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The struggle between Rwanda and the DRC to control a resource-rich region has pitted ethnic armies against each other, driving thousands from their homes

Women and children gather at a camp for displaced people in the Congolese village of Rumangabo in August, after they fled fighting between the M23 militia and the Congolese military, the FARDC. Photography by Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail

For decades, foreign powers have fought for influence in the resource-rich lands of eastern Congo, where gold and coltan mines are among the most lucrative prizes. But as ethnic-based militias jostle with national armies and their proxies for a slice of the action, it is ordinary Congolese people who always pay the highest price.

More than 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in just one province, North Kivu, because of fighting between Congo’s army and the Rwandan-backed M23 militia, according to United Nations estimates. And M23 is just one of approximately 120 armed groups in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Strings of co-ordinated attacks by multiple militia groups are terrorizing communities on a daily basis in the eastern provinces,” the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a recent report.

The militias and armies in the region are seeking not just mineral resources but also geopolitical influence.

Since the 1990s, Rwanda and Uganda have exploited the military vulnerability and political instability of eastern Congo by sending troops across the border and seizing unofficial control of territory. Their invasions have only intensified the anarchy there, while Congo’s corrupt national army has done little to help.

Members of the FARDC detain suspected M23 rebels on a road between Rutshuru and Bunagana.
A Congolese soldier in Rumangabo wears a hat with the Canadian Olympic team logo on it.
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Displaced people carry their belongings on the Rutshuru-Bunagana road.

This year, villages and refugee camps have been devastated by armed groups that have raided settlements, torched homes and killed civilians. Almost 60,000 people have fled across the border to Uganda to seek refuge, but the majority are displaced within Congo in overcrowded and precarious tent communities.

“When it rains, the water floods the ground in the shelters and we spend the night in the water,” 53-year-old Agrippine N’Maganya told the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Congolese town of Rutshuru, where she arrived with six of her 10 children several months ago.

Hundreds of people are sheltering in a stadium in Rutshuru, where they struggle to find food, often eating boiled leaves scavenged from nearby farms. A unit for severely malnourished children in a local hospital has been full for weeks, MSF reported recently.

“No one has been spared suffering in the eastern provinces,” said UNHCR external relations director Dominique Hyde in a commentary in The Globe and Mail in August.

“I saw it in the scars and mutilation left by machete attacks,” she said. “It has left its mark on the faces of the women who told me, without exception, how they had been assaulted and raped.”

An elderly man holds his head at a camp in Rutshuru. The conflict has uprooted some 200,000 people, most of them staying in the Democratic Republic of Congo and some in neighbouring Uganda.
At the camp in Rutshuru, a fish dinner lies in a bowl; at another one in Kalengera, aid workers check a boy’s weight. Malnutrition is rife among the displaced people.
Displaced people rest in a church in Kalengera. M23 is not the only thing they fear: the eastern DRC has an estimated 120 militias at large. UN peacekeepers are also operating in the region.
On the road between Rutshuru and Bunagana, FARDC fire at the rebels. A woman breast-feeding a child tenses up at the sound of rocket launches.

All of this is happening while a much wider crisis unfolds across the country.

Almost five million people in Congo have been driven from their homes, one of the highest figures of internal displacement in the world, and another million have become refugees abroad. At the same time, almost a third of the country’s 90 million people are going hungry as a result of food insecurity.

The Norwegian Refugee Council has ranked the Democratic Republic of Congo as the world’s most neglected humanitarian crisis in each of the past two years. Political leaders and the media “paid little attention to the crisis,” it said. “There were no high-level political discussions concerning DRC, such as senior officials’ meetings, donor conferences or summits.”

To make the crisis worse, Congo suffers from a perennial lack of humanitarian funding. In the first half of this year, for example, UNHCR appealed for a budget of US$225-million for its programs for refugees and displaced people in Congo but received only 19 per cent of that amount. Congo is ranked among the most underfunded of all UNHCR operations.

