Sunday, April 20, 2014

DR Congo: FDLR " We don't need no uniforms, we have no disguise "

IRIN Reports

Fighting an invisible enemy in DRC

BISHONGERA, 9 April 2014 (IRIN) - It is difficult to identify the fighters of the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), one of the many armed groups active in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), some of whose leaders played a key role in Rwanda’s genocide 20 years ago. Bearing neither uniform nor insignia, they are indistinguishable from the civilian population. 

The pangas (long knives) the FDLR carry in North Kivu Province’s Rutshuru Territory village of Bishongera are commonplace within agricultural societies and the AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades have been stashed since the DRC national army (FARDC) and Malawian soldiers from the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC’s (MONUSCO) Force Intervention Brigade (FIB)began preparations in the area for an offensive against them. 

I very much doubt the weapons have been stashed. I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised to find that the shooting of Virunga National Park head ranger Emmanuel de Merode was the result of FDLR activity.

The trick, according Patrice Munga*, a civil society activist based in Tongo a few kilometres down the mountainside, is to look at the footwear. “The ones wearing the gumboots - they are FDLR.”

That is fairly flimsy when it comes to positively identifying FDLR combatants. Shooting a guy because of the footwear he is wearing is a hell of a big call. 

In the valley below, a UN helicopter gunship traverses Virunga National Park. The clatter of its rotors does not elicit a glance from the roughly 10 young men in gumboots, some brandishing pangas, gathering around the only bench in the village where a senior FDLR officer, Agathe Nzabonimana*, wearing black shoes, sits. He barks orders at the encroaching men in Kinyarwanda and they move away.

Which suggests if a IRIN journalist can elicit this information then boosting the intelligence gathering ability of the Intervention ( Africa ) Brigade should be a priority.

He tells IRIN: “We [FDLR] don’t have uniforms. We don’t have support from a foreign country” - a direct nod to M23, an alleged proxy force of neighbouring Rwanda.

It is hardly comparing apples with apples. The FDLR are genocidal Rwandan rebel group attempting to establish an exclusive Hutu regime in Rwanda. M23 were a bunch of murderous Rwandan / Congolese thugs at the hard end of Rwandan efforts to colonise the Eastern DR Congo.

M23 was the first armed group targeted by FIB, established after a February 2013 UN Security Council resolution to “neutralize” and disarm all armed groups in the country. FIB has since moved its sights to other armed groups. 

The 3,069 strong FIB - a unit shorn of any civilian functions - is made up of soldiers from Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania and equipped with heavy weapons and helicopter gunships and works in tandem with the FARDC. Military operations in North Kivu Province are either under way, or in preparation, in the districts of Masisi against Janvier Buingo Karairi’s Alliance des patriotes pour un Congo libre et souverain (APCLS); in Beni against the Allied Democratic Forces(ADF-Nalu) an anti-Ugandan militia; and in Rutshuru against the FDLR. 

I am not on the ground but it would seem to me that the a reason that the Intervention Brigade was so successful against M23 was its refusal to be stampeded into action. The brigade took its time getting organised and as a consequence took a lot of flack   it was the the right decision as subsequent events have proved. M23 collapsed in a spectacular fashion. I think dealing with each group in a sequential way might well be less popular but ultimately more successful.  

" The intervention brigade, consisting of Tanzanian, South African and Malawian soldiers, was created by the U.N. Security Council in March and has deployed to Congo over the past few months, reinforcing 17,000 U.N. blue helmets already with MONUSCO. The brigade has a stronger mandate than past U.N. peacekeeping missions and is authorized to fight the rebel forces operating in eastern Congo.

There has been widespread skepticism in Congo that the intervention brigade will be a game-changing addition to the existing U.N. force, which stood by when M23 fighters briefly captured Goma late last year.

Main roads through Goma were blocked early Saturday by burning tires and crowds chanting anti-MONUSCO slogans.

Kobler, the U.N. mission chief, called on Goma residents to protect his staff after angry crowds tried to march on the mission headquarters there.

He said he understood people's impatience to see an end to rocket attacks "but the U.N. are not the enemy."

A host of NGOs in a joint 5 March 2014 correspondence to the Security Council on the renewal of the “robust” military mandate noted the “upcoming military operations carry with them high risks for the civilian population of DRC”. 

But the heavy weaponry of the intervention brigade - which proved decisive against M23 – will be less effective against the FDLR, which has integrated within Congolese communities over the past two decades. 

Agreed. But MONUSCO is not without significant intelligence gathering assets.

