The clock is ticking down on the launch of a military operation in eastern DRC against a Rwandan-Hutu militia that has refused to surrender and disarm. 

United Nations troops with MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, together with the Congolese army (FARDC), have tackled the rebels before, but this operation comes loaded with high political expectations and fears of a possible humanitarian catastrophe.

Previous military operations in 2009 had horrific consequences with more than 1,000 civilians killed, extreme sexual violence, and aboout 900,000 forced to flee their homes. Satellite imagery confirmed the destruction of villages caused by revenge attacks by Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels

In July 2014, after attempts by the church group Saint Egidio to mediate a peaceful surrender and disarmament, international diplomats agreed to a six-month opportunity for the FDLR to disarm or face military consequences. 

The January 2 deadline has now passed and only about 250 combatants and their dependents have come to transit camps set up for the surrender process. A leaked copy of the forthcoming UN Group of Experts report blames a lack of commitment by the FDLR leadership, and said most of the surrendered weapons "were not in working order".

 Former Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) combatants at the Mutobo Demobilisation Centre [Getty Images]

President Joseph Kabila's adviser, Jean-Marie Kassamba, told Al Jazeera, "The ultimatum that we gave them has expired. We have said that at any moment the Congolese army with MONUSCO will start the operations against the FDLR."

This fulfilled pledges Congo signed with Rwanda and Uganda at a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia after the M23 rebels were defeated, he said

Kassamba said the international community "must exercise the same pressure on these countries that harbour M23, so that it's no longer just towards the Democratic Republic of Congo, which does a lot, and which is at the centre of all the attention and falls victim to all these demands".

Genocide

Twenty years ago the genocide in Rwanda pushed one million refugees across the border into Congo. Hidden among them were some of the people responsible for the massacres. 

Refugee camps managed by international NGOs became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed that "genocidaires" - the collective name for the killers - were controlling the refugees and using the camps to launch attacks on Rwanda.

The Rwandan Patriotic Army of the newly installed mostly Tutsi rulers invaded Congo, forcing some refugees back into Rwanda. Many more, including thousands of women and children, fled into the Congolese forests where they were pursued and attacked by Rwandan soldiers and a Rwandan-backed Congolese rebel alliance that eventually overthrew the president, Mobutu Sese Seko.

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A 2010 UN 'Mapping Report' condemned the massacres of the Hutu, identifying most of the victims as women, children, elderly and infirm, and concluded the killings "if proved before a competent court, could be described as crimes of genocide".

These events combined with pre-existing local tensions kicked off a war, spiralling into a regional conflict that included eight countries. It was amid this violent cocktail that the FDLR was formed in 2000 with the aim of re-taking Rwanda. 

Over the years the FDLR has become embedded in communities in North and South Kivu in Congo's troubled east. They claim to protect the thousands of remaining Hutu refugees most of whom exist in  limbo, with no official refugee status. 

Exploiting the ongoing insecurity in the region, the rebels are accused of multiple atrocities against Congolese civilians, including the burning of villages and rape. They operate illicit mining activities and practice forced recruitment, the use of child soldiers, and taxation rackets. The FDLR has political and financial support among diaspora communities, particularly in Europe. 

Repatriation efforts

Church groups have been at the forefront of repatriation efforts building networks of trust and communication to encourage peaceful disarmament. In recent years, 2,000 combatants and 19,000 civilians have returned to Rwanda through the Paix et Réconciliation programme of the Église du Christ au Congo - a network of protestant churches.

They know that what constitutes their force is the presence of civilians and dependents. This is their strategy.

-  Serge Lungele, programme director, Paix et Réconciliation

Repatriations, splits in the FDLR leadership, and vicious attacks on the FDLR and their dependents by the Raïa Mutomboki, a local self-defence militia, have considerably reduced the rebels' strength. 

UN reports estimate only about 1,500 fighters remain and of those, most are too young to have participated in the Rwandan genocide. However, the leadership that includes some of the original genocidaires exercise tight control over troops and civilians. 

"Every decision that is taken by the leadership is respected at all levels," programme director for Paix et Réconciliation Serge Lungele told Al Jazeera.

If FDLR numbers diminish, they lose their impact.

"They know that what constitutes their force is the presence of civilians and dependents. This is their strategy," he added.

Military consequences

Jason Stearns, director of the Rift Valley Institute's Usalama Project, said military operations will have limited success. He said the FDLR is in no mood to fight and will hide among civilians and in the forests.

"They are very likely to kill civilians both as a form of leverage, but also because if the FDLR is destabilised they lose access to their regular revenue streams," said Stearns.

The UN troops in the Congo, MONUSCO, and humanitarian organisations who work under the umbrella of UNOCHA, the humanitarian wing of the United Nations, have launched intense preparations. Congolese soldiers have undertaken training to ensure they operate within international laws.

Charles Bambara, MONUSCO public information director, said they have also been informing the FDLR families and people living nearby to make it clear they can leave and are not the targets. "We are broadcasting relentlessly through UN radio and also partner radios are relaying these messages," he said.

FDLR rebels lay down weapons in DR Congo

No one knows how long the offensive will last. UNOCHA says it is planning for the "worst case scenario", spokesman Yvon Jens told Al Jazeera.

"When people start fleeing it will take weeks to stabilise, to get food to them," Jens said.

FDLR fighters are dispersed across a huge area and are likely to fragment further. The refugees are isolated in remote locations and as Lungele explained, the FDLR live in strategic points.

"They know the forests very well, better than the UN - even the Congo army," Lungele said.

Only peaceful disarmament will solve the FDLR problem, added Lungele, a belief echoed by Jens. "Eventually we will have to sit around tables and make negotiations for peace," he said.

Jens warned the danger is "in trying to bring about peace in DRC, we are actually bringing about more damage to the civilians".

Source: Al Jazeera