Conflict in Congo Is Causing Untold Suffering and Threatening Wider War

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting, which may spread across Africa's Great Lakes region

Conflict in Congo Is Causing Untold Suffering and Threatening Wider War
Internally displaced people at Kanyaruchinya camp, Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Guylain Balume)

On the hilly outskirts of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), endless rows of rickety tents line both sides of the road atop trash-covered earth and black lava rock from the nearby volcano, Mount Nyiragongo. This is the Kanyaruchinya refugee camp. In the past year, over 100,000 people have fled war in the DRC’s east and are now calling this area home, most camping by the side of the road, a lucky few sheltering in local schools.

A flashy young Congolese reporter named Guylain Balume pulls over to a space between some shacks. Guylain, 33 years old, has been acting as my fixer, driver and translator during my time in Congo. With just a few calls, Guylain can put me in touch with anyone here — warlords, politicians, pygmy tribes. He’s the epitome of “work hard, play hard,” having spent much of his decade-long career embedded with the army, covering the central African country’s myriad armed conflicts. He enjoys living it up in Goma’s lively nightclubs and donning swanky watches along with his bulletproof vest.

We step out of his car as a large white armored truck of U.N. soldiers drives past. The DRC is home to the largest U.N. peacekeeping deployment anywhere in the world: 16,000 strong in 2021. Considering just how out of control the situation here was a quarter-century ago, the current conflict is a matter for international attention. Yet while the world’s eyes have been turned toward the calamity in Ukraine, the crisis in the Great Lakes region of Africa has largely been ignored in the U.S. and Europe.

As Guylain and I walked around the camp, we were followed at all times by a large group of children, either mistaking us for nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers or just curious to see a stranger from the outside. A white face without the get-up of a soldier — a doctor, maybe? Then where are his medicines? Either way, it was something new and exciting.

“The problem that we are facing now is there is not enough food,” a 30-year-old refugee named Patric told us in French. “The agencies came here to register people, gave just a [bit of] food for some people just for maybe two to three days. So after that, everyone is just surviving. Some of us carry some sacks for people, and then we can get some money to survive. And even those who are selling, it’s not all of us; it’s only maybe 1% who came with their own business. Most of us don’t have any business; we don’t have anything to survive with.”

A few of the internally displaced persons, known as IDPs, brought their businesses with them. One woman borrowed a sewing machine from her village and earns a living mending clothes. “It’s a way to keep myself busy; fixing clothes is the only work I have,” she said. “The government’s been here just once in the two months I’ve been here, and they’ve never come back here again. Some of us are returning to our villages to quickly grab some products and then come back.”

A few of the more affluent ones came with their livestock, which quickly fell sick because of the camp’s conditions. The animals were slaughtered and eaten without much regard for what ailed their bodies.

“When I came here after two weeks, the government had just come here once; they started distributing food, and some of them tried to go back with the same food without giving it to the refugees,” Patric continued. “So it was a kind of riot, and people started fighting. There were gunshots, and there were three dead.”

Organizations such as the SAFER Consortium, the international NGO Welthungerhilfe and the Congolese NGO Bon Dieu dans la Rue hand out cash around Kanyaruchinya to help people buy food and other essentials. Over Christmas, local charities drove around handing children toys and meals to spread festive cheer. But they only have so many resources, and those aren’t enough.

“Now 10 people have died from hunger. The government and NGOs are not providing,” Guylain said, translating what people were saying in the small group that had assembled around us. “Most of the men are now street beggars around Goma. Only volunteers and people with goodwill visit the IDPs and provide food that lasts one or two days.”

“Someone came by to register us on the IDP list, but until now there’s been no government assistance,” complained one mother, carrying her baby on her back, wrapped in a pouch of traditional kanga cloth. She’d escaped the war zone three months before, while her husband remained in the bush.

“Until now, there’s been no food,” the mother continued, “but sometimes we go to the bush and gather some firewood which we can sell in the street and buy something. As you can see, I don’t even have enough to cover this tent. Right now, I’m trying my best so my kids will be out of the rain and sun. And if you didn’t come with your own clothes, that means you’ll remain without clothes.”