FDLR mix with civilians 

In Tongo, where soldiers are gathering with the support of FIB’s Malawian contingent, an FARDC major in the 601 Regiment - more commonly referred to as the Chinois commandos in deference to their three years of training by Chinese military instructors - told IRIN “the difference between M23 and the FDLR, is that the FDLR mix in with civilians. 

“M23 had military emplacements, so when we used heavy weaponry, we knew we were hitting military targets. It makes FDLR very hard to attack… The FDLR is essentially using them [civilians] as human shields,” he said. 

“There are FDLR in every village [of the Rutshuru operational zone]. The local population does not collaborate [with the FARDC] as they fear retribution after we leave. So they will not identify the FDLR,” the major said. 

The reality is that the FDLR are a cancer inflicted upon the Eastern DR Congo and they need to be eliminated. If that means garrisoning the Rutshuru zone then so be it. Establish safe zone around the villages and take the genocidal bastards out.

Nzabonimana dismisses the notion. “We live very well with the population. Why is it necessary to do this operation? I have no problem with the FARDC, but if they come here, they will kill the population… I am not afraid of the FARDC. I have been through two [anti-FDLR operations] and I am still here.”

There are 18,000 regular MONUSCO troops, 3000 Intervention Brigade troops with the right mandate for the job ( ie the ability to shoot first and between the eyes ) as well as FARDC ( Congolese Army ). 

FDLR was formed by the remnants of the Forces armées rwandaises (FAR), the national army of Rwanda, and the Interahamwe, a Hutu Power militia that drove the genocidal ideology and led the 1994 genocide. After 20 years in neighbouring DRC, the armed group has survived by recruiting from the local population. Even so, its strength has diminished from more than 10,000 to about 2,000 over the years, according to some estimates.

I am guessing they are the true believers in their insane ideology of racial hatred.  

Although the FDLR has made several vain appeals for talks with Kigali over the years, some of its leaders have never fully renounced their Hutu Power ideology – which provided the genocide’s “logic” and their ambitions to seize power by force in Rwanda. 

You don't negotiate with terrorists. You accept their unconditional surrender or eliminate them. It is that simple and much as I oppose the current Rwandan regime Kigali is correct not to accept anything short of surrender. That said guarantees for the safety of those who opt to surrender should also be in place.

“We are called criminals by Rwanda” 

Nzabonimana’s roughly six-year-old daughter - he will not say whether the mother is Congolese or Rwandan - rests her head in his lap, her nose streaming from an infection. The only evidence of humanitarian assistance in Bishongera are some faded NGO logos and a water pump. “After 20 years I still feel like a visitor here [in the DRC]… The only thing we want is to look for our rights. They are not here in Congo.” 

What rights. The right to a life that he presumably denied to those murdered in the Rwandan Genocide and has continued to deny to those Congolese civilians murdered by the FDLR.

A construction engineering graduate, he served four years with FAR and has spent the last 20 years with FDLR. 

In other words he has wasted his life to date.

“The general question I always ask myself is why we are called criminals by Rwanda. When the genocide happened I was fighting the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front], an invading force. The solution is negotiations between FDLR and [President Paul Kagame’s] Rwanda… Why were there negotiations with M23, but no negotiations with FDLR. I cannot go back to Rwanda. I will be imprisoned or killed,” Nzabonimana said.

You are called a criminal because you are a member of a criminal organisation.   

Bishongera is one of four villages on the about 14km path to Tshai from Tongo where the FDLR’s North Kivu commander, General Ntawugunka “Omega” Pacifique Israel, is thought to be based with more than 1,000 soldiers. 

The objective, the FARDC major said, “is for FDLR to surrender with their weapons. So they can be returned to their county [Rwanda]. Dispersing them is no good. It will be very difficult to bombard Tshai because of the mix [of civilians and FDLR fighters].” 

So force the FDLR out of Tshai. Garrison the town. Those FDLR who remain arrest or accept their surrender and return them to Rwanda under the agreed surrender mechanism.
An FDLR defector, taken into custody by FARDC in Tongo, Céléstin Ibaka*, told IRIN the FDLR did not want to fight the FARDC and “if attacked we will run.” 

I suspect that it isn't just FARDC they don't want to fight. My feeling is the rank and file don't want to fight at all anymore. Take advantage of that and offer a attractive alternative.

In March 2014 the FARDC captured Kilometre Nine, an FDLR bush-base of about 20 soldiers on the Virunga National Park road between Kalangera and Tongo. After a 25-minute fire-fight, with the support of Malawian troops, the position was overrun and two FDLR soldiers killed, according to FARDC.

