After a period of conspicious calm, Masisi has (for saddening reasons) returned on the scene in February. The last weeks have been marred by stark violence and massive military activities, in particular in the territory’s southwestern parts. What happened? A brief summary analysis.
As of late January, political tensions (displayed mostly along ethnic lines) have been augmenting again around the sector of Katoyi. In sequence, several armed groups active around that zone have engaged in a series of hartd-to-dissect confrontations. It mainly included the following stakeholders (more information on DRC’s armed groups can be found here):
APCLS, a well-established militia on the axis Nyabiondo-Lukweti under leadership of Gen. Janvier Karairi who claims to defend the local Hunde population.
Guides-MAC, a split-off from the former FDC-Guides who got famous for targeted attacks on FDLR senior commanders in Masisi 2-3 years ago, also claiming to defend the Hunde population.
Nyatura, an amalgamated ensemble of militia factions with an organigramme almost as diffuse as the Raia Mutomboki, claiming to defend the local Hutu population.
FARDC, the national army, that operates with several regiments across territory – maintaining shifting and ambiguous allegiances with certain militias over time.
Towards the end of January, political leaders in the area of Nyamaboko I and II had aimed at forcing certain Nyatura elements to disarm. At first, on a very small scale, this has led to heating up the yet tense atmosphere between cohabiting groups – tensions that unfolded in an attack by Nyatura fighters after very few days later. The Guides, whose constituency appeared to have been targeted, fought back with some help of befriended Tembo militia (most likely coming from Kalehe-based Raia Mutomboki) and a spiral of tit-for-tat violence developed. The latter culminated in a massive attack on villages of Nyatura dependents/sympathisers within the first days of February. It is not fully clear to which extent APCLS had supported the Guides in these operations.
However, at the same time, FARDC units were underway to tighten the belt around APCLS, given the group had barely sent combatants to the Bweremana demobilisation camp (most of APCLS combatants cantoned there belong to the so-called APCLS-du-Lac faction, sometimes also called ‘faux APCLS’ by Congolese). The FARDC advance came together with a (real or perceived ethnical) campaign of ‘Hunde militia’ against ‘Hutu populations’ (as a footnote, Nyatura is considered to mostly represent Congolese Hutu populations, most immigrated into today Masisi in 1927 in a colonial forced migration campaign – still there have been constant rumours that numerous FDLR combatants have integrated these movements for strategic reasons, however little evidence is available to underline this so far).
From mid-February onwards, FARDC launched solid offensives against APCLS positions, first in Loashi, south of Nyabiondo, then slowly moving upwards. Many casualties have been reported from the frontlines, including high-ranking commander of both the army and APCLS. After the first battle days, FARDC received supplementary battalions coming from Goma. On that occasion, Nyatura leaders joined the march and allegedly added up with their units. Several village raids are reported between February 15-20 and the names of well-known Nyatura leaders have been put up as the organisers of the former. It is not unlikely, at this point, violence as been used as a tool of political retaliation for the previous attacks around Katoyi.
By end of February, the situation has calmed down and APCLS lost a chunk of its well-established territory – the frontline is now close to Lukweti which was formerly APCLS’ heartland base. APCLS and Nyatura have – almost since the disintegration of PARECO in 2008 of which both sides had largely been part in opposition to then-CNDP rebels – always had a very tense, conflictive cohabitation. Based on struggles over land (mainly land as such, and to a lesser extent the resources hidden below…), customary power (the Hutu did not have bami but had bought much land in previous decades), and political might (the Hunde currently have almost no representatives in the national and provincial parliament) existing tensions have repeatedly been re-cooked on ethnicised ground and along the factionalised lines of the respective armed groups. Interestingly, both APCLS and Nyatura (some of their factions at least) had been coopted by FARDC for the joint defence against advancing M23 in late 2012.
What consequences for Masisi and the Kivus?
Certainly these events have the potential to massively shatter Masisi’s yet volatile (in-)security conundrum. Humanitarian organisations such as MSF that is present in the territory with two sections have ever and ever again tried to pull public focus on the area and its potential for escalation. Seldom they have been heard given the zone’s comparably small strategic importance. Now this might have shifted: MONUSCO recently established a so-called ‘island of stability around Pinga (a town bordering Masisi and Walikale territories, on Islands of Stability see this report) and the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade is about to tackle further armed groups after helping FARDC to defeat M23 and chase remnant ADF into Ituri.
After a hoax in December, when MONUSCO claimed it had begun fighting the remainders of the interahamwe, actual operations have been announced almost half a dozen of times – to no result. FDLR is still divided into a northern and a southern branch, the latter hiding in the Itombwe Plateau in Mwenga, South Kivu. The North brigade, slightly stronger because linked to the reserve brigade, is mostly located in Lubero territory – the immediate north of Masisi. With Masisi’s fragile equilibrium being that shattered since the past weeks, possibly upcoming anti-FDLR operations will face major risks in unleashing a strong fall-out as well as provoking chain reactions across North Kivu. So far, though, the start of these operations – after being announced firmly for late February – has been postponed according to several sources. The situation in Masisi remains uneasy, nonetheless.