It took until March this year, nearly a full 12 months after the M23 (March 23 Movement) rebel military group began its blitz across the countryside, for the European Union to dispatch its first cargo plane carrying tents, medical equipment and other humanitarian aid to Goma.

I asked the group gathered around us if there were any other problems that they faced. “There’s crime here, especially sexual violence,” a young pregnant woman added. “Some of the women, they are being raped by men who come in our tents and they rape us. And when we go out, we can come back and find everything in our tent has been stolen.” Guylain told me that, with few other options, some of the women had turned to sex work. Looking around my squalid surroundings, this wasn’t the ideal place for romance. Nor anything else. The camp’s overcrowded latrines have led to an outbreak of cholera, claiming at least 16 lives as of February 2023.

The residents of Kanyaruchinya have been internally displaced as a result of conflict between the government and the M23, which reignited in early 2022 after lying dormant for a decade. Since January alone, around a million Congolese in the country’s east have had to run from their homes ahead of the rebels’ advance.

The core of the M23 rebel army consists of mutinous former soldiers of the Tutsi ethnic minority; it takes its name from a previous peace agreement, on March 23, 2009, which ended an earlier Tutsi insurgency. The M23 blames the government for not making enough effort to integrate Tutsis into the civil service and military. They have pronounced themselves guardians of Tutsis against Hutu militias.

In 2012, the M23 guerillas briefly overran Goma, a city with a population of 1 million, before being pushed back by the Congolese army and U.N. peacekeepers.

After that, they laid low in camps in Uganda and Rwanda, only to suddenly reemerge and strike in March of 2022. The M23 rapidly advanced into government territory, overrunning towns and coming within 20 kilometers of Goma, sparking fears that they would encircle the city. The onslaught was the M23’s most significant since the 2012 campaign.

Meanwhile, the fighting threatens to explode into a broader crisis between the DRC and its smaller eastern neighbor, Rwanda, which is accused of secretly helping the rebels and using them as a proxy for its interests in eastern Congo.

To understand the DRC’s conflict, we need to delve into the colonial past of both nations, the DRC and Rwanda, and their onetime ruler, Belgium.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a massive country the size of Western Europe, vastly wealthy in natural resources, including copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, coltan and oil. On paper, it should be one of the most prosperous states on Earth but, in reality, it is one of the poorest and most chaotic.

For centuries, the Kingdom of Kongo ruled over what is now the western DRC and parts of Angola. Then, in the late 15th century, Portuguese merchants arrived and, seeing the vast mineral wealth, began destabilizing Kongo by arming rebels. By the 17th century, the kingdom had disintegrated into squabbling mini-states, while captured, enslaved people were sold off to Europeans and shipped across the Atlantic.

In the 19th century, a vast rubber supply was discovered in the Congolese depths, and the area was carved up by European powers in the 1880s, during the “Scramble for Africa,” with Portugal holding onto what is now Angola, and Belgium taking the rest. King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State, enslaving the entire population in order to harvest rubber. Flogging, severed limbs and execution awaited those falling short of their quotas. Tribal leaders were murdered and there was no effort to educate the Congolese or improve their lives in any way. It was among the worst mass murders of the 20th century. While estimates of the death toll vary, as many as 10 million people may have been exterminated, with millions more severely maimed.

Eventually, Leopold went too far even for the Belgian government, which took Congo out of his hands and established a formal colony. Under this regime, Black Congolese were denied the right to vote, unionize or receive a higher education. The white Belgian colonizers did everything they could to keep Congo disempowered.

When independence came in 1960, it was followed immediately by a mutiny against the remaining Belgian settlers, who made up almost the entire professional class. The Belgians then fled the country. Since the Black Congolese had been deliberately kept uneducated, it was a brain drain of catastrophic proportions; at independence, only 16 Congolese held university degrees throughout the entire country. The young, embattled prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, the first leader of independent Congo, asked for Soviet help to keep his country together, only to be taken captive and executed by Belgian- and American-backed rebels.

