DR Congo: Crisis in Goma, as M23 rebels make gains

Emile Bolingo is uncertain about the duration that he and fellow residents of Goma, located in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, can endure.

For several days now, this bustling metropolis in the region, home to approximately two million residents, has found itself disconnected from the vital agricultural resources that sustain it.

This incident is part of a recent increase in violence, resulting in the displacement of thousands of people who were already affected by various conflicts in the country.

Rebels from the ethnic Tutsi-led M23 movement have taken control of the two main roads into Goma from the north and the west, causing disruptions in the transportation of produce.

“We are concerned about the potential consequences of the situation if the [Congolese army] does not take action to reopen the main roads in a timely manner.” The atmosphere is filled with a sense of unease… According to Mr Bolingo, there is a great deal of fear among people.

Goma’s population has seen a significant increase in recent days as individuals seek refuge from the approaching fighters.

On Wednesday, Sake, a town located 25km (15 miles) north-west of Goma, was targeted in an attack.

“I suffered a pelvic injury due to shrapnel,” Mundeke Kandundao shared with the BBC from his hospital bed in Goma, where he recently had surgery.

According to a 25-year-old motorbike taxi driver, rebels launched a shell from a hill overlooking the town on Wednesday.

“I was standing behind a cabin with a crowd of people when it happened,” he recounted.

“It’s disheartening to see the ongoing conflict persisting without any apparent resolution.” We are eagerly anticipating the conclusion, so that we may return to our homes.”

According to Laurent Cresci, a representative from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the patient numbers at the state-run Bethsaida Hospital in Goma experienced a significant surge on Wednesday, resulting in a situation of mass casualties. The number of patients in our ward has increased from 80 to 130, making it quite challenging to manage.

It’s a familiar and heartbreaking situation for many individuals.

“How much longer can we continue living in this manner?” From time to time, we find ourselves constantly on the move,” Pascal Bashali shared with the BBC upon reaching Goma. People are arriving on foot, motorbikes, and mini buses.

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Aline Ombeni expressed her deep distress upon reaching the city, explaining that she and others had been forced to leave everything behind. They arrived with nothing – no food, no clothes. They are in desperate need of assistance.

As the conflict looms nearer, it evokes memories of 2012 when the rebels took control of the lakeside city for a brief period before ultimately relinquishing it due to international pressure.

The M23, established as a result of another rebel group, started its operations in 2012 with the aim of safeguarding the Tutsi population in the eastern part of DR Congo, who had been facing persecution and discrimination for a long time. According to UN experts, the group receives support from Rwanda, which is led by Tutsis. However, Kigali has consistently denied these allegations.

“It is widely understood that the underlying cause of this conflict is rooted in economic factors.” Rwanda has been involved in the exploitation of our mineral resources for the past 25 years,” Congolese Communications Minister Patrick Muyaya expressed to the BBC, appealing to the UK to leverage its influence with Rwanda to alleviate the situation.

Concerns are growing that Goma could be taken over once more, this time by the M23. They are known for their high level of organisation, discipline, and advanced equipment, making them a formidable force among the various militia groups in the area.

Last year, President Félix Tshisekedi, who was re-elected, expressed his belief that the people of Congo should place their trust in the government, assuring them that Goma will remain secure. He reiterated his commitment during the election campaign in December, right in the heart of the city.

Goma has emerged as a crucial economic centre, thanks to its proximity to key mining towns that provide sought-after metals and minerals like gold, tin, and coltan. Its excellent road and air transport links, along with the presence of a large UN peacekeeping base, have made it a magnet for numerous businesses, international organisations, and diplomatic consulates.

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Therefore, Goma holds significant importance as a strategic target. However, the M23 asserts that it has no intention of seizing it and insists that it is in a defensive position rather than an offensive one.

“If the military power of the M23 is taken into consideration, it is evident that they have the capability to capture Goma if they choose to do so. However, it is important to note that such an action would likely result in numerous challenges and complications,” commented Onesphore Sematumba, an analyst specialising in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the International Crisis Group thinktank.

The rebels may be showcasing their abilities, while also reflecting on the events of 2012 and the global criticism that ensued after the capture of Goma.

Following its withdrawal, it faced a string of significant losses against the Congolese army, supported by a multinational force, resulting in its expulsion from the country. M23 fighters later agreed to be re-integrated into the army, in exchange for assurances of protection for Tutsis.

However, in 2021, the group resorted to violence once more, claiming that their expectations had been unfulfilled.

It made its way out of the mountain forests along the border of DR Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, gradually advancing towards Goma and gaining control over large areas of land.

Agreements for ceasefires have been made, but unfortunately, they have all ended in failure, as both the government and the M23 point fingers at each other.

The M23 has consistently expressed its desire for peace negotiations with Kinshasa.

“We requested a peaceful resolution to this issue through dialogue,” stated Lawrence Kanyuka, a spokesperson for M23, in an interview with the BBC. “Numerous instances of conflict… fail to address the underlying reasons for war.” The Congolese government has shown a desire to continue engaging in conflict and causing harm to its people.

President Tshisekedi has firmly stated that discussions are not an option.

“It is important to clarify that as a government, we will never negotiate with M23.” M23 is not a valid entity. “It’s Rwanda acting with its puppet,” his communications minister said in an interview with the BBC.

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Last year, an East African force, stationed in DR Congo to aid in the protection of civilians and the securing of areas previously occupied by armed groups, departed the country as per the government’s request.

Following its departure in December, there has been a noticeable increase in activity by the M23, along with the end of the latest ceasefire.

President Tshisekedi is optimistic that the arrival of a southern African force will lead to greater success in combating rebel groups, as they have been given a mandate to take action.

In addition, he has requested the departure of the substantial UN force in the nation, referred to as Monusco. Its inability to resolve the conflict during its 25-year deployment has led to a significant decline in its popularity.

However, there are growing concerns about the potential escalation of the conflict following the Congolese president’s warning in December to retaliate against Rwanda in the event of another rebel attack.

In a seemingly direct response to the comments, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda stated in January that when it comes to protecting his nation, they will fight with the determination of those who have nothing to lose.

Meanwhile, Natàlia Torrent, from medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has expressed concern about the escalating conflict in various regions. She emphasises that the recent surge in fighting is exacerbating the already dire situation for the vulnerable population.

“We are in a region that has unfortunately experienced the spread of various epidemics in the past. We have been actively addressing the challenges posed by cholera and measles over the past year, and there is concern about the possibility of another surge in epidemics,” she expressed to the BBC.

Reflecting on the ongoing conflict, Goma resident Mr Bolingo expressed his frustration, emphasising the immense suffering endured by the local population.

According to Mr. Bashali, he and his family had to escape from Sake due to the dire situation. He expressed his concern over the loss of lives, questioning the purpose behind the ongoing conflict. We hope for a peaceful future for our country.

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