In a land of brutal militias and mass atrocities, Congo’s M23 rebels have claimed to be different: professional, disciplined, democratic and caring for the welfare of the people.
The rebels are obsessed with their image. They have a Facebook page. They issue press releases. They give speeches in favour of freedom and democracy. They pay money to young men to wave pro-M23 placards and hold orchestrated pro-rebel marches.
The rebel capital, Rutshuru, is a showcase for their ideology. Neat and tidy, without a scrap of trash to be seen, Rutshuru is supervised by taciturn young M23 members in clean new uniforms, with new radios and weaponry from their Rwandan sponsors.
Just as in Rwanda, anti-corruption signs are posted on the roads, and every adult is compelled to clean the city streets for four hours on one Saturday per month. “Our priority is the social welfare of the Congolese people,” says Benjamin Mbonimpa, the M23 administrator here.
Yet beneath this beautified surface, the rebels hold power by terror and violence. If you talk to Rutshuru’s residents in a secure place, away from the watchful eyes of rebels’ spies, they reveal the deadly reality of life under the M23.
“They take whatever they want,” says a carpenter. “If I report it, they will come back and kill me.”
Last week, eight of M23’s armed men burst into his house, shooting into the air. They took everything – money, furniture, clothes. “If you cry,” they told him, “nobody will help you.”
Others in Rutshuru describe far worse: the rape of schoolgirls, the confiscation of farm crops and the murder of those perceived as enemies.
“Their attitude,” says another man, “is that everything nice and beautiful should belong to them: motorcycles, mobile phones, women.”
A third man described how rebels used machetes to chop into the house of a man who had tried to keep them out. They shot him, looted his house, and then sat calmly in a nearby street, drinking beer.
None of the men were willing to give their names, fearing they could be killed.
Rutshuru, which is roughly 80 kilometres north of Goma, was captured by M23 last May, in the early days of the rebellion. When the rebels withdrew from Goma on Saturday, many of them sped back to Rutshuru in looted vehicles, some still with government logos and license plates visible.
From Rutshuru, it is a short drive to the borders of Rwanda and Uganda, where stolen cars can easily be sold.
Rwanda has hotly denied that it supports the rebels. Yet the evidence has become so overwhelming that even Britain – a longtime ally – has halted its aid to Rwanda, citing the “credible and compelling” evidence of Rwanda’s support for the rebels.
After capturing Goma on Nov. 20, the rebels did not indulge in mass slaughter. Instead, according to human rights researchers, M23 had careful lists of enemies that included judges, government officials, even witnesses who had testified against M23’s mineral smugglers. (More than 200 officials were flown out of Goma by United Nations peacekeepers to protect their lives.)
At night, M23 men roamed the city in civilian clothes, identifying the homes or vehicles of their enemies, checking their ID cards, and then shooting them or looting their homes. Sometimes they prohibited a public burial for the victim.
“They care about their image, and they use this lofty language, yet they’re still carrying out these brutal and targeted attacks,” said Ida Sawyer, a Congo researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Despite their rhetoric, M23’s top five leaders are among the most notorious perpetrators of violence in the region, she noted. Their godfather, General Bosco (The Terminator) Ntaganda, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes for using child soldiers in combat.
The rebels have gone to great lengths to conceal their links to Rwanda. In one case, a high-ranking Rwandan military officer in the M23 ranks was seriously injured in battle. He was brought to the HEAL Africa hospital in Goma, where emergency surgery was performed. The surgeon, Luc Malemo, referred the officer to a better-equipped hospital because of the risk of blood clots. But when he put the officer in an ambulance across the border to Rwanda so that his Rwandan family could take him to a better hospital, the rebels were furious.
They accused the hospital of allowing M23 to be linked to Rwanda. They made angry threats to the hospital staff. “You have made a big political mistake,” they told the doctors. “Watch out. It will be on your file.”
For days afterward, Dr. Malemo could barely sleep, fearing he could be killed. Even after the rebels withdrew from Goma, he and his family lived in terror that M23’s undercover agents could still track him down and kill him.