In 1965, an extravagant anti-communist dictator then seized power and declared himself president, ruling for the next three decades with an iron fist. His name was Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, meaning “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” He was called Mobutu for short, and the country was renamed Zaire.

Meanwhile, under the Belgian colonial regime in Rwanda that followed World War I, a racist hierarchy was set up, with Tutsis enjoying a privileged position over the Hutu majority.

The Belgian classification of Tutsis as superior to Hutus was influenced by anthropometry, the science of human physical measurements and proportions. They favored Tutsis based on their facial features, and introduced identity cards with ethnic distinctions. Belgian administrative reports described Tutsis as having “high brows, thin noses and fine lips.”

Hutu resentment simmered after independence in 1962, reaching its boiling point three decades later, when Radio Mille Collines began broadcasting anti-Tutsi propaganda, calling Tutsis “cockroaches.” Over 100 days, between April and July 1994, nearly 1 million Tutsis were hacked to death with machetes by the Rwandan army, the Presidential Guard, armed militias and even ordinary citizens, who willingly took to slaughtering their neighbors as well as any humanitarian Hutus who got in the way.

After the genocidal government was overthrown, the perpetrators fled across the border to Zaire, where Mobutu sheltered them, which further fanned tensions in the region. It is believed that Mobutu was sympathetic to the Rwandan Hutus. Rwanda and Uganda went after the perpetrators and invaded Zaire in 1997. They overthrew Mobutu, who escaped on his private jet, and they installed the rebel leader Laurent Kabila. The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This set off a chain of events that resulted in the Great African War, the deadliest conflict since World War II, in which over 5 million died at the hands of nine nations — including Angola, Rwanda, Chad, Namibia, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Uganda and of course the DRC itself — and their proxy rebel armies raping and marauding throughout the countryside. Children were kidnapped from their villages and forced to do unspeakable things; their stolen childhoods were spent clutching AK-47s and marching through thick forests.

The carnage was sustained by the profits from coltan, a mineral extracted from mines controlled by rebels and warlords, and smuggled abroad. The metal extracted from it, tantalum, is essential for components in mobile phones, laptops and other electronics. If you sent a text message in the early 2000s, it’s quite likely part of your phone was mined at gunpoint.

A peace agreement was reached in 2003, and the foreign armies withdrew, but low-level fighting continued in the DRC’s east. At least 120 armed groups now roam eastern Congo, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Hutu militia formed by Rwandan refugees, some of whom took part in the genocide. Other groups include the jihadist Allied Democratic Forces and the M23.

The original core of the M23 consisted of around 1,000 men. They were mostly Tutsis and former rebels from an older militia, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, who were integrated into the army and later mutinied. While it’s hard to guess how much manpower the M23 can count on at the moment, their capabilities have grown beyond guerrilla strikes to the point that they can challenge the Congolese army in open combat.

I recently spoke with Major Willy Ngoma, the M23’s spokesperson. Born to a military family in Kinshasa, his father served as a bodyguard to Etienne Tshisekedi, the father of the current Congolese president, Felix Tshisekedi. In 2006, Ngoma met the officers who would later form the core of the M23 before joining the mutiny in 2012.

“We are revolutionaries; we are fighting for a noble cause, just like Che Guevara in the Congo,” Ngoma told Guylain and me over the phone. “We realized some army officers of the DRC are collaborating with foreign and local armed groups such as the [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda]. This can only bring the country to collapse.”

Rwanda and the M23 accuse the Congolese government in Kinshasa of collaborating with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. A U.N. report leaked to the press acknowledged that certain Congolese commanders have fought alongside the Hutu militia and other militias in counterinsurgency campaigns.

“It’s a perfect union between the [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda] and the government — as you say, ‘birds of a feather flock together,’” Ngoma commented. “They work together in perfect harmony. They have the same uniforms and the same weapons as the DRC government. The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda kills the Congolese people, but the government remains their silent partner.”

