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Fear stalks DR Congo's rebel-held territory
by Staff Writers
Rugari, Dr Congo (AFP) Oct 20, 2012

"Women and girls are raped by M23. They steal our goats and property from our homes," said a resident of Rugari, in a rebel-held part of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

"I'm taking my daughter to the Kanyarucinya camp, where my wife and my other children are staying. Even little girls are raped."

The March 23 Movement (M23) largely comprises former members of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), an ex-rebel force that was integrated into the army under a 2009 peace pact.

But earlier this year they deserted the army in a new revolt, and fighting between the two sides has displaced more than 300,000 people. Since May the mutineers have held part of the verdant Rutshuru territory in North Kivu province, on the border with Rwanda and Uganda.

United Nations reports accuse Rwanda of backing M23 as part of the intertwined ethnic conflicts and battles for the mineral wealth of the resource-rich area, a charge that the Kigali government denies.

"Where I live, there are not many rapes. But in Rugari, the raping of women is widespread," said a resident of a nearby village. He declined to specify who was to blame, but suspected men of M23.

The mutineers are also accused of recruiting child soldiers, looting and summary executions. But M23's president, Jean-Marie Runiga, refutes the allegations.

"If it happens that men of M23 carry out atrocities, they will be tried and sentenced. Up until now, there have not been any atrocities," he said.

Runiga is based at Bunagana, a major border post with Uganda. Following heavy fighting in this zone, life has slowed down, as in other areas conquered by M23. "It's a crisis! Nothing is the way it used to be," said a restaurant owner.

"People have not all come back. Many continue to cross the border into Uganda to spend the night. I sleep there myself because here there are no guarantees of safety, and I don't like to stay here when the rebels are here," she added.

M23 is seeking to reassure local people. It encouraged parents to send their children to school at the start of the academic year in early September. After a timid start, schoolchildren can now be seen everywhere in their blue and white uniforms.

Elsewhere, on the outskirts of central Rutshuru, brand new panels with the M23 logo are marked "Fight corruption" in English, French, Swahili and Kinyarwanda. Taxes that were seen as extortion and are the hallmark of territorial armed groups in North Kivu have been scrapped.

In their place, a toll system has been installed.

"The tax depends on the weight of the vehicle and the kinds of goods. It's five dollars for a minibus, 20 for the Fuso lorries, and can go up to 50 for the very big trucks," said Benjamin Mbonimpa, the territorial administrator appointed by M23 in July.

Rutshuru seems to be a calm place. "We see absolutely nothing bad regarding M23, but people are afraid because of all that has happened... They lack confidence," murmured a trader in the town, who stated that he had heard no talk of rape.

Near Rumangabo, headquarters of the biggest military base in North Kivu, which dates back to the Belgian colonial era, "there are rapes, thefts... Last Wednesday, people stole things just next door," whispered an old man, pointing to a nearby plot of land.

Wearing both army uniforms and those of the CNDP, the mutineers are everywhere in the region. Are they behind the violence? The elderly man is uncertain and hesitates between M23 and the ethnic Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), sworn foes of the Kigali government.

Members of the FDLR are suspected of having played a part in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda and the movement is active in the east of the DR Congo, where it is infamous for atrocities. "The FDLR come to loot but they have no vehicles. The ones who have vehicles are M23," the old man concluded.


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