GOMA, DRC— The Democratic Republic of Congo’s M23 rebel movement has denied reports that its military commander, Sultani Makenga, has been badly wounded. An M23 spokesman also rejected a call from the United Nations mission in Congo for the movement to dismantle its administration, including a proposed law court.
A rumor that Sultani Makenga was ambushed and seriously wounded began to circulate in Goma early this week.
An M23 spokesman, Kabasha Amani, said Thursday the rumor is false. He said a journalist from the Reuters news agency was with Makenga at a ceremony to mark the Day of the African Child on Sunday and saw that he is in good health.
But a Congolese newspaper, L’Avenir, reported that Makenga was ambushed and wounded on Monday, a day after that ceremony, and immediately rushed to the Nsambya Hospital in Uganda. From there, it says, he was transferred to another unidentified facility.
Amani said he was unaware of this report and dismissed it as a joke. He said Congo is a country of rumors and Makenga has been "killed" and "resuscitated" three times in the Congolese media.
It is true there have been similar reports in the past, and if there was panic in M23 territory as L’Avenir reports, it was not very evident Thursday during a visit to a village inside the rebel zone.
Local people were not willing to comment on the rumor of an attack on Makenga, but did respond cautiously to questions about the possible fate of 11 young men detained by M23 in connection with another alleged ambush.
A man who preferred to withhold his name said he thinks happens to suspects detained by M23.
He says there are those they arrest and take away, and some of them are killed. Normally they are put on trial, he continues, and some of them are freed.
M23 spokesman Amani denied reports of M23 killing civilians. The head of the U.N. mission in Congo, Roger Meece, said this week he was troubled by the M23’s recent announcement that it would put the 11 defendants on trial.
Meece said the accused could not be guaranteed a fair trial under the circumstances, and he called on the M23 to dismantle what he called its illegitimate parallel administration.
An M23 combatant, Innocent Tchubahiro confirmed the movement has its own police force.
The government police fled the area, he says, and other police came who are with the M23.
The U.N. mission, MONUSCO, reports that there are no qualified magistrates in M23’s territory, but rebel spokesmen deny this. Amani said the movement has trained its own criminal investigators and intends to combat impunity and defend human rights, which it can only do by putting suspects on trial.
The combatant Tchubahiro dismissed the suggestion that the M23 should close down its administration.
"That’s impossible," he says. "Wherever there are authorities and people under them, there has to be an administration," he explains.
Tchubahiro said the M23 has not imposed new taxes on ordinary people, but is levying tolls on traffic passing through the territory.
Those tolls are heavy, according to truck drivers like Kambale Kahanirwa, who was waiting at a checkpoint near Goma.
"I’ve driven 180 kilometers from Kanyabayonga," he says, "and the journey has taken three days because of all the shakedowns along the way."
He and other truck drivers said many checkpoints on that route are manned by the M23, other militias and the government army, but the M23 gets most of the tolls.
"The M23 charged me $350 for this load of cassava," he says, "and with the other checkpoints the tolls come to about $500 total."
His load might have been worth about $3,300.
The combatant Tchubahiro said the tolls pay his wages.
Tchubahiro was asked if he could comment on the rumors that his commander had been badly wounded in an ambush by a pro-government militia.
“Ah, now the interview is getting complicated,” he said, and walked away.