In eastern Congo, foreign intervention is one of the key reasons for the anarchy that has reigned since the 1990s. M23 – which takes its name from a peace treaty signed on March 23, 2009, that it claims was never fulfilled – rose to prominence a decade ago when it captured Goma, the biggest city in the region. Human-rights groups have accused it of war crimes.

The group was defeated in 2013 but resumed activity last November, capturing villages and killing dozens of civilians in executions and indiscriminate shelling. In one attack, it destroyed a UN helicopter, killing eight peacekeepers, according to a report by experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. In another attack, 34 people – including two children – died when one of its rockets hit a school.

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FARDC forces take position between Rutshuru and Bunagana.

A recent leaked report by UN experts included seven pages of evidence documenting how the Rwandan government had supplied weaponry and troops to M23. The cross-border interference has infuriated many people in the region. Some politicians accuse Rwanda of trying to destabilize and balkanize Congo.

Denis Mukwege, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who runs a hospital in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu specializing in the treatment of sexual violence victims, said patients tend to arrive from mineral-rich areas where rebel militias are particularly active.

“Even the army is linked to the violence taking place and the minerals in Congolese soil,” Dr. Mukwege said in a recent appearance at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council.

“The conflict in eastern DRC is the deadliest since World War II, with millions of victims of killing, displacement and sexual violence,” he said. “Those massacres are continuing today.”


Map: Fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Violent incidents recorded in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo involving the M23 militia

Nov. 1, 2021 to Sept. 15, 2022

Clashes and violent deaths

Mass rape

Kidnap for ransom or abductions

All other violent incidents

involving other actors

SOUTH

SUDAN

CENTRAL

AFRICAN REPUBLIC

REPUBLIC

OF THE

CONGO

DEMOCRATIC

REPUBLIC

OF THE CONGO

Kinshasa

ANGOLA

0

250

ZAMBIA

KM

North

Kivu

Lake

Edward

Virunga

National

Park

UGANDA

Goma

Lake

Kivu

RWANDA

Bukavu

0

50

KM

BURUNDI

UGANDA

Rutshuru

Kalengera

Bunagana

Virunga

National

Park

RWANDA

Goma

0

10

Lake

Kivu

KM

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: KIVU SECURITY TRACKER; DIGITAL OBSERVATORY FOR PROTECTED AREAS

Violent incidents recorded in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo involving the M23 militia

Nov. 1, 2021 to Sept. 15, 2022

Clashes and violent deaths

Mass rape

Kidnap for ransom or abductions

All other violent incidents

involving other actors

SOUTH

SUDAN

CENTRAL

AFRICAN REPUBLIC

UGANDA

REPUBLIC

OF THE

CONGO

DEMOCRATIC

REPUBLIC

OF THE CONGO

Kinshasa

TANZANIA

ANGOLA

0

250

ZAMBIA

KM

0

50

KM

North

Kivu

Lake

Edward

Virunga

National

Park

UGANDA

Goma

Lake

Kivu

RWANDA

Bukavu

0

10

BURUNDI

KM

UGANDA

Rutshuru

Kalengera

Bunagana

Virunga

National Park

RWANDA

Goma

Lake

Kivu

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: KIVU SECURITY TRACKER; DIGITAL OBSERVATORY FOR PROTECTED AREAS

Violent incidents recorded in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo involving the M23 militia

Nov. 1, 2021 to Sept. 15, 2022

Clashes and violent deaths

Mass rape

Kidnap for ransom or abductions

All other violent incidents

involving other actors

North

Kivu

Lake

Edward

SOUTH

SUDAN

CENTRAL

AFRICAN REPUBLIC

Virunga

National

Park

UGANDA

REPUBLIC

OF THE

CONGO

DEMOCRATIC

REPUBLIC

OF THE CONGO

Goma

Kinshasa

Lake

Kivu

RWANDA

ANGOLA

Bukavu

0

250

0

50

ZAMBIA

KM

KM

BURUNDI

UGANDA

Rutshuru

Kalengera

Bunagana

Virunga

National Park

RWANDA

Goma

Lake

Kivu

0

10

KM

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: KIVU SECURITY TRACKER; DIGITAL OBSERVATORY FOR PROTECTED AREAS

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