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The war the world forgot – displacing seven million and counting – by Hugh Kinsella Cunningham for The Telegraph – 17.03.24

Thirty years on from the Rwandan genocide, the Democratic Republic of Congo still bears the conflict’s brutal scars.

‘We are so tired of running. If they want to come, they can slaughter us on the spot.’ It is a Wednesday in early February, and the M23 rebel military group is approaching rapidly, but Fatuma Mahamba is weary; she has already spent a decade on the move.

Mahamba is part of the leadership committee of a displacement site in North Kivu province. Thousands of families live in camps like these – white honeycombs of tents and tarpaulins which cover the green hills of eastern Congo.

‘We had to flee gunfire at 4am,’ she explains. ‘I lost five of my eight children in the chaos, and only found them days later.’ She left her village 18 months ago; it was the third time in her life she’d had to run to safety.

Behind her, orange flashes tear the sky as the Congolese army fires rocket artillery at the rebels. The arc of the weapons is steep; the targets are close. The region has not known peace for 30 years.

 In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, as Tutsi forces who survived the furious killings by Hutu militias gained the upper hand, two million people, mostly from the Hutu ethnic group, took refuge in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Hutu civilians and soldiers sought shelter in vast refugee camps, reorganising their forces. For the new Tutsi-led Rwandan government, this was an unacceptable threat.

‘The first time Rwanda created a rebel movement, armed it, picked leaders and sent it into Congo was 1996,’ says Michela Wrong, author of Do Not Disturb, a book about human rights abuses by the Rwandan regime. The M23 is the latest iteration of Rwandan intervention, the latest generation of rebel groups that have laid waste to eastern Congo.

The M23 claims to be fighting for the rights of the Congolese Tutsis. The group has been on a renewed offensive since 2022. Over a million civilians have been forced from their homes by fighting in North Kivu province alone. Each time the front lines shift, they have to move.

Rwanda is widely believed to be supporting the M23, though this has been denied. But the United Nations says there is evidence that shows Rwandan troops fighting alongside the rebels, having provided them with weapons.

In February 2022, I spoke to forlorn Congolese troops. They said M23 rebels were determined and well-equipped, armed with night-vision and reconnaissance drones. The position of the Rwandan government is that Congo has been working in concert with the FDLR, or Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, one of the last militias aligned to Hutu genocidal ideology.

The presence of UN peacekeepers has been no deterrent to M23, and the conflict has spiralled out of control, with large offensives and the seizure of dozens of towns.

The Congolese army, weakened by corruption and years of war, has forgiven and mobilised former enemies in the hopes of slowing the advance of the rebels. Groups known as ‘Mai-Mai’, bands of locally recruited Congolese militias, have been rallied and rearmed.

I accompanied some as they went on the offensive in October last year. They go into battle believing magic spells will protect them from bullets. 

During their offensive, the Mai-Mai razed and looted the villages of Congolese Tutsis – the group the M23 purports to defend – as they advanced. If peace ever comes, many civilians will have no homes to return to.

Lost in this haze of armies and militias are civilians with decades of horror stories. Long columns of panicked families can be seen walking miles to safety, carrying their children on their shoulders, and their possessions in brightly coloured fabric wraps.

People like Moises and Rosette, a young married couple who escaped an M23 massacre in the town of Kishishe, and walked for days to safety in November 2022. Rosette was heavily pregnant. Over 170 of their neighbours who decided not to leave were killed.

Or Rugamba, a 31-year-old farmer who fled a 4am surprise attack in the town of Malehe. He witnessed soldiers changing out of their uniforms to escape with the community, only for them to be stopped by military police and forced back to the front.

There are few places left to hide. Last month, in the town of Sake, I arrived to see the aftermath of an M23 mortar attack. Two small lifeless bodies had been hidden under a sheet. Specks of blood had soaked through the cloth. The children were seven and eight years old, killed by an exploding shell. Their mother Mokili was also killed.

Congo’s is a story of loss and abandonment, where each battle leaves resentments for the next generation. For Justine Masika Bihamba, one of Congo’s foremost women’s rights activists, this has gone on far too long.

‘Soldiers and militias commit atrocities against their brothers in the name of peace,’ she says. ‘Congolese people need to become aware that it is us who have to become actors of change and find the solution.’

But working for change is daunting. Eastern Congo is under military rule, civilian voices for peace are overlooked and silenced, and foreign diplomatic pressure on Rwanda to end its involvement with M23 has so far failed

The conflict threatens to upend the entire region. Troops from Tanzania and South Africa have recently been deployed to fight alongside the Congolese military. North Kivu is again a bloody canvas on which power and grievance  expressed. 

For this article with several more images, please click here:

The war the world forgot – displacing seven million and counting – by Hugh Kinsella Cunnin
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Civilians flee from heavy fighting around the town of Saka - Credit: Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

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