GOMA — Residents of Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, are optimistic that the withdrawal of M23 rebels from positions outside the city could bring an end to fighting in the area. The situation is still volatile, as tensions with neighboring Rwanda remain high.
Days after the shelling stopped, the Virunga market in Goma is starting to shuffle back to life.
It’s Sunday - a typically slow day - but many of the shops here are open. Women are folding colorful fabrics, and customers are walking through rows of used blue jeans hanging from wooden posts.
Serges Chivai, a shopkeeper on the edge of the market, is just packing away the flashlights and plastic toys displayed in his stall. He says business is going well, at least compared to the last week. “Last week the atmosphere was really bad,” he said, “because bombs were being dropped, people were running away, people were afraid, that’s why the work really could not go well.”
The merchants and customers here tell similar stories, of bomb blasts and panic for nearly two weeks, as the Congolese army and a U.N. intervention force battled M23 rebels on the outskirts of the city.
Artillery shells fell around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, including one near the market.
On Friday, M23 announced it is withdrawing from areas just north of the city.
Delphine, an 18-year-old merchant hanging colorful cloth in the center of the market, says she hopes the withdrawal signals that the end of the fighting could be near." "We want the government to finish the war,” she says, “then we can get clients to buy our fabrics and we can live peacefully," she said.
Despite the rebels’ pullback, fighting continued Saturday deeper into M23-held territory, as the army has shown few signs of letting up.
The latest round of fighting also has disrupted Rwanda, after shells exploded across the border during fighting last week, killing at least one person. The incident prompted angry accusations between the two countries, with both saying the missiles were launched from the other’s territory.
Rwanda, which has accused the U.N. mission in DRC (MONUSCO) of turning a blind eye to past cross-border bombings, has called the latest shelling into Rwandan territory a “provocation.”
The U.N. special representative who heads MONUSCO, Martin Kobler, met with Rwandan officials last week to try to ease tensions and to explain the role of the new U.N. intervention brigade, which lived up to its aggressive mandate to attack M23 positions.
In Goma Saturday, Kobler told reporters, “I made it very clear this is for the protection of the civilian population of Goma, this is the core of our mandate, this is what we’re here for, we could not have remained passive in this situation where M23 rockets hit the population of Goma and caused deaths.”
The U.N. has presented evidence of Rwandan military links to the M23, and the United States has called on Rwanda to cease its support for the rebels. Kigali has repeatedly denied the accusations.