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Conflict in eastern DR Congo flares again

Paul Lorgerie | Mimi Mefo Takambou
October 25, 2023

After months of fragile calm in eastern DR Congo, fighting between armed rebels has resumed near the country's borders with Rwanda and Uganda.

A large group of armed men walking along a dirt road
East African Regional Force soldiers and M23 rebels pictured in Kibumba, eastern Congo, in December 2022Image: GLODY MURHABAZI/AFP/Getty Images

The resurgence of clashes in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) involving March 23 Movement (M23) rebels, other armed groups and soldiers — believed to be part of the Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) — shatters a six month period of fragile calm in the region. 

The latest hostilities are taking place in and around the M23-controlled strategic Masisi Territory of North Kivu Province near the country's border with Rwanda and Uganda.

In Kitshanga, a strategic town in Masisi, some residents are now celebrating the victory of rival armed groups known as Wazalendo, or "patriots," over the M23.

"Since the Wazalendos have been here, we have been quiet, we are praying that the M23 does not come back," Sylvie Amahoro, a Kitshanga resident, told DW.

Political observers and analysts say the apparent shift in the power balance in Masisi is part of a complex conflict.

"The new shift creates more problems for all of us in the east African and Great Lakes Region," Dr. David Matsanga, a London-based Ugandan expert on conflict resolution and chairman of Pan African Forum UK LTD, told DW. 

"And it is very, very worrying that people are dying at the moment." 

Matsanga believes that a lack of honesty on the part of the Congolese government and its neighbors is a major challenge.

"The government of DRC itself is not sincere," he said, adding that neither are the other Great Lakes Region countries.

A map of eastern DR Congo

Where was the Congolese army?

There is speculation that the Wazelendo collaborated with the Congolese army in the takeover of Kitshanga. But the army says it did not intervene and has not violated the cease-fire it agreed on with the M23 in March.

Matsanga is doubtful of the army's neutrality in the latest developments in the town. 

"Even the Congo government has factions that it supports. Do you have a militia that terrorizes your own people? So, the government of Kinsasha is never honest," he told DW..

people sitting between makeshift structures set up by internally displaced people (IDP) in Kanyaruchinya
Civilians who fled fighting between armed groups and the army in North Kivu in late 2022Image: Aubin Mukoni/AFP/Getty Images

On October 14, the interim FARDC commander of North Kivu, General Peter Cirimwami, reportedly sent a letter asking Masisi Territory administrators to resume their work. The Kitshanga takeover followed, fueling speculation of the army's involvement.

Guillaume Mutumayi told DW that he and other residents of Kitshanga can once again enjoy a "peaceful climate" — regardless of whether or not the army had played a role.

"We stay with the Wazalendo, the soldiers of the EAC (East African Community), and sometimes the FARDC, accompanied by some white mercenaries," he told DW.

Matsanga sees the Congolese army as passive and ineffective.

"There is no DRC army. It is just a bunch of people who are fragmented from very low morale. They don't have weapons to fight back. They don't have enough training," he said to DW.

Geopolitical repercussions

On October 17, Huang Xia, the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region, said collaboration between the Congolese army and armed groups could cause problems between Congo and Rwanda.

"The risk of direct confrontation between the DRC and Rwanda — who continue to accuse each other of supporting enemy armed groups — remains very real," he said.

Congo has repeatedly accused Rwanda of supporting Tutsi-led M23 rebels. According to Matsanga, reports suggesting that elements of the FDLR, a Hutu-dominated militia, have joined the Wazalendo. Kigali accuses the FDLR of complicity in the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.

The presence of FDLR fighters so close to Rwanda could provoke a military response, said Matsanga.

Paul Kagame
Before he became president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame led the Tutsi rebel group that defeated Hutu groups that carried out the Rwanda GenocideImage: Trinidad Express Newspaper/AFP

The lastest fighting in eastern Congo comes as President Felix Tshisekedi seeks to fast-track the withdrawal of a UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO.

"The United Nations has been a sitting army, helping the looting of the Congo minerals. They have never captured even a single toilet that is safe for the Congolese," Matsanga said to DW. 

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen and Louisa Schaefer