Everything We Know About the Conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo
Photo by Arlette Bashizi for OkayAfrica

Everything We Know About the Conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

From bouts of violence, casualties to a mounting number of refugees, we break down the events in Africa’s troubled central region.

Tensions in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo heightened last October. The conflict between its army and the once-dormant M23 rebel group has inflicted civilian harm, destroyed infrastructure, and cut off access to food, healthcare, and other essential needs for the country’s population.

As gun violence erupted across the North Kivu Province, there has been death and mass displacements. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 5.6 million people are internally displaced, with more than one million are seeking refuge abroad.

Fueling the crisis is a battle of control over the DRC’s abundant natural resources. Its natural wealth includes gold, diamonds, and oil, the largest producer of precious metals including cobalt, gold, copper, and tin. UN experts make mention that Rwanda and Uganda’s export of gold and tin originated from DRC as a result of exploitation.

M23 is only just one of the dominant rebel groups launching attacks in the country. Considered as a geopolitical battleground involving neighboring rivals like Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, they constitute the Great Lakes Region. The war precipitates from a violent history and, amidst a recent call for peace, its devastation is still ongoing with victims caught in the crossfire.

Who are the M23 rebels and what do they want?

The M23 stands for the March 23 Movement, named after March 23, 2009, when the Congolese army signed a peace treaty with a pro-Tutsi militia. It’s an agreement that stipulated terms that would be inclusive of the Tsuti ethnic minority. The origin of Tutsis ethnic group originates in Rwanda, at the time of the Rwandan Genocide.

On May 6, 2012, the rebel splinter of the formerly powerful National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) military army, previously led by Laurent Nkunda, integrated into the Congolese army. The CNDP apprehended a growing fiefdom in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nkunda seemed untouchable serving the interest of the Tutsi ethnic groups.

The rebels, primarily of Rwandophone minorities, accused the Congolese government of marginalizing the Tsuti minority group in Congo and therefore failed to uphold the terms of the agreement signed on March 23, 2009. Hence, the M23 rebel military group was born.

The rise of the M23 rebels pushed back the Congolese army and a large part of the North Kivu province. By November 2013, a large proportion of the population had fled. However, by the next month, the rebels filtered out of Goma and dissolved following a regional peace agreement promising to be reintegrated into the Congolese army. The M23 members were disarmed and displaced to camps in Uganda.

Almost 10 years later—towards the end of March 2022—the rebels left their camp and attacked the Congolese army. Since then, the rebels have restated their request to be reintegrated into the Congolese army and return to the lands they had been claiming. The Congolese government and its people continue to accuse Rwanda of the resurgence of the M23 rebel movement.

How has the conflict affected victims?

​Most of the women at the refugee sites are farmers, traders, and market women.

Photo by Arlette Bashizi for OkayAfrica

“I can't count the number of times I have fled from war since I was young, and now my children are being born and raised in the same situation. I wish it were different for them," Louise, a displaced mother at Kanyaruchinya, a makeshift site for internally displaced persons (IDP), told OkayAfrica, earlier this year.

After the war broke out, she had given birth immediately upon arriving at this IDP. Her baby is four months old now, and Louise laments the near-unlivable conditions she and her baby are forced to endure. “My only wish is to go home,” she said.

On the other hand, Shukuru is expecting her sixth child. Having stayed for more than five months in a classroom-turned-IDP site, she witnessed firsthand the agony the conflict has inflicted on displaced persons. The classes are full, with a hopeless influx of women, men, and children. The roofs are rusting and threadbare so that when it rains, everyone gets drenched.

Most mornings, the classes are freed so that the students can study and when they leave, the families settle down again. “I was a farmer at home in Rumangabo, and my children did not lack anything, but here nothing goes, just to feed them is very difficult," Shukuru said. "I no longer think about their schooling, I only worry about how they will eat."

In one classroom, women gather around in clusters to breastfeed their babies. Elisa Babunga is one of them. She fled their house when she heard the sound of heavy gunfire, evacuating the city of Kibumba and its surroundings following clashes between the Congolese army and the M23 rebels.

