Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Goma still on edge after rebel retreat

Goma still on edge after rebel retreat

2013-09-04 12:59

Two Congolese women walk past a government army tank in Munigi, on the outskirts of Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  (Phil Moore, AFP)
Two Congolese women walk past a government army tank in Munigi, on the outskirts of Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Phil Moore, AFP)
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Goma - The M23 rebels have pulled back from Goma, the flashpoint at the heart of the conflict ravaging eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, but the city still faces bombed-out schools, a stalled economy and a climate of fear.

Residents welcomed news this week that the M23 army mutineers, whose 16-month rebellion has terrorised the area, had retreated from their positions in the hills around Goma in the face of an offensive by the military and a new United Nations combat force.

But life in the city, the capital of the mineral-rich yet chronically unstable province of North Kivu, is hardly back to normal.

The new school year, which was supposed to start Monday, has been pushed back a week because of the chaos created by the estimated one million people in the province who have fled their homes, many taking shelter in local schools.

Deeper problems

And Eugene Mutabazi, the assistant director of a secondary school in Goma, said the problems go deeper than that.

One of the two buildings at his school, the Monseigneur Masimango Institute, was hit by a bomb that left just one wall standing, riddled with shrapnel.

The explosion killed a girl and wounded two other people, said Mutabazi.

"There's a risk the classrooms that are still standing... will collapse on the children, because they've been damaged and there are cracks everywhere," he said.

The displaced people who sleep in the school at night "could also pose a sanitary problem", he added, standing beside the ruins of the destroyed building.

"We're afraid of the current situation," said Lupao, a mother of four.

"The children mustn't go back to school now."

Struggling businesses

Shops have reopened and the streets are crowded, but businesses are struggling.

At Goma's Majengo market, the stalls lining the street are now filled with produce, but those inside are bare.

The frontline north of the city has cut off a key supply route for merchants.

"A lot of merchandise doesn't get through any more," said a resident alongside a muddy road.

"Hardly anyone brings me clothes," said a tailor struggling to find work at her small wooden shop. "A lot of merchants don't have any more money."

Many residents were left traumatised by the fighting in and around Goma and the M23 occupation of the city, which the rebels seized for 12 days in November before pulling out under international pressure.

In the most recent fighting, several bombs hit the area, killing 13 people, according to authorities.

Swollen by tens of thousands of displaced people who have fled their homes in the surrounding area, Goma's population has now reached around one million.


But the army's new offensive and the arrival of the UN intervention force have raised hopes by pushing the M23 back to around 30km north of the city.

One of the displaced people, Olivier Bienda, said he believed Goma was now out of the rebels' reach for good.

Bienda is a carpenter from the village of Kanyarucinya, 7km north of Goma and until recently the site of the frontline.

"I went back to Kanyarucinya yesterday," he said. "I even went to a battlefield. I saw dead M23."

He said he was "reassured" by the army's progress and planned to move back home soon.

Joseph, an 18-year-old student, wasn't so sure.

He said he was worried by neighbouring Rwanda's military build-up along the border since Thursday.


The UN has accused Rwanda of backing the M23, whose members are mostly Tutsis, like the Rwandan leadership.

The Rwandan government flatly denies the charge.

"We're afraid because while Rwanda is fighting with the M23 against the Congolese military, we're the ones who suffer," said Joseph.

"The Congolese government should reinforce its soldiers so they can fight," he added.

"The M23 has retreated, but it's still in the Congo."

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