Listening diplomatically while asking tough questions that must be answered is never easy. So, confronting Congolese rebels with accusations of recent sexual violence during a dialogue about long term solutions and peace was a test for me on Saturday.
But the opportunity to hear up close the grievances of some of the M23 rebels, and test their reaction to my anger about the sexual violence and carnage they are alleged to have carried out was too good to miss. So on our final day in Rwanda we travelled out of Kigali to meet this group.
To recap: the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a huge country: from east to west the distance from Rome to Edinburgh. Most observers reckon the DRC government exerts little state authority in the East, particularly the North and South Kivu Provinces. This region has been most affected in recent years by proximity to post-genocide Rwanda, starting with a massive refugee crisis when hundreds of thousands worried about payback for their role in the genocide flooded over from Rwanda. Most returned in the years that followed, encouraged by Rwanda’s reconciliation programmes. But one group, organised into the FDLR, were suspected of plotting to return less peacefully and they stayed.
Meanwhile, Rwanda actively intervened to assist those determined to change the DRC dictatorship and, they claim, to protect their own security. They have allies in the Kivus, Congolese who are by history and culture ‘Rwandafone’, organized more recently into the CNDP. The CNDP are accused over the years of rape and plunder, and to make life almost impossible, there are also a couple of dozen smaller armed groups including Mai Mai tribes who terrorise locals too. The Congolese Army is tasked with exerting some discipline and control over this area, but they are accused of corruption and horrific sexual violence against the locals.
The United Nations force – the biggest peacekeeping force in the world – is mandated with keeping the peace. It has had its problems, although there are those who believe the situation would be much worse if they were not there.
Last year, a group calling themselves M23 split from the Army. They had been assimilated into the army following a peace deal in 2009, but believed that promises made had been broken. They are accused of a violent rampage across the land, finally capturing Goma, the capital of the region, at the end of 2012. Rwanda and Uganda are accused of helping them.
Since then there have been some concrete steps to peace. A Regional Peace Framework signed by 12 nations, the UN and others. UN agreement to make their force more proactive, introducing a regionally recruited intervention force, mandated to chase the violent groups and pre-empt the violence. There have been important arrests, and negotiations started in Kampala, Uganda between the DRC government and the rebels.
But the negotiations have stalled. And a few weeks ago a section of the M23 left Congo and arrived in Rwanda claiming refugee status in return for disarming. It was these 700 guys (and 3 women) we were meeting.
We arrived as most members of the camp were in church celebrating the Sabbath (Saturday) of the 7th Day Adventists. Their leader is a Bishop who was previously President of the M23. He was clearly a political figure, unlike the General sat next to him, who had been M23 Chief of Staff. They explained that there were 600 former soldiers and 100 political representatives on site.
We were shown the discarded uniforms, and told about the discarded weapons. Following disagreements with the rest of M23 over negotiations with the Congolese Government, the men were trying to secure refugee status in Rwanda until the Eastern DRC – in their words – was safe for them to return. For now Rwanda were covering the costs without any support from the UN. That seemed surprising.
We had an interesting and robust discussion. Listening carefully to their grievances – corruption in the Congolese Army, broken promises, lack of rule of law in Eastern DRC and social conditions – but pressing them repeatedly on the accusations of violence against civilians, which they denied. They did agree to support an independent investigation into those accusations and agreed we could record their position in our report.
For what I hope are obvious reasons, I will not record the whole meeting here, but we did gain a perspective that is impossible to capture from just reading briefings, and we left them in no doubt that the allegations of violence were unacceptable regardless of grievances and they had to deal with them.
With a split in the M23, I did wonder how successful the negotiations for peace would be. So I left our meeting pleased that we chose to go, definitely better informed, but slightly less hopeful that the future could be secure.