Civilians in mineral-rich eastern Congo edgily waited to see whether a cease-fire to end the latest round of fighting between government forces and a shadowy rebel group would come into effect as planned Friday evening.
Congo’s president and neighboring Rwanda’s foreign minister were among the leaders who helped engineer the cease-fire at a summit this week in Angola. The cease in hostilities is meant to be followed by a withdrawal of fighters from the M23 rebel group from the major towns they have seized in recent months — Bunagana, Rutshuru and Kiwanja.
While M23 was not formally a party to the talks in Angola, it has said it will accept the cease-fire. But it also says it doesn’t trust the Congolese government to honor the deal and end hostilities.
“Otherwise, the M23 reserves itself the full right to defend itself and to protect the civilian populations against any violations of the agreed cease-fire,” said M23 chairman Bertrand Bisimwa.
The group was warned that if it did not abide, the East African Community regional force would use force to make them do so. On Friday, Kenyan troops patrolled in the streets of Goma, the region’s largest city.
Fighting between rebels and the Congolese military in recent weeks has caused people to flee their homes and abandon their fields. At a displacement camp in Kanyaruchinya, many longed to go home but remained fearful. The Congolese government accuses Rwanda of backing the rebels, which Rwanda has denied.
“If the government has agreed with Rwanda that the M23 should return home, we are happy,” said Nsambimana Ashiwe, 64. “Because we also want to return home to cultivate our fields and keep our cows, sheep and goats because we are here and we are hungry. We are suffering a lot.”
The M23 rose to prominence a decade ago when its fighters seized Goma, the largest city in Congo’s east, which sits along the border with Rwanda. After a peace agreement, many of M23′s fighters were integrated into the national military.
Then the group re-emerged last November, saying the government had failed to live up to its promises under the peace deal. By June, M23 had seized the strategic town of Bunagana near the border with Uganda.
M23 has been a sticking point in deteriorating relations between Congo and Rwanda. Many of the rebel fighters are Congolese ethnic Tutsis and Rwanda’s president is of Rwandan Tutsi descent.
When formed more than a decade ago, M23 was fighting to protect the rights of Congo’s ethnic Tutsis. But many speculate that they just want control of eastern Congo because of its mineral wealth.