I can't imagine defeats of that nature do much for FDLR morale. The combined forces arrayed against the FDLR brings to mind the famous words of Theodore Roosevelt: “If you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” 

Decreasing FARDC-FDLR collaboration?
In the past FARDC has had “discreet alliances” with FDLR, Christoph Vogel, a DRC researcher based at the University of Zurich, told IRIN, but from a high point 10-15 years ago “the long-term trend of this collaboration appears to be decreasing… 

“More recently, with FARDC struggling to get rid of the M23, interactions between FARDC and FDLR certainly increased again, but the co-option politics of the Congolese army go much farther than that - also APCLS, Nyatura, and other militias have been serving as anti-M23 proxies,” he said. However, “it would be wrong to speak of a systematic FARDC-FDLR collaboration.”

The reality is that FARDC have evolved from a highly unprofessional force into a reasonably effective military organisation in the Eastern DR Congo. Jason Stearns at Congo Siasa blogs:

In addition, the army is now giving more prominence to the commando battalions, the 321 and 322 trained by the Belgians (a third is currently being trained in Kindu), the 391 trained by the Americans, and one by the Chinese (on the northern front line in Tongo). During the operations last year, these battalions had been mismanaged by the military hierarchy, which dismantled them, sent them to areas where there was little to do, and "sabotaged them by sending them into battle without supplies or knowledge of the terrain," according to one Belgian trainer.
It would seem reasonable to assume FARDC will continue to improve in terms of its conduct. The collaboration argument has long been used by Rwanda to justify to justify everything from the now defeated M23 through to military invasions of sovereign DR Congo territory. Rwanda is the only voice bemoaning FARDC / FDLR collaboration and the world has grown tired of Rwandan bullshit. 

“Regardless of the actual ties between Rwanda and M23 [or its predecessors Congrès national pour la défense du people, CNDP, and Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, RCD], the presence of these militias can be seen as a facilitating element for FARDC-FDLR collaboration,” Vogel said. 

The FARDC view of FDLR was not monolithic, he said, and there were those maintaining “cordial relations with senior FDLR figures”, while others were “ferociously” against them; a third category “while not necessarily being supportive of FDLR, demand that Rwanda should negotiate with FDLR just as the DRC negotiated with M23. Needless to say, Rwanda would not accept this.” 

Well I wouldn't describe the DR Congo / M23 Kampala Peace Talks as a negotiation. 
" I am of the opinion that Kinshasa are just going through the motions at the Kampala peace talks and so it would now seem are M23. The real issue is that there is nothing for either side to talk about. This much vaunted political solution has failed yet again, neither side is participating in good faith that leaves a military solution on the table." 

The Rwandan position is that it will accept the surrender of FDLR rebels and rehabilitate them on an individual basis. That is reasonable and might even work.

Deadlock in anti-FDLR operations 

Whether there was some political deal between Kinshasa and Kigali about the fates of M23 and FDLR “is hard to speculate,” but “MONUSCO and the UN Security Council may have given assurances to the Rwandan government that they will not only tackle M23 but also FDLR. 

I will speculate on whether there was a Kinshasa / Kigali deal. There was not. It is a certainty that both the UN and MONUSCO gave an assurance to Rwanda that the FDLR would be eliminated but I doubt they bothered discussing the fate of M23 with Rwanda.

“The current deadlock in anti-FDLR operations puts the credibility of both MONUSCO and FARDC in peril and bears a risk of souring bilateral exchange as Rwanda currently commemorates the 20th anniversary of the genocide,” Vogel said.

Again MONUSCO and its offshoot the Intervention Brigade owe Rwanda nothing and Rwanda has no right to set the timetable. MONUSCO should move against the FDLR when they are ready and will win.

Munga said that in the past, before FARDC was put on an operational footing in Rutshuru against FDLR, the FARDC greeted and drank together with the FDLR “during the days of M23”, and provided the armed group with ammunition and food. But this had since stopped. “When they were drinking together they [FARDC] used to joke: `The FARDC helped return M23 to Rwanda. Now we must help the FDLR return to Rwanda’.”

A small problem with the above joke, it doesn't fit in with the timing of events on the ground. In other words I doubt that any collaboration between FARDC and the FDLR occurred after the defeat of M23 which is the only way that that joke can work.

When unfounded rumours in January 2014 swept through eastern DRC that Kagame had died “the whole [Tongo] population celebrated. FARDC celebrated more than FDLR,” he said.

True. Given Rwanda's interventions in the eastern DR Congo that should surprise no one. Six million Congolese have died largely as a result of Rwandan invasions both directly and indirectly through proxies such as M23.

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