When M23 invited us to Goma’s stadium, we really didn’t know what to expect. It had called on members of the police and national army to surrender their arms.
Just a day earlier, street-to-street fighting in the city had sent people running for their lives. Goma, a bustling, commercial hub for the region, was turned into a ghost town.
So, we were surprised when we witnessed the arrival of thousands of people, waiting to be addressed by M23 commanders.
Loudspeakers, generator, and a microphone suddenly appeared, and Colonel Vianney Kazarama, the spokesman of the group, stepped in front of the crowd.
He seemed at ease, as if he had been practising this moment.
“The journey to liberate Congo has started now,” he exclaimed.
“We will head to Bukavu and then to Kinshasa. Are you ready to join us?”
The crowd’s response was overwhelmingly positive, with loud cheers. But there were also cries of “Will you pay us?”
Kazarama reassured the crowd that they would be paid.
“This is a rich country,” he said.
This is not the first rebel group to address the people of Goma in this stadium, and this is not the first time the people of this provincial capital have capitulated to those in power.
M23 asked the police commander to register the names of people who want to surrender, requesting that they hand over their arms.
I counted at least 50 weapons. It was clear that some of the officers weren’t too pleased about giving up their rifles, but felt they had no choice.
For the government soldiers, many of them out of uniform, there was a different process. They too were asked to hand over their arms, but also offered an opportunity to take part in what M23 calls “ideological training” at a camp north of Goma.
Driving around Goma, you get a sense that this is a city in limbo. There is no government administration, no police, only a few UN armoured vehicles patrolling the streets.
There have been incidents of looting, and reports of intimidation and kidnapping by M23.
The takeover of Goma by rebels, is an example of how the Congolese government and United Nations have failed to secure this region.
Kinshasa and the UN have called on M23 to withdraw from Goma.
However, the rebel fighters seem to be on a roll.
Their control of Goma has given them a dangerous sense of confidence. They are now advancing on the town of Bukavu, more than 200km from Goma, and recruiting in every village and town they capture.
The message to government forces is that you are either with us or against us.