UN officials in Eastern Congo are blaming rebel leader Laurent Nkunda for forcing almost a quarter of a million people from their homes since the start of the year. Nkunda’s forces are responsible for forcing 230,000 people into refugee camps in the city of Goma which straddles the border with Rwanda. The displacement camps are full again for the first time since the end of the war in 2004 and the UN warns that Congo could be on the brink of another all-out conflict.
Nkunda is a member of Congo’s Tutsi minority and claims he is merely protecting the Tutsi population from violence of Hutu extremists who fled into Congo from Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. Yet Nkunda is also claiming a greater Rwandan kinship that sees both Tutsi and Hutus victims of violence at the hands of Congolese people. Like others from his community he alleges the country’s million strong Kinyarwandan speaking people – both Tutsis and Hutus – have long been discriminated against. Hutus have inhabited parts of North Kivu for centuries, but there were influxes of Tutsis and Hutus from Rwanda to Congo in the 1930s and 1960s, populations who today complain they are treated with contempt.
Nkunda himself was born to a Tutsi family in North Kivu in Congo in 1967. He studied psychology at university before joining the Rwandan Patriotic Front's (RPF) rebellion against the Hutu-led Rwandan government (FAR) in 1993. It was this extremist Hutu government that authorised the genocide that killed upwards of half a million Rwandan Tutsis in the first half of 1994. However, they were distracted by the slaughter and allowed the RPF to claim control of the capital Kigali by July 1994.
After the genocide, the Hutu Interihamwe militia fled into neighbouring Congo where they became known as the ex-FAR. The ex-FAR continued to harass and slaughter the native Tutsi population including both of Nkunda’s parents. The young Nkunda also came back to Congo after the end of the Rwandan war and help Joseph Kabila’s fledgling rebel army. In 1996 the Rwandan army came across the border to help Kabila’s defeat both the Interihamwe and their backer – long-term dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Joseph Kabila finally overthrew Mobutu in 1997 but then turned on his Rwandan backers.
Nkunda meanwhile became a senior officer in the Rwandan-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma), one of the main rebel groups fighting in DRC from 1998 to 2003. In 2004 he was named general in a new national Congolese army created from troops of the dissident forces at the end of the war. He refused the post and withdrew with hundreds of his troops to the forests of Masisi in North Kivu. Nkunda controlled the former Sominki (Société Minière et Industrielle du Kivu) Rwandan export trade (pdf) in cassiterite (found in coltan ores). In August 2005 he announced a new rebellion but launched no military operations at that time.
The government and the UN issued a warrant for Nkunda’s arrest in September 2005. But Nkunda remained at large. At the start of the following year his forces attacked Congolese government soldiers and occupied several towns in North Kivu province. After a brief period of calm, they resumed combat. They attacked and raped civilians and looted their property. Tens of thousands of Congolese were forced to flee to neighbouring areas or across the border to Uganda.
In February 2006, the US based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the UN and the Congolese transitional government to arrest Nkunda and charge him with war crimes. HRW claimed his whereabouts were well-known to authorities since the arrest warrant was issued. “The police and army have done nothing about arresting him,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “So long as Nkunda is at large, the civilian population remains at grave risk.”
The reason that Nkunda remains at large is mainly due to the influence of Rwanda. While officially Rwanda does not condone his activities, they say they are sympathetic to his case and “can understand his argument”. Rwandan Foreign Minister Charles Murigande told the Washington Post that the root cause of eastern Congo’s instability is not Nkunda but the ex-FAR. “It's like saying, if we didn't have these Tutsis, the ex-FAR would not have people to kill,” he said. “It is an ugly way of seeing things, but, let's hope that which is just will prevail”.