EASTERN CONGO - At first observation, everything looked like it was staged. The area’s ‘President’ and head of National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) General Laurent Nkunda, was meeting General Olusegun Obasanjo.
The retired Nigerian leader is now serving as special envoy of the UN Secretary General. He is in Rutshuru, a stage of recent fighting between Congolese troops and rebel leader Nkunda.
The scheduled meeting is basically to try and defuse the escalating tension in eastern Congo. The fire in Eastern Congo followed a rarely peaceful period in recent times after the CNDP and the government agreed to “work together”, in January this year.
General Nkunda and the DRC government negotiated a deal for peace and the most prominent feature was the integration of CNDP troops in the DRC national armed forces.
However, towards the weeks ending September, Goma itself was saved from CNDP’s capture with the rebels declaring a ceasefire. Obasanjo is here to try to find peaceful means of stopping the war.
Peace talks in a church
The renewed fighting started in August has seen Nkunda’s CNDP capture a number of strategic areas and towns from government control and as a result, international humanitarian organizations have been quick to release reports declaring their analysis of the situation. Even the UN has increased its peace keeping force to 20,000 the largest mission in the world.
Nkunda and Obasanjo are meeting in a Catholic Church mission, which after the traditional Sunday worship early in the morning, has quickly become an altar of peace.
Nkunda calls it, “a blessing, a chance for peace.” Obasanjo looks determined to talk sense to both Nkunda and Kabila. He says there must be a ceasefire before anything is tabled.
Nkunda is a Congolese. He has honed his skills in the complex wars that have raged in Eastern Congo since the end of the Rwandan 1994 Genocide against Tutsis.
Today Obasanjo has come in this remote part of Eastern Congo- two weeks ago under government control- but now taken by CNDP.
Jomba hill hosts a beautiful catholic mission on its peak and the meeting between Obasanjo and Nkunda is taking place inside one of the church buildings.
The meeting venue, a part of the territory under the control of Nkunda, it is also in the midst of the main food basket of the entire breadth of Eastern Congo.
Feeding major cities
Security is very detailed on the fences of the meeting venue, but outside here children play and run around in circles. The elders smoke tobacco and waiting journalists-mostly white reporters from international media houses mill around.
Everything at first looks as if it has been designed by the rebels to look good for these journalists. But the drive towards Rutshuru is much more natural and serene.
Trucks heavily loaded with sacks of foodstuffs and cattle contest for pathway on the small road with Monuc Anti Personnel Carriers, while on the roadsides, what is said by locals to be former security posts and road blocks of the FDLR are still left undisturbed.
The soils along all the hills covering the entire region of Kabuhanga, Bunagana, Rumangabo, Kibumbi and to Rutshuru, the ones occupying the region that covers the borders between Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo are probably the most fertile in Central and East Africa.
A large part of this area has been under the control of the CNDP since 2004 and as a result it is a haven of peace compared to other parts in eastern Congo.
This further explains why the meeting is perhaps taking place here and why the crowd is so eager to see Nkunda. They call him liberator.
For the 170 km of the journey from Goma inside the area under the control of CNDP, many of the residents in the area talk of the minerals, but they say the minerals are very far from here.
They say it’s in Katanga region and even then, the mines and their products are run privately by Chinese and French companies.
The minerals so often mentioned in international news reports are not evident here, save for Nkunda’s metal tipped walking stick.
After a few minutes talking to the press and bidding farewell to Obasanjo’s entourage, Nkunda is on his way back to the meeting venue to meet members of the executive council of the CNDP.
Nkunda stops and addresses the crowd and promising a second visit soon, “to spend much more time with you.” He smiles and the crowd smiles back.
This happens in Kinyarwanda and long after all international journalists had already left. Residents here say Nkunda is their favourite. Even in private chit-chats, many don’t understand what the fuss on the current humanitarian crisis is all about.
“Since 2003, we have not had people running away from my village,” says Bosco Sebahanga, a resident of Jomba.
With this area embroiled in civil conflict involving various rebel groups and bandit militias, there are no investments in the agricultural sector here or any other sector. However, the area remains a food basket of Goma in Eastern Congo, Gisenyi in Western Rwanda and Kisoro in Southern Uganda.
It ironic therefore, that humanitarian groups involved in the crisis that currently pits Nkunda against the DR Congo government continue assessing the area as a ‘humanitarian crisis.’
The timing of the meeting is because the humanitarian groups “feeding the war in our country” according to Sebahanga, have complained to Nkunda to open ‘humanitarian corridors’ so they can supply food to displaced victims of the war.
As the aid organizations raise their concerns about the safety of their ‘food convoys’ to the above areas, private businessmen buy food from markets in the same area, many as deep as Kibumba hundreds of kilometres inside the territory under the control of the CNDP.
The food crops from here include onions, carrots, bananas, vegetables and fruits and large numbers of livestock. The agricultural produce is transported on Ugandan Fuso trucks locally called ‘Ingande’ to Goma, Kigali and Uganda by local farmers.
There is no government functioning here, the locals, sometimes with their local churches are responsible for most infrastructure in the region.
Traders here share the small roads with Monuc armored vehicles escorting the aid organizations trucks to Goma. A driver of one such truck that carry agricultural produce to Goma says it is not the first time that international aid organizations have got it all wrong in Eastern Congo in recent years.
Manned roadblock by FDLR
“In 1995, the humanitarian agencies supported an active military establishment under the guise of a refugee camp,” the driver who declines to be named says.
“This is the current FDLR that is terrorizing us. Monuc people are not serious” the driver says.
He says that many of the busy trading centres we passed through were only two months ago under the Kinshasa government, and adds that only two months ago, the same towns accommodated camps where the FDLR lived undisturbed.
It is these camps that aid organizations claim to have found empty recently. He says as we pass one such camp. Many residents here the FDLR had their own government structure and territory close to the western Rwandan border.
“They charged five litres of fuel for every vehicle that passed through Rumangabo township on top of ransacking all material on board,” one resident who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
According to the residents, the FDLR is a real threat. But it is not clear which one between them and the Mai Mai militia is the most feared. While many are willing to talk about FDLR, many more are afraid to talk about Mai Mai.
A senior CNDP official living in the area adds his movement is used to the practices of the humanitarian organizations. He observes that it is not the first time that refugees in Eastern Congo have received undue mercy.
”After the Rwandan Genocide, many of the people that were fed by aid organization near Goma turned out to be genocidaires who had a very active military organization that was being assisted by these NGOs.
The CNDP says they have dismantled most of FDLR camps that were housing them. The residents under Nkunda seem to move freely. They have remained in their houses and Nkunda says his movement had assured them of protection.