The rebels raced away from Goma in a ragtag convoy of looted vehicles, flaunting their war booty as they withdrew from the city that they captured last week.
The war-wrecked road from Goma to the rebel capital, Rutshuru, was clogged with dozens of rebel cars and trucks on Saturday, while a long line of their foot soldiers trudged out of the city, carrying ammunition boxes and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
But while the Rwandan-backed M23 rebels are now officially gone from this strategic city of a million people in eastern Congo, they will keep a major base just 15 kilometres north of the city, ready to sweep back in at a moment’s notice to reassert their control of mineral smuggling and other lucrative businesses in the region.
“We are pulling out, but we can come back at any time,” said Benjamin Mbonimpa, the rebel administrator of Rutshuru territory. “We have thousands of tons of ammunition.”
In downtown Goma, cars honked their horns in celebration at the rebel withdrawal, and the children of Congolese soldiers cheered loudly and waved toy guns as a truck paraded them through the city.
“We can breathe now,” said John Banzi, a 30-year-old butcher in a Goma market. “The M23 weren’t here for Congo’s interests. They were here for Rwanda’s interests. They took all the wealth of this country.”
But many people in Goma are deeply afraid that the rebels will continue to control the city, using a network of spies, informants, and rebel proxies in the police and government.
Because the rebels remain just 15 kilometres from the city, their withdrawal is almost meaningless, many Goma residents said. Some said they saw rebel fighters taking off their military uniforms and donning civilian clothes so that they could remain in Goma undercover.
At Goma’s border crossing with Rwanda, government customs officials returned to their posts on Saturday after the rebels pulled out. But when asked who was in control of the city, a senior customs official said: “I don’t know.”
Under an agreement negotiated by regional powers in Kampala last week, the rebels and the Congolese army will each be allowed to keep 100 soldiers at the Goma airport as “observers.” The army is also allowed to keep a battalion of 600 soldiers in Goma, although the battalion has not arrived yet.
About 280 Congolese police have also arrived in Goma to help secure the city, and a small force from Tanzania is also expected to arrive, supplementing the United Nations peacekeepers in the city.
In addition to their widespread looting in Goma, the rebels have reportedly killed at least 10 people in the city since they seized it on Nov. 20. Dozens more were killed in the fighting between the rebels and the Congolese army before the city was captured. But the city was spared worse bloodshed because Congo’s army fled the city when the rebels reached its outskirts.
“This was a very civilized war,” said Jo Lusi, a famous surgeon in Goma who co-founded the city’s HEAL Africa hospital.
“I’ve seen a lot of African wars, but this was the most civilized. There was no big genocide.”
There is still a danger of a security vacuum in Goma after the rebel pullout, he said. Combined with rising food prices and closed banks in the city, the security vacuum could encourage more looting and chaos, he said.
“There is nobody running Goma today,” he said.