Ngoma also claimed that the M23 was taking a stand against corruption and wanted to promote development and peaceful coexistence in the Congo.

During their brief occupation of Goma in 2012, the rebels set up a new administration to collect taxes. At the same time, lawlessness reigned, with looting, carjacking, robberies and executions all over the city.

Guylain witnessed the chaos. “When Goma was invaded in 2012, all the officials flew to Bukavu and Kinshasa,” he remembered of those dark days.

“At first, the people were happy and facilitated the rebels as there were no more [government] taxes, no intimidation by soldiers, until they realized that the rebels were also merciless and cruel,” Guylain continued. “The U.N. was still there, but it seemed suspicious how they cohabitated with the rebels without stopping them from looting the central bank. When the M23 left, they took people’s cars that they stole back to Kasese in Uganda.”

The U.N. Intervention Brigade and government forces soon pushed the rebels back, forcing them to retreat into Uganda, where they spent years languishing in camps, playing football to pass the time.

“We left the DRC in 2013 to Kasese in Uganda, where we were brought to a military training camp called the Bianga Training School in Ibanda,” Ngoma recalled. “We spent four years there; then we left on Jan. 14, 2017, to the Sarambwe [Gorilla Reserve] in DRC, where the military attacked us, and we defended ourselves. From there, we took over Tshanzu, Runyonyi and all the territories we have occupied up till now.”

The villages of Tshanzu and Runyonyi were among the first to be captured at the beginning of the rebels’ advance in March 2022. The M23 forces now occupy large tracts of the Virunga National Park, home to the famous mountain gorillas, which have been cut off from their rangers and protectors since an M23 attack in November 2022.

The M23 has also been accused of a massacre in the town of Kishishe in November 2022, in which 272 civilians were allegedly murdered. Eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that M23 members went door to door, summarily executing men and gang raping the women. M23 counterclaims that 21 of its soldiers were killed in a firefight, leaving eight civilians dead from stray bullets.

Ngoma said that civilians under M23’s rule enjoy law and order. “In the parts that we control, there is no disorder such as kidnapping, rapes and murders,” he said. “That all happens in the government’s territory, not ours. On our side, the local people are always treated as kings. Everything is alright here. People can wear whatever clothes they want; there are schools here for students, such as music and fashion. ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto’ — ‘let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.’”

But many refugees in Kanyaruchinya have quite a different impression.

“The situation started on the border with Uganda,” said Patric. “The rebels were invading all those villages until they came to my village; that’s why I fled, because they were shooting guns everywhere. When the rebels came, they were shooting guns, and then they started breaking down doors and taking people’s stuff.”

The unrest caused by the M23’s advance has not been contained to Congo but threatens to spiral into a wider conflict across the Great Lakes. On Jan. 24 of this year, the Rwandan military fired a rocket at a Congolese fighter jet as it flew over Goma, forcing it to make an emergency landing with one wing on fire, as debris plummeted to the ground. Rwanda claimed the plane violated its airspace. Since Goma sits right next to the Rwandan border, this was not an implausible explanation.

The relationship between Kinshasa and Kigali — the capitals of DRC and Rwanda, respectively — has been tense this past year. The U.N. and the DRC blame Rwanda for supporting the M23, using them as a proxy for regional influence, hunting down the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and looting from the Congo’s wealth of resources.

Guylain believes Rwanda has been behind uprisings in the DRC’s east since 1997. “When the M23 occupied Goma, others came from Rwanda via the border; everyone saw it,” he told me, and added:

“M23 — only the name that’s changed after the Laurent Kabila invasion to kick out Mobutu. [Kabila] signed an agreement with Uganda and Rwanda to give them the eastern part of DRC, then destroyed all the proof. The [anti-Mobutu] allies were not happy and decided to assassinate him and take the eastern part of the country. The [Rally for Congolese Democracy, National Congress for the Defence of the People, and now the] M23 are the same leaders and rebels covered by Rwanda.”

