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KIGALI, Rwanda — One of Congo’s biggest eastern cities fell to a powerful rebel force on Tuesday, Nov. 20, in a war that may redefine the region but has produced little political action by the United Nations, the United States, and international powers that heavily support neighboring governments — notably Rwanda, a Western darling and aid recipient — that are backing the violence, according to U.N. experts. The fighting has displaced nearly 1 million people since the summer, and the battle for the city of Goma marks the latest episode of a long struggle by Rwandan-backed rebels to take control of a piece of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — a struggle the rebels are now decisively winning. The fighting has also highlighted the ineptitude of the United Nations mission, one of the world’s largest and most expensive, charged with keeping Congo’s peace.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Saturday “to request that he use his influence on the M23 [rebels] to help calm the situation and restrain M23 from continuing their attack,” as the U.N.’s peacekeeping chief put it. And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius affirmed that the rebellion in Congo was supported by Rwanda, expressing “grave concern.” But the violence has only escalated since. The U.N. Security Council called an emergency session over the weekend, but its condemnation of the violence, demanding that the rebels stop advancing on Goma and insisting that outside powers stop funding the M23 rebels, have all simply been ignored. The Security Council announced it would sanction M23 but did not even mention Rwanda, the main power behind the rebellion. And even as the fighting has intensified, the U.N. mission in Congo has been making public pronouncements about new access to drinking water for people in eastern Congo — producing a surreal image of the war.
The well-equipped and professional M23 fighters, perhaps better armed and organized than any rebel unit in Congo in the past decade, put on a remarkable show of force over the weekend to move within a few kilometers of the provincial capital, Goma. The rebels not only withstood heavy shelling by U.N. helicopter gunships, but simultaneously gained ground and forced back the Congolese national army on two other fronts, according to reports. The Congolese army and U.N. peacekeeping forces subsequently stayed out of the rebels’ way, allowing M23 to capture large parts of Goma with virtually no resistance. In the end, some 3,000 Congolese soldiers, backed by hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers with air power, were unable to contain M23 forces numbering in the few hundreds.
This unprecedented military capability of the M23 rebels in a country of ragtag militias has led to many credible claims — backed by findings from U.N. experts — that Rwanda is providing weapons, soldiers, and military guidance to the rebels, with orders coming directly from Rwanda’s defense minister, Gen. James Kabarebe. Human Rights Watch says it has extensively documented Rwandan troops crossing into Congo to support the M23 rebels. Uganda, too, is accused of providing M23 with a political base, though on a request from the Congolese government it recently closed a key border-crossing point that had been helping to finance the rebels. Both Rwanda and Uganda are relatively ordered countries — in stark contrast to Congo — with well-entrenched authoritarian governments that receive significant military and financial aid from the United States and the West.
Such powerful backing means the rebels can deliver on their far-reaching threats. As Goma fell, M23 spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama told me that rebels intended to “capture a good part of eastern Congo,” including its other major city in the east, Bukavu. The rebels have demanded that Congo’s government negotiate with them — without specifying precisely what they want. But Congo has said it will only speak with Rwanda, “the real aggressor,” and not to a “fictitious” group that is serving as a cover. For now, the M23 rebels are regrouping in Goma. And there may well be a calm interlude in the war, as parties attempt to negotiate. But given the rebels’ history, at the back of their minds is likely an old dream — of a place of their own in eastern Congo — that has become distinctly more real with Goma’s capture.