It was seven days before Christmas eve, the period in which Christians all over the world are busy with shopping and planning for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, but to me it was a scary and memorable day — the day I chatted and lunched with M23 rebels’ top commander, General Sultan Emanuel Makenga, a 39-year-old soldier, who has fought three different wars in three different countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, but still willing to fight till his last blood.
Published by The Guardian on Sunday on December 30, 2012
By Richard Mgamba, recently in Goma
It was frightening because as a journalist, I was risking my life to enter the war zone at my own peril. Courage and risk taking are some of the characteristics of a good journalist, but sometime, the fact that you are still a human being overrules them, allowing fear to conquer your mind and heart as you ponder the task ahead of you.
It was memorable because this was a rare opportunity for me as a journalist, and I needed to be fully prepared to get the story as soon as possible and get out quickly, or end up being a tourist in a foreign a country or a war victim. Earlier before leaving Kigali where I had been invited to attend the 25th anniversary of the ruling party, Rwandese Patriotic Front, I thought about my security and analysed any threats that I could face there, before deciding to travel to Goma.
I skipped the 25th RPF Anniversary because from my editorial judgment, the big story is not when a dog bites a man, but when a man bites the dog. Therefore to me securing interview with the M23 Commander was bigger than attending the celebration of the ruling party in Rwanda.
I made this assignment a top secret for security reasons, though at the last minute, I informed my news editor, Rodgers Luhwago, through the email so that if I don’t make it or if I faced any problems, he should be able to know what was really taking place and where necessary set the record straight . In investigative journalism, security protocols both for the assignment and for those involved in it matter a lot.
From your phone calls to emails, it’s important to take precautionary measures to ensure that no leaks get out. At the same time, you should also make sure that very few people — especially in the editorial team — know about the investigation to avoid any leakage by the moles in newsrooms. Keep your family or friends off the investigation and plan a cover story to feed them because they are not part of the operation or editorial team, and should not be involved in any means.
I had been in contact with my sources within the M23 for some weeks before I got a nod to meet the military head and commander of the over 8,000 rebel forces, General Makenga — a young fighter whose actions have drawn strong reactions from the Great Lakes regional leaders and as usual the western allies.
I had been seeking this opportunity as part of researching my book, but also to tell the other side of the story, which from what I have read in both local, regional and international media was half told or was missing. Finally on December 17, this year, I was briefed in my hotel in Kigali by my contact from Goma, about how I would travel to the rebel stronghold. My fixer who I will not reveal for security purposes has worked in the war-torn country for a decade now as a security and humanitarian analyst, and was very familiar with the reality on the grounds.
In investigating this kind of story, you need to have a credible fixer, well informed but also highly connected to both sides: the rebels and the government as well. This is the man who organizes how you travel, where to stay, the people you should meet, and how to minimize the risk while on the ground.
In the morning of December 18, this year, our journey started from Kigali, heading to the city of Goma, a home to nearly 1.5 million people, which have seen many devastating wars since the ousting of Mobutu regime started in 1996.
As we negotiated the sharp corners between Kigali and Goma, our conversations were mainly focused on the current Congo crisis triggered by the M23’s capture of the town of Goma, before we were interrupted by a phone call from Brigadier Makenga’s assistant.
The caller wanted to know where we were, how long it would take us to arrive at the Rwandan-DRC border and who I was; so that he could organize all security details for me to travel from the Rwanda-DRC border of Goma, and finally to the M23 military base. He further briefed me that shortly after crossing the border, I would find him standing behind an unmarked Nissan Patrol truck, waiting for me there. He later told me that all executive vehicles for M23 leaders were unmarked just for security purposes.
When the caller who introduced himself as John, a special assistant to General Makenga hung up, we resumed our small talk about the security situation in Eastern Congo. The views of my fixer was that the much leaked UN report authored by a group of experts led by Steve Hague was seriously flawed, aimed at punishing Rwanda and Uganda.
The report, he tells me, as our Land Cruiser hit the road to Goma, was mainly based on the so called confessions from some defected soldiers who used to work for M23 rebel faction. Now in Congo, where millions of dollars are paid to rebels, it was easy for defecting soldiers to be paid and then coached on what they should say before the UN Group of Experts.
