Bunagana, DR Congo - Conflict has returned to the troubled North Kivu province in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the area around Bunagana, on the border with Uganda, thousands of people have abandoned their homes in fear of attack by army mutineers, who, since late April, have been engaged in running battles with government troops in the surrounding hills.
"We heard fighting between the rebels and the government troops," said Kajambere Seberera, pausing to speak after reaching Ugandan soil. He and his family are carrying huge bundles of their belongings on the 20km trek from their village to Kisoro, the nearest Ugandan town. "We have come to Uganda for help. We must stay here, we are risking death if we remain in our village."
That does not mean that the conditions facing refugees in Kisoro are especially comfortable or safe. While the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has established a camp for Congolese displaced by the fighting, many people in Bunagana prefer to cross the border at night to seek somewhere to sleep, returning in the day to collect water, to work or to tend fields. While some have family in Kisoro or can afford cheap hotels, many are left to sleep outside, exposed to the regular rainstorms and bracingly cold nights in this high, hilly region.
"It's horrible - thousands of people have fled and they sleep outside on the other side [of the border]," said a man in Bunagana who preferred to remain anonymous. "There's no food or drinking water for them. Women and children are sleeping exposed to the cold. It's really terrible."
"I would love to go home, but now I am so scared of all the violence, I would prefer to be relocated somewhere else."
- Jessica Niragire
There are currently 2,800 people in the UNHCR camp just outside Kisoro. They live in rudimentary tents and rely on food aid to survive. "From our discussions with the people who crossed over, the vast majority would like to return back to Congo as quickly as possible and so far has been reluctant to move to the transit centre at Nyakabande where basic assistance is available," said Sakura Atsumi, UNHCR's deputy representative for Uganda. "The people that crossed over since May 11 are relatively complete families, with entire villages being displaced due to the fighting."
More pressingly, the flight from their fields has left many of these refugees without a means to feed themselves or earn a living. "I'm a farmer, my land is everything I have," said Jessica Niragire, who fled to Uganda when the rebels appeared in her village.
"I have had to leave everything behind. I cannot cultivate my fields from here; I have nothing now."
The rebels have adopted guerrilla tactics that have made the conflict difficult to follow and impossible to predict, leaving the civilian population unsure of how or when they might be able to return home. The situation on the ground changes almost on an hourly basis as towns and villages are taken and then quickly lost, by both sides.
The mutineers are made up of former members of the rebel group CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People), who integrated into the national army in March 2009 under the terms of peace agreements that put an end to a bloody insurrection. However, in recent weeks, the Congolese army in the Kivus has fractured; the attempt to weave the various rebel groups of previous wars into a cohesive national armed force appears to be failing.
The reasons given by the rebels for the mutiny have shifted, from protecting a leader threatened with arrest to, more recently, a wholesale attack on the implementation of the 2009 peace accords. That change in emphasis may be strategic, and points to a desire to settle long-term grievances that would spell bad news for locals who face the prospect of a protracted conflict before negotiations take place.
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What is perhaps most difficult is the lack of certainty bred by an absence of clear information. Nobody is certain of how many soldiers have mutinied, or how many may mutiny in the future. If the rebellion gains momentum, more ex-CNDP may join in the hope of winning powerful roles in future. Violence may increase as other armed groups see a chance to seize territory, and as those seeking eventual negotiations attempt a show of strength before they sit down to talks. These elements have combined to convince people to flee quickly, and to stay away.
"I would love to go home, but now I am so scared of all the violence, I would prefer to be relocated somewhere else," said Niragire. "This is not the first time this happened, and we don't know when the situation will return to normal."
The conflict does indeed look like a piece of unpleasant history repeated. In 2008, the CNDP, then under Laurent Nkunda, rebelled against the army and the government, leading to bloody clashes. Nkunda was eventually arrested and peace was negotiated in March 2009 by his ICC-indicted successor Bsoco Ntaganda. Ntaganda managed to secure significant privileges for ex-CNDP fighters in the newly constructed national army and created a parallel command structure, diluting the authority of the army and the government.
Ntaganda's central role in the fragile peace that has existed from 2009 until April 2011 helped him avoid arrest, until rumours in late March this year that the Congolese government was prepared to bring him to justice prompted him to mutiny. Many former CNDP officers were happy to leave Ntaganda to solve his own problems, but when, in April, the government threatened to redeploy the former CNDP soldiers out of the Kivus and away from their power base, a one-man rebellion began to garner wider support.
This explains the change in focus by the ex-CNDP, which now seems more concerned with the implementation of the March 2009 agreements - and the maintenance of their privileged positions in the army in North Kivu - than with Ntaganda's personal fate. The CNDP military wing released a statement last week announcing the formation of a new group, the Movement for 23 March (the date the peace accords were signed), under the leadership of one of Ntaganda's rivals, Colonel Sultani Makenga.
|Thousands have fled the violence [Phil Moore/Al Jazeera]
Once again, then, the CNDP seems to be rebelling against the government. The fracturing of the army has left a vacuum of security that has been filled by numerous other armed groups which have grown in strength as government forces have been forced to leave certain areas to engage the former CNDP mutineers.
The unpredictable movements of the mutineers, and the sporadic conflicts between them, the army and the numerous other armed groups in the region, have forced thousands to flee across North Kivu. UNHCR has estimated that more than 40,000 people have abandoned their homes due to the recent fighting, with many heading to a large camp in Rwanda, as well as those entering Uganda and those seeking refuge within DRC itself.
"This is a crisis, a catastrophe," said Thomas d'Aquin, the president of the civil society network in North Kivu. "It's a catastrophe because it's an act of recidivism; this has all happened before, and the government isn't reflecting on its mistakes. It's impossible to measure the consequences of these wars on the population."
For now, the people displaced by the fighting have little choice but to await the outcome of the battles being waged around their homes. The M23 rebels are currently in trouble, cornered not far from Bunagana without supply lines. Should the army crush them, it will be the first time since 1994 that the government has had genuine control over this region.
However, there is some concern, among many Congolese people as well as some analysts, that Rwanda may intervene - either directly or more subtly - to support the mutineers. The CNDP was always the traditional defender of the Tutsi ethnic group, the dominant ethnicity in post-genocide Rwanda, and CNDP control of North Kivu has long been considered an important strategic advantage for Rwanda.
If the rebels find sympathy and support from the DRC's neighbour, they may be capable of recovering from recent losses and prolonging the conflict. If that happens, there is little prospect of the peace in North Kivu that people desperately need if they are to be able to return to their homes.
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