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The streets and roads in Kiwanja, a town northeast of Goma in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), were inaccessible on Saturday. Aside from sporadic gunshots, Kiwanja – occupied by uncontrolled armed soldiers, was all but a ghost town.
Shops and offices were being looted by retreating elements of the national army, FARDC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo) as M23 soldiers advanced towards Goma, the provincial capital of north Kivu.
Unable to get out of Kiwanja the previous evening, Flory Nyamwoga, a Congolese Environmental and Carbon Finance Expert with Human Dignity in the World and currently working on one of the area’s community farms, thought it would be safer to move towards Goma on Sunday.
But after being holed-up in his office for nearly 24 hours, he decided to launch a desperate call for help via email. “The shops outside are being looted by soldiers, and I do not know if they will not soon get into my office, where I am currently hiding, with two security agents,” his email, sent on Sunday at 13:39 local time, read.
Two hours later, Nyamwoga sent another email to say that the shootings had ceased after the arrival of UN’s mission in DRC, known by the acronym MONUSCO. But while it was impossible to know who was in control on Sunday, no clashes were confirmed. “Thank God those terrible shootings are over,” he concluded.
A number of villagers who fled the town have since returned, and a semblance of normalcy was felt on Monday in Kiwanja when Police stations were re-opened. Administrative buildings were also opened for work on Tuesday as government forces began normal patrols in the town.
“But it is not clear whether the Bunagana road towards Uganda is still safe,” says Nyamwoga. The border town of Bunagana, which is also close to Rwanda, was the first town to fall into the hands of the Bosco Ntaganda-led M23 rebels.
In recent weeks, 220,000 people have been displaced in eastern DRC since the group of former rebels mutinied and began capturing towns and territory in North Kivu Province. The total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the same area is estimated to be around two million.
The rebel war in Africa’s Great Lakes Region has drawn the attention of the United Nations as mutineers and soldiers from DRC, and political supporters from Rwanda prepare for a showdown in Goma.
In defence of the strategic tow, DRC is moving its US-trained battalion from the north of the country to Goma and has also sent battalions previously used in the hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters to North Kivu.
The conflict continues to threaten the region’s stability with around 20,000 people, including 600 FARDC soldiers, having sought refuge in neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda. The M23 mutineers, who experts allege are receiving external support from Rwanda, are well-armed, trained and equipped. Kigali, which has been singled out for backing the rebels, has denied any connection or involvement with the mutineers.
“Our great concern is that the M23, having taken these towns [significant small towns around Goma] would then be planning some sort of advance against Goma,” head of the UN mission in Congo, Roger Meece was quoted as saying.
DRC, Rwanda and the AU
Meanwhile, MONUSCO is moving troops and special forces from its 18,000-strong peacekeeping force to Goma where it is suspected that the M23 is trying to form alliances with other rebel groups in the region.
“The UN mission is doing its utmost in coordination with the Congolese army to protect civilians,” Meece added.
As military personnel are put in place to fend off the M23 mutineers and protect civilians, international leaders are to use an African Union summit in Addis Ababa this week to try to mollify tensions between DRC and Rwanda.
The International Conference of the Great Lakes Region — which includes DR Congo and Rwanda — is to be held on Thursday focusing on the growing feud.
The DRC government has accused neighbouring Rwanda of supporting M23. Rwanda has strongly denied the claims though a recent report by a panel of UN sanctions experts said fighters and weapons used by M23 have come from Rwanda.
The M23 broke away from the DRC government army in April complaining about conditions. Its numbers have grown from about 1,000 to 2,000 fighters, in the past two weeks according to UN estimates.
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