First of all, there was no credible verification that the alleged defected soldiers used to work for M23. In a country like Congo where there are more than 40 rebel factions, it’s challenging to establish who is working for who until furnished with credible evidence or talking directly to prisoners of wars.
But the mere fact of meeting some people on the streets who claim to be working for a certain rebel faction is highly questionable, according my fixer. My belief is that one day time will tell whether Rwanda and Uganda are the main cause of the current crisis in DRC or not.
But my view was that there were more than Rwanda and Uganda elements in the Congo. In fact, there are more powerful forces at work in Congo than what we are told by the so-called UN group of experts. Only those who are able to trace the history of Congo from the liberation struggle to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and later on to the era of Dictator Mobutu, would be in a position to understand the genesis of all the evils in the war-torn central African nation.
I read the report by the UN Group of Experts, which for reasons best known to its authors, was leaked to the media in two different occasions, but didn’t get the inside story. In making grave accusations against any legitimate regime, one needs to have more than telephone transcripts, hearsays or confessions from defected soldiers.
This is because the magnitude of such allegations could break peace, or even cause war between the two countries. We are all aware about how the US intelligence communities gathered flawed, fabricated and misleading intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s regime and weapons of mass destructions. Eighty percent of their intelligence was based on those who have defected from Saddam’s regime, and flee to United States of America.
Finally, General Collin Powel, former Secretary of State went before the UN with a fabricated report about Saddam’s regime capacity to produce weapons of mass destructions. Like the report of the UN Group of Experts, the US intelligence report was also leaked to the media especially the New York Times, whose reporter, Judith Miller was fed with fake information about Iraq.
Since the New York Times is one of the most influential media houses in United States, the Washington dogs of war used part of the media reports to push for their agenda to invade Iraq. Finally Iraq was invaded by using ‘manufactured reports backed with fabricated video footages.
Knowing what we came to know after the Iraq invasion, the report was based on total lies. The story further changed into the so-called operation to free Iraq after failing to find any single weapon of mass destruction, but the world had already been duped by George Bush and his partner, Tony Blair.
That’s why one needs to make sure that any allegations against legitimate regime are thoroughly investigated and above all backed with credible evidence beyond the hearsays, phone transcript and narration from unverified men who claim to have defected from a certain rebel faction.
In its report, the UN Group of Experts reported that it was able to establish, in about a week’s time, that General Makenga could not obtain 75mm canons and their ammunition from the Congolese national army, (FARDC), concluding that weapons were therefore provided by Rwandese National Army (RDF).
According to details obtained by the Guardian on Sunday, RDF does not possess 75mm canons in ordinance stores and has never purchased such canons or their ammunition. Remnants of these weapons and ammunition from the 1990 – 94 war of liberation were disposed of in 2008, which is well documented by the RDF ordinance regiment.
According to reliable evidence, it’s the Congolese national army (FARDC), which has 75 mm canons and anti-tank rifle grenades on their ammunition inventory. In a country where a senior military officer at the rank of Chief of Staff was found to be selling or secretly distributing army weapons to rebel factions, one needs credible evidence to accuse any side in this conflict.
A UN report accused Gen Gabriel Amisi, former head of DRC national army, of running a network supplying arms to poachers and rebel groups including the notorious Mai Mai Raia Mutomboki. The report, written for the UN by a group of independent experts, said Gen Amisi had overseen a network providing arms to criminal groups and rebels operating in DR Congo’s troubled east.
A few days after the capture of Goma, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported, “The soldiers being described do not belong to a rebel militia running amok … instead they are members of the national army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The accusation was made by a resident of the town of Minova, who did not wish to give his name for fear of reprisals.
“An extraordinary role reversal is taking place amid the violent conflict in eastern Congo. The rebel M23 movement is well-equipped, clad in crisp uniforms and gives the impression, at least when TV cameras are watching, of military discipline. The official national army, meanwhile, is hungry, badly paid and collapsing into disarray.”
