DRC on brink of war again
Rebel leaders pin peace hopes on Zuma as UN brigade 'works its way through' armed militias
General Sikuli Lafontaine pointed to a map of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo pasted on a board in his operations room, a rough rondavel in Bunyatenge village deep in the Congolese bush.
Lafontaine is a former Congolese military officer who now commands the FPC, which is the French acronym for an army of "patriots" aligned to most of the region's major militias, who could hold the key to lasting peace - or a new outbreak of war - in the Congo.
His map depicted the areas bordering Uganda and Rwanda controlled by various rebel groups. One of them is the Rwandan-backed CNDP, predecessor of the M23.
The M23 was defeated this week by Congolese troops backed by a UN brigade that included South Africans - and the deployment of the Rooivalk attack helicopter in action for the first time.
Destroying the M23 had not addressed the root causes of war in the DRC, said Lafontaine. "The problem in the Congo is the continued presence of foreign armed groups in our country, created by Rwanda and Uganda. If we finish with M23 today, tomorrow they can create another rebel group, as they have done so many times before."
Lafontaine's rebel army is holed up in the mountainous rain forests near Lake Edward, which straddles Uganda and the eastern DRC. Many soldiers are former Congolese army officers disillusioned with President Joseph Kabila's continued misrule of his resource-rich country, where most of the population live in extreme poverty.
He said the main obstacle to peace was the continued presence in the DRC of the FDLR - an army recruited from Rwandan Hutus, including some responsible for the 1994 genocide.
He claims that in 1998 Kabila, then head of the Congolese army, personally tasked him with setting up local militias in the east of the country and recruiting the FDLR from refugee camps in the DRC, Angola, Zambia and Congo (Brazzaville) to counter an imminent invasion by Uganda and Rwanda. This is supported by another source who was directly involved in the recruitment.
According to UN reports, the FDLR has launched many terror attacks on Rwanda from its DRC bases as recently as this year. Its members have committed atrocities including mass rapes and the execution of Congolese civilians it accuses of colluding with the authorities. Like all Congo rebels, the FDLR also controls lucrative mines that fund its wars.
Kabila's spokesman, Lambert Mende, acknowledged this week that the FDLR had replaced M23 as enemy number one. He said it was followed by Ugandan rebels ADF-NALU, who are linked to al-Shabaab , Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army and the local defence militias known as the Mai-Mai, and promised an "imminent" crackdown on all of them, including Lafontaine's army.
But Lafontaine believes Kabila's insistence on finding a military solution to disbanding the FDLR and Mai Mai militias is doomed to failure.
"Kabila doesn't want peace in the Congo. Kabila created the FDLR. Kabila invited the M23 to fight in the Congo. Kabila formed them, armed them and engaged them," he said. "But our philosophy is to look for peace, not war."
Lafontaine believes the solution lies in convincing President Jacob Zuma to apply strong diplomatic pressure on Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to facilitate the safe return to Rwanda of the FDLR - not hunting them down.
He also wants UN and South African support in training and logistics to enable his army of "patriots" to pacify the border region.
"If South Africa supports us, we will help the FDLR to return to Rwanda. But if Kabila wants war, we will fight," he vowed.
This is no idle threat. Lafontaine directly and indirectly controls a vast region of this volatile area. He has 2000 seasoned rebel troops under his command in north and south Kivu provinces and several high-ranking Congolese army defectors.
His officers said they obtain their weapons - mostly RPGs, AK47s, mortars and machine guns - directly from the Congolese army, a claim supported by UN reports.
His allies include General Hilaire Kombi, who claims to have a large number of army troops and officers in the Congolese army still loyal to him. According to a UN report released in July, Hilaire is allied to militia controlled by Paul Sadala, known as Mai Mai Morgan, whose troops were accused of recent atrocities.
Hilaire said he defected from the Congolese army last year because of Kabila's failure to act against the "foreign armed groups and rebels that continue to loot, steal and rape our women and children".
"I am confident with support our brigade can defeat ADF-NALU and secure the region they are destabilis ing," he told the Sunday Times this week at his command post in the rain forest.
Like Lafontaine, he is pinning his hopes on Zuma. "I believe Zuma really wants to bring peace to this region. That's why I bought these," he said, pointing to his troops wearing Bafana Bafana tracksuits.
Lafontaine claims he can call on up to 40000 soldiers from the most powerful Mai Mai groups in the eastern DRC and still wields direct influence over the FDLR he helped create. He also has another 15000 reservists ready to be trained and is actively recruiting new soldiers.
This week, hundreds of villagers lined a dusty soccer field in Bunyatenge village to watch the passing-out parade for his latest recruits. The group of 16 young men, wearing leather bush hats and matching black sports tracksuits - some bearing South African national sports emblems - each received a certificate from Lafontaine. They had just completed three months of military and "political" training and were about to be deployed to positions deep in the rain forest.
FDLR rebels from a breakaway faction interviewed this week blamed Kagame and Kabila for reneging on past deals.
A particular grievance was Kabila urging FDLR combatants to congregate at Kasiki camp near Luofu in North Kivu in 2008 to disarm, then leaving them at the mercy of a joint Rwandan and Congolese army operation in early 2009.
"Over 100 people were killed at Kasiki - women, children, many soldiers who had put down their arms, and other civilian men," said Captain Fahida Everiste. "In those attacks Rwandan and Congolese army soldiers also raped women and burned down houses."
Everiste, a former Rwandan army soldier who fled to the DRC after the 1994 genocide, said he was puzzled by Kabila's threats this week of military action against the FDLR. "We don't want to fight. That's why we created the Kasiki camp."
Lafontaine is sceptical of FDLR claims of innocence. "They are afraid of being held responsible for what they did in Rwanda and continue to do in the DRC," he said. "But we don't want to attack them by force, because they live among our people and will retaliate against them. The only solution is to force Kagame to negotiate with them. They must leave not with guns, but through dialogue."
But UN peacekeeping force commander General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz said the FDLR, Lafontaine's troops and all armed groups in the DRC should expect the same fate as the M23 rebels. "Right now, military force is important. In this country everyone picks up a gun to achieve their objective. We have a plan to take action against all armed groups without exception. We are working our way through the list."
However, he conceded that "we need more than military action" to achieve lasting peace.
"There must be benefits for the population, such as healthcare, education and public services," he said. "If these issues are not dealt with there will be another rebellion."
- This is the first in a series of reports on the DRC made possible by a Taco Kuiper grant