Most of the women are farmers, traders, and market women. Elisa had just harvested sacks of potatoes with the intention of surviving on them. But because of the war, these were abandoned with the paramount concern to flee conflict zones. “We have been fleeing wars since I was a teenager,” Elisa said. “We fled the M23 in 2012, the CNDP, the 1994 war, and here we are again, fleeing. We need peace in our village. Only the establishment of a lasting peace would help improve our lives.”

In Kibumba, Goma, which is a few kilometers from the war zone, medical doctor Mr. Innocent recounts his experience at the onset of the war. “When I was leaving the hospital to go to the city, I came down with eight injured—some lost their feet and others their arms," he said. "Many had lost consciousness while fleeing due to the bombs and gunshots. I have personally experienced this myself.”

Gunshots have left three members of Mr. Innocent’s family injured. After fleeing his home, he’s struggling to feed his family as he’s unable to earn an income. Worse yet, the war has taken a huge toll on his psychological well-being. “I have experienced war right next to me, people dying of bombs," he said. "Until today, I still see these images. I listen to music, and I speak to others, to distract myself. When there’s rain, our homes are flooded, and we can’t sleep.”

Mr. Innocent remembers how things were in the city before the war—some semblance of peace, with open markets. Now, catastrophe lies in its wake, with famine overtaking many nearby regions. Mr. Gandi, a married man with children, told OkayAfrica he lives in constant fear for his family and that one day everything will fall apart. “It doesn’t help either that the information received and published is often contradictory [to what’s happening],” he said.

Are Rwanda and Uganda politically involved?

An executive member of one of Congo’s major political parties, Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS / French:Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social), Luc Kabunangu Katay Sheba, has indicted the roles Rwanda and Uganda have played in the conflicts. According to Kabunangu, both countries have obscured the rights of the Congolese people, highlighting President Paul Kagame’s expansionist views and lust for the DRC’s natural resources.

At the time of Joseph Kabila’s administration, the DRC’s former president, many armed groups had formed. “Uganda and Rwanda were supporting these armed groups," Kabunangu said. "So what had happened was you had foreign officials and military officers who were brought into the DRC Army, police, and the security system."

Since then, current DRC President Felix Tshisekedi and his government have been aiming to dismantle these groups, a duty that the UDPS has undertaken as well. Because of the DRC’s lack of an identification system or database, some of DRC’s population is a mix of Randwese nationality.

“We know that we are Congolese based on our origins [by family name or patois] but given how long the Rwandese nationals have lived in the DRC, many have adopted the culture and it’s difficult to identify who among the population is a true Congolese native,’ Mr. Kabunangu said, indicting the DRC government and their inability to resolve this problem.

At the moment, the union members are in discussion about mobilizing an identification system but are weary of proceeding further given the country’s delicate period and upcoming elections.

Is there a history behind the conflict?

"He is already four months and I call him my war baby."

Photo by Arlette Bashizi for OkayAfrica

Yes. We can carbon-date the conflict to the Rwandan genocide which lasted 100 days, from April 7th, 1994 to July 15th. Over 800,000 members of the Tutsis minority ethnic group and moderate Hutus and Twa were murdered by the armed Hutu militias. And so the influx of Hutus ethnic groups sought refuge in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire).

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, only 7% of these refugees were perpetrators of the genocide and were known as the Federation for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The conflict between the DRC and the Rwandan-Ugandan coalition is noted to have begun in 1996, which initially began as an allied force alongside DRC’s fifth president, Laurent Kabila, to root out the remaining perpetrators of the genocide.

While Kabila necessitated the dismantling of former DRC president Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship reign, his turn against Rwanda and Uganda to force the departure of foreign troops in east DRC would elicit the onset of the First Congo War, which was then followed by the Second Congo War.

Since the Rwandan Genocide, eastern DRC has been a point for refugees to amass large factions of various ethnic groups -- the majority of Rwandan origin. The lack of governance of militia groups, however, failed to resolve the ethnic and tribal tensions. For instance, in 2009, an armed militia known as the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) led by Nkunda in the Kivu region of the DRC against the nation's military split, and its leader was arrested by the Rwandan government.