According to the newspaper, after the M23 swept through the city of Goma in November and seized a satellite town 26 miles (40km) to the west, the Congolese army had mounted a surprise counterattack. It failed spectacularly. Thousands of army soldiers retreated to Minova, around 50km from Goma, with smashed regiments mixed up and leadership sorely absent. They are visibly drunk, angry, paranoid and intent on demanding money and cigarettes from visitors and locals. The DRC’s national army is the biggest in Africa with about 150,000 soldiers, but it’s the most indiscipline, corrupt and abusive army.
In theory, there’s a functioning regime in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but in practicality, the war-torn a country is a divided nation, ruled by invisible forces more powerful than the government itself. In Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, there’s a group of powerful politicians who sees President Kabila as an outsider, and a stooge of the foreign forces, who rule because those forces still want him to be in power.
A decade since he clinched the presidency following the assassination of his father, President Kabila has not managed to unite a divided and war-torn country. From Kinshasa to Goma, Kisangani to Lubumbashi, the nation is still deeply divided, the same as it was during the era of Dictator Mobutu.
Mobutu fearing that his opponents may overthrow him, destroyed some key infrastructure especially road in order to disconnect Kinshasa with the rest of the country, so that whenever there’s any uprising, it would be difficult for rebels to advance further. But, when his days arrived, he was ousted and finally died in a foreign country, leaving behind the stinking legacy including the looted billions of dollars.
Today, Etiene Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, the opposition leader who believes he won the election doesn’t recognize Kabila’s newly formed government. Viewed as the DRC’s main opposition leader, Tshisekedi heads up the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party (UDPS). He served in governments during Mobuto Sese Soko’s decades-long rule, but became a focal point for opposition when he formed the UDPS in 1980 to counter Mobuto’s party, serving briefly as prime minister on three occasions.
There are also foreign groups, which directly or indirectly benefit economically from the fragility in DRC. These groups include the Western countries, which for long time have made billions in Congo, thanks to the then corrupt and brutal Mobutu’s regime ‘installed by foreign powers, after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of independent Zaire. In post Mobutu’s regime, a new powerful ally, China, has also emerged playing its cards behind the closed doors.
That’s why I am still convinced that the DRC’s crisis is beyond Rwanda and Uganda, but it seemed the powerful forces at work, have managed to outshine my belief.
Goma—City of guns, tanks and rebels
For the past two decades, Goma residents had witnessed more guns, tanks and rebels making it perhaps the leading city in Africa that has witnessed many wars as well as hosting many refugees at its own peril. It’s infrastructure especially roads have seen more soldiers than contractors, paving the way for potholes and tranches to blossom in this Congolese city whose legacy is clouded with blood, guns and deaths.
Located in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo, and bordering Rwanda in the northern shore of Lake Kivu, Goma city has certainly suffered heavily from man-made and natural disasters during the past two decades. In the era of Mubutu regime, Goma hosted an airport with the longest airport, which could accommodate Concorde plane.
When Mobutu travelled abroad, he would hire Concorde using Goma airport as for his departure and arrival for security reasons.
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Goma become the shelter for millions of Rwandese mainly Tutsi and moderate Hutus who fled their country, which was then ravaged by killings of civilians conducted by the Hutu regime. When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel movement formed by Tutsi refugees in Uganda overthrew the Hutu government in Kigali, forcing its remnants to relocate to the border town of Gisenyi, the battle shifted from Kigali to Goma town.
As the RPF gained the ground, thousands of Hutu refugees fled before it, many ending up in Gisenyi, whereby in July 1994 an average of 12,000 refugees per hour crossed the border into Goma as the Great Lakes refugee crisis took shape. The massive influx created a severe humanitarian crisis, as there was an acute lack of shelter, food and water. Shortly after the arrival of nearly one million refugees, a deadly cholera outbreak claimed thousands of lives in the Hutu refugee camps around Goma.
According to documented evidence, Hutu militias and members of the Hutu provisional government were among the refugees, and they set up operations from the camps around Goma attacking ethnic Tutsis in the Kivus and Rwandan government forces at the border.
For political reasons the Kinshasa government of the then Zaire led by Joseph Mobutu did not prevent the attacks, and so the Rwandan government and its Ugandan allies threw their support behind the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire, a rebel movement led by Laurent Kabila against Mobutu. Rwandan forces stormed the camps at Goma, resulting in thousands of additional deaths, and with their help and that of Uganda, Kabila went on to overthrow Mobutu’s regime in the First Congo War, which ended in 1997.
