Speaking with my friend Celestin tonight, I could tell despite the static-filled connection that his normally humorous and easy-going disposition had turned to an anxious and panicked one, as he is unfortunately waiting out the current rebel advance on Goma, which is the provincial capital of North Kivu province, locked in his house with his wife. He moved to Goma this summer, looking for work, and now is in the process of arranging to flee back towards South Kivu, as it seems inevitable that the rebels led by Laurent Nkunda will be taking-over Goma. Actually, they are already more or less there, as Radio France Internationale (RFI) is now reporting that the rebels have now stopped less than 10 km outside of Goma. Civilians in Goma have been fleeing all day long now, and those left in the city are mostly their against their will due to lack of transportation elsewhere, or lack of anywhere else to go.
Earlier today, the Congolese army charged with defending Goma against the rebel attack fled down towards South Kivu, leaving the city to fend for itself along with the always overburdened MONUC (UN) troops. This is not new—civilians in Congo regularly comment that the FARDC (Congolese troops) are frequently willing to turn their guns against their own people but rarely stand up to a real external threat (i.e. Nkunda’s rebel CNDP forces).
The importance of Goma strategically can not be overestimated. From Goma, it is a quick boat ride to Bukavu, which is really the access route to all of South Kivu. Even here in Uvira, the panic is beginning to spread that if Goma falls, so can Bukavu, Uvira, and the rest of the key cities in eastern Congo. It’s happened two times in the past, once already by Nkunda and his ally Mutebesi, and when one city has fallen to rebels, the others have more or less followed, often times within a few weeks. As the UN has been asserting for the last month, the solution here cannot possibly be a military one, but successful negotiations are really the only way to bring any sort of real peace to eastern Congo.
Unexpectedly, Nkunda’s porte-parole just made a statement over RFI that in fact, the rebels do not intend to take Goma tonight, as this is not their primary objective. They have now asked for a temporary cease-fire, hoping to force Congo’s president Joseph Kabila into negotiations. Their main target, the porte-parole said, is not to incite panic among the civilians, but track down the “menaces,” which refers to the FDLR forces know to collaborate with the Congolese army. Again, these FDLR forces are comprised, partially, of soldiers connected to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda against Tutsis. Nkunda has, since the outset of his rebellion, said he is fighting to protect Tutsis from the FDLR and their allies.
Given the situation and level of confusion going on in Goma, a cease-fire is really the best anyone can ask for tonight. For now, the rebels are stopped directly outside of Goma, which again is unprotected due to the flight of the entire contingent of Congolese soldiers in Goma, who are now stopped at Minova, which is on the North Kivu-South Kivu border.
There has been no response (as of yet) from the Congolese government. Hopefully, this cease-fire can hold long enough to start some form of negotiations and avoid the furthering of the suffering and fear beginning to overwhelm Goma and all of North and South Kivu. Everyone in eastern Congo (including myself and my roommates) is holding their breath and staying glued to the shortwave radio.
I just received a new article in my e-mail from Reuters, stating that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, said earlier today that there is clear evidence that “Rwandan territory” is being used to support the Nkunda’s rebels in eastern Congo. The article also stated that the Congolese army, today, fired into Rwandan territory in a short fire-fight, which marks the first time that direct fighting or shooting has occurred between the two armies during this currently developing conflict. How both of these news items could affect negotiation in light of the cease-fire at Goma, I’m not too sure, but you can be sure that it is bound to make things more difficult. Congo has regularly accused Rwanda of supporting Nkunda, which they have always denied. In addition, research groups and the UN have said that one way eastern Congo could again find itself in all out war is if the Congolese army directly engages the Rwandan troops (forcing them to move into Congo in defense and in direct support of Nkunda) near their border, and it seems like this engagement might have already happened this afternoon/evening.
So, that is all the news that has been coming up so far from Goma. It is late Wednesday night, and still no response from Kabila in Kinshasa concerning negotiations with Nkunda and the CNDP, and no clear idea about what is going to happen in Goma tonight and tomorrow.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Oct 29th, 2008