However, the remaining splinter group of the CNDP, led by Bosco Ntaganda, awoke the aforementioned rebel group known as the M23. They became active in 2012. Other groups including the FDLR and the Allied Democratic Forces have all been proxies to Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi’s governments serving each country’s interests.

What would become of the eastern DRC today is a testament to the lack of resolution between the Rwandan-Ugandan coalition and the DRC.

Why isn’t the war a bigger media story?

Elisa Babunga, 32, is breastfeeding her child in one of the classrooms of the Kanyaruchinya school, where several displaced people have taken refuge.

Photo by Arlette Bashizi for OkayAfrica

It’s almost expected to see how little media attention is given to the conflict, considering media coverage needs to sensibly maneuver the attention to protect the interests of those profiting from DRC’s struggle.

“This game has been facilitated by the international community that has been benefiting from the minerals trafficked through Rwanda and Uganda," Kabunagu said. "In Uganda, one would mostly find DRC gold, and coffee, amongst others. In Rwanda, gold, coltan, coffee, and even DRC mountain gorillas breed tourist attractions.”

The media is polarized to serve the interest of Eurocentric agendas, which infiltrate many walks of life from socio-political debates to what we see now as human rights movements. Isn't it ironic that since the visit of Pope Francis to DRC and his call for peace, media attention has been more pronounced than previously?

While the DRC boasts a predominantly Catholic society, the point of the matter is: Why did it take a European priest to stand in prayer for the DRC for the cries of the African people to be heard?

What is the current situation?

"I can't count the number of times I have fled from war since I was young, and now my children are being born and raised in the same situation. I wish it were different for them," Louise, a displaced mother she met at the Kanyaruchinya IDP site, told OkayAfrica.

Photo by Arlette Bashizi for OkayAfrica

As the war continues to spread further into the North Kivu province, displacement of its habitants continues to rise in alarming numbers. According to UNHCR Africa, presently, “5.8 million people are displaced across the provinces of Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu, and Tanganyika. Over 522,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in the DRC, [and] over 1 million DRC refugees and asylum-seekers in countries neighboring the DRC... In January 2023 alone, more than 200 civilians were killed in Ituri Province in a series of attacks by non-state armed groups, which also destroyed 2,000 houses and closed or demolished 80 schools.”

On February 16, The Forces Armées de la démocratique du Congo (FARDC) announced that 356 militaries from the Rwandese army arrived on Congolese soil. It is believed they are reinforcement for the M23 rebels.

The M23 rebels comprise nationals who aren't of Congolese descent but were filtered into the population due to the Rwandese genocide. Therefore, a critical analysis of the facts and so-called negotiation around the rebels’ request to be integrated into the Democratic Republic of Congo’s security system is absurd.

The resurgence of the M23 rebels into the eastern regions of DRC came as a result of a failed agreement to introduce ex-soldiers of Tsuti origin into the Congolese defense system. “Some of those terms are that these soldiers from Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) integrate the DRC security forces, army, police, and intelligence services,” Kabunangu said. “Ninety percent of their force remain in the east on the pretense of protecting Tutsis who are discriminated against and killed. Basically taking over the control of the eastern part of the DRC with the rest of the RDF and UPDF (Uganda People's Defence Force) as their backup.”

Kabunangu also highlights that under Kabila’s administration, Rwandese nationals occupied these spaces. However, under current president Felix Tshisekedi’s administration, the goal is to put an end to this.

Arguably, President Tshisekedi’s position is validated given the impact it has as we continue to observe the status of the country. The risk of filtering rebel soldiers into the Congolese defense force comes with the potentiality of political and military sabotage.

As it stands, on one hand, we observe a political debacle of a power-hungry militia whose end goal is parasitic to a host that is not theirs to claim, but feels entitled. A Rwandese militia whose landmark doesn’t even occupy an area of DRC’s capital, Kinshasa.

On the other hand, the richness of DRC’s resources draws economic threat to its rightful inhabitants and an air of entitlement driven by blood-lust, leaders who hide behind rebel groups to carry out their objectives. All the while, large corporations lay quietly in the background, profiting from the bloodshed of innocents.