After its mission failed, the organization rebranded itself into a Forum for Democratic Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), with a fresh mission to fight and regain their lost empire in Rwanda. When I visited Goma, I was told that following the recent outbreak of M23 movement, FDLR has also been revived with a mission to join the DRC forces to fight the Tutsi rebels.
Goma has also felt the pinch of first and second wars during the past decades as armed militias fought to control the soul of Democratic Republic of Congo — the richest country in the world in terms of natural resources, but the poorest in terms of human development.
It’s Goma where the Rally for Congolese Democracy–Goma (RCD-Goma), or Rally for Congolese Democracy), a rebel movement based in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the Second Congo, was born in 1998 in order to fight Laurent Desire Kabila’s regime. This was popularly known as second war ended in War 2003. In 2002, the city was hit by volcanic eruption at Nyiragongo, displacing nearly 400,000 people.
When I arrived here ready to trace and finally interview the military leader of rebel faction, M23, the city was weathering the aftermath of the recent capture by the rebels, who overpowered the 20,000 soldiers from the Congolese national army. Though the rebels have just pulled out of the city pending the outcome of the Kampala negotiations, the legacy of war was still looming among millions here. Some believed this was the end of the barrel of the gun, while others claimed this was a just Christmas break, and the real fight would resume in January, 2013.
However, many people here seemed to sympathize with M23 rebels, calling them liberators, who have come to liberate them from the poor leadership of Joseph Kabila, a young soldier who took over the presidency after his father, Laurent Desire Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. As my fixer put it, “This is why when M23 captured Goma, they were welcomed by residents before holding a peaceful massive public rally in the heart of Goma town.”
Today, Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, ethnically and geographically similar to South Kivu (capital Bukavu), is facing uncertainty. Its future will mainly depend on the outcome of the ongoing Kampala peace negotiations. But, it would also depend on the barrel of the gun as Southern African Development Community (SADC) plans to deploy thousands of peace keeping forces to join what President Museveni called in Dar es Salaam, “a bunch of tourists”, meaning United Nations Peace keeping forces.
It’s important when people discuss the situation in DRC to go back to the history of rebels’ movement during the past two decades. Whether measured by the total number of refugees it has hosted or the rebel forces it has sheltered, Goma city has weathered so many storms, and the latest by the M23 rebels is just one them.
Crossing the boarder
As we shake hands with my fixer, he tells me, “Good luck in your mission … remember to call me anytime you sense any danger so that I can help.” I was alone with my phones, notebook and pen, ready to cross the border to Congo’s war zone. As I ponder the situation, just a few hundred metres before I cross the Rwandan side to enter the DRC territory, my eyes capture someone waving for me.
After crossing the boarder, I realize that the man who was waving at me is my host, who has been sent to pick me at the Rwandan-DRC boarder. On the Rwandan side, the border is heavily guarded by armed soldiers from Rwandese Defense Forces(RDF), police and immigration officers, while just few hundred meters in the Congolese territory, the M23 soldiers heavily guard the boarder.
I greeted Rwandese soldiers, before passing through immigration office where I was briefly quizzed before granted a clearance to cross the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s territory.
Gone are the days when the government law enforcers like army, police and immigration used to protect this boarder. To put things into perspective, M23 in Goma is the government within the government because even after pulling out of the city, they still rule large part of Goma.
My host, whom I later learnt that was a senior military officer within the M23 who has fought for 16 years, before deciding to pursue a degree in Business and Economics by using a pseudo name, briefed me about the security situation, before our journey started.
“Since we can’t take chance, you will be escorted by six armed soldiers from our troops…There will also be a surveillance team monitoring our movement so that in case of any ambush, the team could respond immediately”
After briefing, I was shown a brand new unmarked Nissan Patrol, four wheel drive.
“Our vehicles are not marked for security purposes” My host John tells me as he starts the engine, ready for the journey to meet the head of M23 rebels, General Sultan Makenga in his base. Just after few hundred meters, we are intercepted by fully armed M23 soldiers who patrol the area, and immediately they demand who I am and where I was going. After brief discussions with my host cum driver, we are cleared to proceed.
