THE Rwandan genocide of 1994 killed 800,000 people, most of them ethnic Tutsi, in the space of three months and triggered two successive civil wars in neighbouring Congo. Although these more or less ended in 2003, the genocide’s fallout can still incite violence and rouse armies.
This month the UN Security Council authorised a military attack by a 3,000-strong multinational intervention force against a militia in eastern Congo that was formed two decades ago by Rwandan genocidaires who fled to the region’s remote forests after losing power. They have made murderous mischief there ever since in the hope of toppling their former foes.
The FDLR, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, is accused of rape, plunder and the killing of civilians in the border area around Lake Kivu, contributing to the political chaos that has reigned in Congo ever since their arrival. The UN has long tried to neutralise the FDLR, along with more than a dozen other militias around the lake. Six months ago it issued a deadline of January 2nd for the FDLR to hand in its weapons. Only a small number of militiamen complied, primarily those not fearing extradition to Rwanda, while the rest used the grace period to rearm and prepare themselves for battle.
Plans for the attack by the UN contingent, which is expected within days, follow diplomatic pressure from America and Rwanda. The main contributors to the intervention force, South Africa and Tanzania, have been less keen. Last year Tanzanian officials called the FDLR “freedom fighters”. Both countries have now signalled support, despite their poor relations with Rwanda and worries about casualties. Nowhere else does the UN conduct offensive military operations.
The attack will be tricky as the militia is camped in jungles and swamps, and is mixed in with civilians. A previous operation in 2009 by Congolese and Rwandan troops led to a humanitarian catastrophe, with 1m people fleeing their homes. FDLR units could scatter in the coming months and form smaller bands of insurgents, endangering aid supplies to impoverished villages. Jason Stearns, a leading analyst of Congo, wrote on his blog: “Attacking the group is like squeezing a balloon; the FDLR will simply run.”
The group’s composition has changed over the past two decades. Some old Rwandan commanders have died, fled or retired, and young Congolese have come in their stead, many of them ethnic Hutus like the genocidaires. The FDLR is, moreover, riven by factionalism and is no longer the threat it once was. Its ranks have dwindled by 90% from about 20,000 to just a couple of thousand now. But it is said to have links to elements in the Congolese security forces, which help to sustain it.
The UN does have some form in stamping out murderous militias. In 2013, with the aid of Congolese soldiers, it dispersed another group in eastern Congo called M23. That endowed its 22,000-strong mission, one of the world’s largest and most costly, with a new sense of purpose. But it is not clear that fighting ragtag armed groups one by one can restore peace in Congo. The UN will never have enough troops to secure the vast country, and the national army is corrupt, ineffectual and brutal. In this it is much like the militias, from where some of the government’s soldiers originate—thanks to an international programme to integrate them into the national army. Now the UN seems to have embraced a method of taming the rapists and killers rather more familiar in Congo—by trying to kill them.
Source: The Economist