DRC army savour victory in former M23 stronghold

2013-11-07 07:39
Congolese army soldiers march past a tank aimed towards Kibumba Hill, which is occupied by M23 rebels, around 25kms from the provincial capital Goma, in eastern Congo. (Joseph Kay, AP)

Congolese army soldiers march past a tank aimed towards Kibumba Hill, which is occupied by M23 rebels, around 25kms from the provincial capital Goma, in eastern Congo. (Joseph Kay, AP)

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Chanzu - The heavily-guarded base of the defeated M23 rebels once lay among the gentle slopes of Chanzu, but is now a mess of stolen weapons, burning vehicles and Rwandan military materiel.

Chanzu sits close to the border with Rwanda and Uganda in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and with the hills of Runyioni and Mbuzi makes up the area best known as the cradle of the M23 rebellion.

The movement was founded in April 2012 by ex-rebels integrated into the army who mutinied weeks later after claiming Kinshasa had reneged on a peace deal they had signed in 2009.

The end of the 18-month insurgency in a region that has seen some of Africa's deadliest fighting was declared on Tuesday when rebels surrendered after the success of a muscular new strategy by a dedicated UN brigade accompanied by relentless shelling by Congolese forces (FARDC).

On Wednesday, army soldiers navigated a path through destroyed munitions, discarded armour left in the undergrowth and even food thrown aside in the rebels' haste to escape the onslaught.

Crossing the hill on foot, one could see a smouldering truck, its rims still fuming, a can of petrol and even bandages scattered on the floor.

"They burned 42 vehicles and their ammunition depots," an army officer said. The governor of North Kivu province, Julien Paluku, believes they were stolen by the M23 as they fled Goma, the city briefly occupied by the rebels in November 2012.

Long night of fighting

"All that, that's what they stole!" said an army nurse.

The taking of Goma marked the zenith of the M23's power, so driving the rebels from Chanzu in turn offered a symbolic opportunity for revenge for Congolese forces.

The UN experts and Kinshasa have repeatedly described the M23 as a Rwandan puppet, accusing the government in the capital Kigali of arming the group and even of sending some of its own troops to the battlefield - a charge it has always denied.

But here, among the wreckage, one soldier held up a distinctive emblem. "That's Rwandan insignia," he said. On the way down, another soldier was carrying some olive-green rockets. "That's not FARDC-standard, it's Rwanda who uses these weapons," he remarked.

Soldiers lay on the ground after a long night of fighting, wearing looks of heavy fatigue as UN troops went back and forth over the terrain.

Among them were 40 rebel prisoners, including a boy who said he was just 15, looking impoverished and dressed in civilian clothing.

And in a third group on the hill, 15 soldiers freed from captivity after being held since the fall of Goma described the conditions they had lived in for the last year.

The freed soldiers were given cakes provided by the army, receiving looks of jealousy from their newly-arrived comrades, and with good reason. "We fought all night, but we didn't even get any cake," one said grumpily.

The M23 chief's cabin

A little further away sat a huge cannon used to "fire on Bunagana", a town allegedly shelled by the M23 on Sunday and Monday on the border of Uganda, according to an army officer.

It was this attack that finally brought the UN troops, from South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania, to join the final battle against the rebels.

Amid the ruined foundations of an ill-fated hotel built by a businessman before the war, the remnants of stacked documents housed in a tent had been set on fire, along with a vast cache of ammunition, though perhaps a hundred tonnes were left unexploded.

And then appeared the modest abode of Sultani Makenga, military chief of the M23 who is variously claimed to be hiding in DRC or on the run in Rwanda or Uganda.

In this hut covered with straw and bamboo, a group of soldiers sheltered from the icy wind and driving rain.

What was left of Makenga? His mattress, duvet, a small television and a few scattered plastic chairs, and the stunning view he would have enjoyed across the landscape of the former M23 territory.

"Makenga believed himself a god," said a soldier mockingly. "But where is he now? He's run off, into the bush!"

Read more on:    un  |  m23  |  drc  |  central africa

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