As we drove from the Rwandan-Congo boarder to the rebels’ stronghold in the Morning of December 18, this year, in unmarked Nissan Patrol four wheel drive we were intercepted by six armed soldiers.
“Don’t worry these are our soldiers, I dropped them few hundred meters before I came to pick you at the boarder…They will escort us to the General’s base.” My host, John, who was sent to pick me at the border, says as he stopped.
He opened the doors, and six armed soldiers entered our unmarked car ready to escort us to unknown location where I was scheduled to meet M23 military commander, General Sultan Makenga, a 39 year old soldier who has fought four different wars in two countries in 22 years and still determined to fight till the last man.
We drove just about one kilometre before we were again intercepted by over 20 armed soldiers who stopped our car, demanding to know who I was … and where I was going. I was scared on the scene, but my host made some few calls … exchanged some words with these soldiers and we were finally cleared to proceed with our journey.
“These are also our soldiers who are patrolling the area… that’s how we work here to ensure there’s security,” John tells me as he struggles to man the Nissan Patrol on the dilapidated road, which has never seen a contractor for many years.
He also tells me that for security purposes “all M23 top officers use unmarked cars”.
Contrary to what I thought, it seemed villagers here sympathize with rebels fighters because most of the time when we were driving to General Makenga’s base, people were waving and cheering for the soldiers. In some areas they were called ‘Mkombozi’ a Swahili word for savior or liberator.
After thirty minutes, we are again intercepted by armed soldiers who were in a white land cruiser, but I am told they will also be escorting us because we can’t ‘take chances’. Though the war has been halted to pave the way for the Kampala peace talks, still there was no trust between rebels, and government forces.
Due to the dilapidated roads, which were worsened by the heavy rain that has hit Goma, it took us nearly two hours to reach the rebels’ base. Though the war has been going on here, villagers were just moving on with their daily activities as if nothing happened.
Goma’s main activity is agriculture, charcoal and timber trade. On the roads we passed many heavy trucks, some are stuck in the muddy roads, while others fully loaded with charcoal, timbers or foods were cruising at snail’s pace with no any fear, considering that this was the war zone.
“When you hear reports from Goma, it’s claimed that we are killing, rapping and robbing people…but what you see here is the opposite.
“If we were killing these people, or rapping them as reported, they would have fled…but you can see them waving for us. We were born and raised here, and therefore we are fighting for these people.” John tells me, adding that the biggest assets for M23 rebels is not Rwandese or Ugandan support as claimed but the people who are tired of poor leadership, corruption and poverty.
After nearly one hour, my eyes are welcomed by roadblocks heavily guarded by M23 Special forces. Before entering General Makenga’s base, we undergo security screening at five different road blocks. As I enter this base, I am welcomed by heavy rainfall as well as hundreds of soldiers who are parading as part of their daily exercise before being dispatched to various stations ready to face the enemy if need be.
“We have arrived…welcome to our home” John tells me as he pulls over the Nissan Patrol and suddenly our vehicle is surrounded by armed soldiers with AK47, Rocket Propelled Grenades and many heavy weapons. I am led to the church-like building, which is heavily guarded where I am finally welcomed by General Makenga, a tall, black and slim guy whose red eyes tell who he really is.
As we greet each other, he is fully surrounded by seven armed soldiers, but tells them to leave the area, so that we could start our interview. He also tells me that he doesn’t speak fluent English or French and the only language he knows better is Kiswahili. He sits on the corner of this building, ready for the interview.”
Our interview, which lasts for one hour touches many issues including why he has been fighting the government that he agreed to serve during the Nairobi peace accord signed on March 23, 2009, his reactions about the ongoing Kampala Peace talks and plans by SADC to deploy troops in Goma. The reason behind the latest fight, he tells me, is because he and his colleagues feel betrayed by President Joseph Kabila’s government which he accuses of failing to fully honour the Nairobi Peace agreements.
