Eastern Congo prays for peace
But what’s triggering a surge in violence and death in the troubled region?
Distraught residents in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city of Goma belted out chants, held lit candles, and raised banners on Monday in a plea for peace. Congolese officials said more than 270 people died last week after an attack by M23, one of the dozens of rebel groups operating in a region fraught with violence. The deaths sparked an interfaith peace meeting on Sunday and a Catholic protest after Mass the same day.
Here’s what you need to know about the rising conflict:
What happened in the attack? Government Minister Julien Paluku told reporters on Monday that 272 people died in the village of Kishishe and other surrounding communities. He added that most deaths came at a hospital and a Seven-day Adventist church. The attackers, known as the March 23 movement, or M23, claimed only eight people died in the crossfire. The government admitted difficulty confirming the data since the area is still under rebel control. The UN mission in the country reported on Thursday that at least 131 people, including 17 women and 12 children, died in the attack on Kishishe and the nearby village of Bambo. The report added that the rebels kidnapped 60 people and assaulted at least 22 women and five girls.
Who are the M23 rebels? The predominantly Congolese Tutsi group rose to prominence after it seized Goma in 2012. The government integrated many of the fighters into the military after eventually reaching a peace deal. But the group reemerged in November 2021, accusing the government of failing to live up to its end of the deal. By June, M23 had seized the strategic town of Bunagana as it edged closer to Goma.
Congolese officials have accused their county’s neighbor, Rwanda, of backing the rebels, an allegation Rwandan officials have denied. In August, the UN Group of Experts said it gathered “solid evidence” proving that Rwandan troops provided M23 with weapons and support during incursions into Congo. In October, the Congolese government expelled the Rwandan ambassador from the country over the rebel group’s activities.
How did eastern Congo get to this point? The region became increasingly a hub in the conflict after the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Some armed members of the Hutu rebel group from Rwanda fled to the neighboring eastern Congo region. Despite two wars and several peace deals, Congo and its allies failed to regain control over the growing armed groups. The persistent tribal tensions, lack of government presence, and natural resources in the region have created a complex setting for armed groups to form and thrive.
More than 120 rebel groups, including M23, now operate throughout the region, including the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces. The U.S. State Department declared the ADF a foreign terrorist organization last year after it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State Central Africa Province jihadist group. These armed groups have killed more than 8,000 people since 2017. The latest fighting alone has displaced about 300,000 people.
Is any resolution in the works? M23 said on Tuesday that it is “ready to start the disengagement and withdrawal” from occupied territories but called for a meeting with the East African Community force, which is tasked with restoring peace to the region. A weeklong inter-Congolese dialogue between the government and about 50 armed groups ended on Tuesday in Kenya, but M23 was absent after failing to disarm and withdraw by a cease-fire deadline. The next round of talks is scheduled for January. Regional leaders had agreed to a cease-fire less than a week before the attack in Kishishe. Analysts warned the talks wouldn’t bring peace if M23 was excluded.
How are other regional and international leaders responding? M23’s renewed fighting has prompted the regional East African Community bloc to deploy a joint regional force. Kenya sent more than 900 troops to Goma earlier this month, while Uganda committed about 1,000 troops. The force also includes troops from Burundi and South Sudan.
Congolese government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said the justice minister has referred the Kishishe killings to the International Criminal Court.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday that he had a “productive conversation” with Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Blinken said he urged Kagame to cease support for M23 and call for the group’s retreat.
What are local faith leaders calling for? Interfaith leaders met in Goma last weekend to call for peace. The Rev. Samuel Ngahiembako, president of the Church of Christ in Congo, said the faith leaders support the efforts for bringing about peace. He encouraged people to promote the process, adding that mosques and churches will say a common ecumenical prayer for peace each week.
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