As HUNDREDS of Congolese army troops returned to the city of Goma yesterday, rebels staked out positions less than two miles away, as a possible battle loomed.
The soldiers arrived at Goma’s main barracks in trucks, as a crowd gathered to cheer and some elated women rushed forward to kiss them. The soldiers’ return is a concrete sign that president Joseph Kabila’s government may regain control of the key provincial capital, after it fell to rebels, widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, two weeks ago.
The strategic city of a million people may still be the site of another fight, however, as the M23 rebels remain in tactical positions in the hills above Goma. They say they are waiting for the government to respond to their demands before deciding whether to try to retake it.
After a nearly two-week occupation, the M23 rebels agreed at the weekend to leave Goma under intense international pressure, including fresh sanctions from the United Nations Security Council. Their commanders said they would retreat to 12 miles outside the city on condition Congo’s government begins negotiations with them. They are threatening to retake the city if the government fails to meet their demands.
The M23 draws most of its strength from Tutsi former rebels integrated into the Congolese army who mutinied in April. It has called for talks between Mr Kabila and political opponents, the release of political prisoners and the dissolution of Congo’s electoral commission, which oversaw the president’s 2011 re-election in a vote judged flawed by foreign observers.
The government has not confirmed that Mr Kabila is willing to hold such a wide dialogue, and he faces pressure from within his armed forces to pursue a military solution against the M23. Congo and UN experts say the rebels are backed by Rwanda and Uganda, a charge both deny.
Goma’s dusty streets were busy yesterday, with markets selling vegetables and smoked fish, and roads choked with traffic. But banks remained closed. “Things are bad because no-one has money to buy my fish,” said one woman seller.
Goma lies at the heart of Congo’s eastern borderlands, which have suffered nearly two decades of conflict stoked by long-standing ethnic and political enmities and fighting over the region’s rich resources of gold, tin, tungsten and coltan – a precious metal used to make mobile phones.
Successive attacks by myriad rebel and militia groups and government soldiers have made the region notorious among rights groups for mass killings, recruitment of child soldiers and rape as a weapon of war.
Rwanda has twice invaded its western neighbour in the past two decades, at one point igniting a conflict dubbed “Africa’s World War” that drew in several countries. Aid agencies say more than five million people have died from conflict, hunger or disease in Congo since 1998.
Rwanda has justified its interventions by arguing it was forced to act against hostile Rwandan Hutu fighters who had fled to Congo after the 1994 genocide that saw 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed by Hutu soldiers and militia.
Residents whose existence was upended two weeks ago when rebels invaded tried their best yesterday to get on with their lives. A woman selling second-hand clothes at the Virunga market said she had no choice but to re-open. “We’re not going to wait for ever, are we?” Anette Murkendiwa said. “I need to feed my children.”