““We want peace … the Congolese want peace, but if we are forced to achieve peace through the barrel of the gun, we shall fight this war at any cost.”…It seemed like the Kinshasa regime is playing games … pending the deployment of the SADC forces in Goma and that’s why they are not fully committed in the Kampala peace negotiations. He tells me adding that, “If the Kampala talks can bring peace, we are ready for peace but if it’s war we are also ready because that’s how we’ve lived for the past two decades.”
When I ask him but where he gets his support to fight the Kabila’s regime, General Makenga smile before he says, “I know journalists like you, and international community believe we are backed by Rwanda and Uganda…You have the right to believe anything, but the truth is that we are supported by very powerful figures within the Kabila government.”
“We have very powerful support from the FARDC (Congolese national army) as well as within the Kinshasa government…We get weapons from them as well as financial and intelligence support.” General Makenga tells me confidently, adding that, “our biggest sin is being Tutsis.”
He further tells me, “We are associated with Rwanda simply because of our origin, and I wish I was born somewhere else because I am tired of being judged basing on my ethnicity…I want Africa and the world to understand the bigger picture so that they can help DRC.”
According to General Makenga, he never chose to be soldier fighting for two decades, but was forced by the situation in his country, DRC formerly known as Zaire under Dictator Mobutu. “I have family, my wife and children…I have parents and friends…I love peace and I want peace but when we are forced to get it through the gun, there’s no choice.”
The last time Makenga saw his parents was 15 years ago, and since then he has never seen them because they fled DRC following the outbreak of the civil war. “We want all Congolese refugees to return home unconditionally including my parents…we want all Congolese to participate on governing and reconstructing their country.
When we end our interview, General Makenga tells me that he has prepared lunch for me. “You are our guest, and the first journalist to come here to see reality…some of your colleagues stay in nice hotels in Goma, but the next morning report things which suit their desires.”
As we sit down to have our lunch, which was rice, beans and chicken accompanied with mineral water and fruits, General Makenga tells me: “I would like to see an international independent team, which also involves prominent and educated Africans investigating the truth about Congo … I want the truth to be known so that we can be judged fairly.
“They said we robbed the Central Bank in Goma, but thank God, the UN defended us…What we did was to protect all key government offices after the capture of Goma in November.
“They are also saying I am using child soldiers… This is international propaganda done by pro-Kinshasa regime including the Human Rights Watch against our struggle. We took Goma in a daylight fight, and there were no children fighting on our side. Few weeks after we captured Goma, I am hearing these baseless allegations, but no one has shown the alleged children recruited by M23. You have visited our stronghold, and where we are right now is our training base, did you see any child soldier here?”
After our lunch, we say goodbye to each other, before our journey to the Rwandan border resumes. It’s still raining, but since I was warned by my fixer not to spend a night in the Congolese territory, I have no option but to leave the area as soon as possible.
During my stay here, I also established that unlike many rebel factions the survival of M23 rebels was built on disciplined soldiers, trainings in Gorilla’ tactics and above all strong support from the indigenous in the Eastern part of Congo and geographical features of Goma. General Makenga is hailed by his soldiers as a brave fighter who leads the battle from the front line. To his soldiers he is their inspiration, and their role model.
This is why it may be tough for any African forces to win the war as they did in Somalia. Fighting rebels who have no permanent homes, but are strongly backed by the people you claim to protect has failed in Afghanistan.
“Our life has been in the bush, we know the area because we were born and raised here … AU forces may have succeeded in Somalia, but remember Kivu province alone is bigger than Somalia. If they engage us, we shall respond with full force because this is our home.” John tells me as he parks the car at the Rwandan border, the same place he picked me in the morning.
But, suddenly his mobile phone rings and when he answered it, the conversation turns into academic issues. After nearly ten minutes discussion over the phones, he turns to me and says, “If my professor and my fellow students knew who I am, they would really be shocked.”
“I have been a university student for four years but nobody knows I am rebel fighter” John tells me adding that he will be graduating before the end of the year. “I have been a soldier since 1996, but finally General Makenga adviced me to go to school for further studies…for security reasons, I used pseudo name to join the university.”
John’s revelations bring to an end the tough mission from Dar es Salaam to Goma, and when I cross the border to enter the Rwandan territory where I meet my fixer ready to drive back to Kigali that evening it was a sigh of relief.