Allegations that the Rwandan army has propped up the M23 date back to the first uprising. The claim is that the Rwandan army marched alongside the M23 into Goma in 2012, then later helped them retreat. More recently, a leaked U.N. report examined drone footage from near the Rwandan border last year and concluded that Rwandan soldiers are fighting alongside the M23 in the territory of Rutshuru, launching joint attacks against the Congolese army and other armed groups and arming the rebels.

“Rwanda is a poor country; its economy depends on the DRC,” Guylain continued, “which means it will never give up, as it depends on the DRC’s resources, using rebels to control the resources as they [pro-Rwandan forces] are now in Rubaya, one of the main coltan production centers in the world. Recently, customs have been calling me after catching a coltan smuggling truck.”

The DRC sits on an estimated 60% of the world’s coltan supply, much of it extracted illegally in dangerous, makeshift mines, then smuggled across the border to Rwanda, from where it eventually makes its way into our smartphones and laptops. This crucial resource is the prize for anyone with enough firepower to grab hold of the mines.

Rwanda, for its part, accuses the DRC of firing rockets into its territory and fighting alongside the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the genocidal Hutu militia. Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, has claimed that the M23 is an internal DRC problem.

Nevertheless, despite having “no influence” on M23, the Rwandan government has formally agreed to the need for a ceasefire, yet the rebels say they don’t care. “It’s the Congolese army that works with foreigners such as the [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda], Ugandans, and so on,” said the M23’s spokesman Ngoma. “We are a self-sufficient movement not relying on anyone’s support, especially not the Rwandans’.” The latest ceasefire attempt, brokered by Angola, fell apart almost immediately, when M23 soldiers clashed with pro-government forces.

There are some parallels between the ongoing crises in the Great Lakes and in Ukraine, where Russia plays the Rwandan role, sponsoring a local insurgency, which has led to an all-out war. One can only hope that is not what fate has in store for Congo.

My homeland, Britain, commendably welcomed refugees from war-ravaged Ukraine. Yet it also struck a deal with the Rwandan government to deport immigrants in the U.K. whom the government considers illegal to Rwanda and house them in Kigali. Thanks to the hard work of lawyers and activists, no one has yet been deported, but the Rwandan government has already pocketed some 140 million pounds (around $174 million) from the scheme, meaning that, despite all the evidence provided by the U.N., Britain is directly bankrolling the party responsible for the misery in Kanyaruchinya. Meanwhile, in January 2023, Kagame declared that Rwanda would no longer accept Congolese refugees, but later backtracked on his announcement following widespread condemnation from human rights groups.

When I landed in Goma’s small international airport, a large group of Nepalese men waited in line next to me for their passports to be processed. They were part of the U.N. peacekeeping contingent, or MONUSCO (the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC), which took over from an earlier U.N. peacekeeping force in 2010. Workers in the U.N. are highly visible throughout Goma, driving around in their white armored vehicles. This is in addition to the East African Community joint force of Kenyan, Ugandan, Burundian and South Sudanese soldiers deployed to the eastern DRC.

Locals have no confidence that these outsiders will solve anything. “Even though the MONUSCO and East African forces have come here, nothing has changed,” Patric complained. “The situation is getting worse and worse.”

In July 2022, protests against the U.N. in Congo turned violent. Dozens were killed after rioters stormed and burned the mission’s bases in Goma, Butembo and Uvira, throwing rocks and petrol bombs and burning down U.N. buildings. The U.N. soldiers would sometimes respond with live rounds. Anger was stoked by politicians like Bahati Lukwebo, the DRC senate president, who accused the U.N. of failing in its job and said the peacekeepers must leave.

Meanwhile, although Kenyan soldiers from the East African Community are guarding Goma, they’re reluctant to engage the rebels too far from their home territory.

“It’s all about the political will,” said Patric. “If the politicians want us to go home, there can be peace, and we can go home. It’s because they don’t want peace; that’s why we’re still here.”

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