The sun has set on another day of confusion in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For regional leaders working toward the withdrawal of rebel forces from the city of Goma, Wednesday’s events held some promise – but officials won't breathe easy just yet.
The insurgent group M23 has held Goma since Nov. 20. This city of 1 million is a place of strategic importance – it is the capital of the eastern North Kivu province, which is rich in mineral resources. It is also on the border between the DRC and Rwanda, two countries whose relationship has been plagued by hostilities for decades.
The DRC and surrounding countries experienced two devastating wars between 1996 and 2003, which led to the deaths of 5 million people. In 1994, Rwanda was the site of a genocide that cost 800,000 lives. Conflicts between ethnic Tutsis and Hutus have kept longstanding rivalries alive in both countries, and the vast mineral wealth in eastern DRC has raised the stakes as regional actors vie for control over the rich territory.
M23 was officially formed in April, but many of its members have been involved in similar DRC insurgencies of years past.
M23 is widely believed to be supported by Rwanda, complicating efforts to defuse the conflict. The rebels have demanded that the DRC government in faraway Kinshasa negotiate with them directly, but administration officials believe that the real source of the insurgency is Rwanda itself and have insisted on expending their diplomatic efforts there instead.
By the end of Wednesday, it seemed those efforts might be paying off. Uganda, which is suspected of helping the rebels on a smaller scale than Rwanda, is playing a leading role in facilitating negotiations among the DRC, M23 and Rwanda.
Ugandan officials announced Tuesday that a deal for M23 withdrawal from Goma had been brokered, but that day ended with mixed messages from all sides and the rebels apparently staying put.
But on Wednesday, M23 military leader Sultani Makenga confirmed plans to vacate Goma. That could happen later this week; for now, the insurgents could focus on vacating other, smaller towns under their control.
“We're leaving Sake, we're leaving Masisi," said Makenga, according to Reuters. "Goma will be later.”
M23 has not agreed to leave the area entirely; they will be on hand, they said, about 12 miles from the city in case the Congolese military gets too comfortable there.
The military is notoriously ill-equipped, underpaid and ineffective. They – and local militias they sometimes absorb – have been accused of perpetrating human rights abuses against civilians. But so have M23 fighters; human rights groups allege that the insurgents often resort to looting, rape, summary execution and the recruitment of child soldiers.
"We want peace," said Makenga. "We're prepared for the return of government troops, they're going to come ... But if [DRC president Joseph] Kabila's troops harass the people we're prepared to come back in, we're just around the corner.”
As the conflict drags on, DRC residents in and around Goma are suffering through what has been deemed a humanitarian crisis. The UN estimates that 140,000 people are crowded into displacement camps in the area, and aid organizations have had trouble reaching Goma since the airport was shut down last week.