columns of cheap batteries, taped together, pinned to the walls and wired to torch-lamps, told of the complete lack of electricity in the dingy, airless spaces.

Nadiane said the base hadn’t had running water for the past four years. 

A soldier’s life is never easy, of course, and the conditions wouldn’t have been too much worse than in many of the villages the recruits had come from. But that misses the point.

When we spoke to the soldiers in Rutshuru who had abandoned their posts, time and again, they complained that they were being sent to fight and die like unpaid animals on empty stomachs.

The government and its military commanders might be able to rally the troops, restore discipline and send them back into the battle with the M23.

And surely there are units that are well led, well fed and willing to fight. But both the government and the UN peacekeepers who are helping defend the region badly need the Congolese army to function and restore control across this very loosely governed region.

If they can’t order their soldiers back to the barracks, the M23 might yet be able to push on to Goma.

And if Goma falls, Nadiane and Kaposho will have a long, lonely vigil ahead of them.