GOMA — Leaders of Africa’s Great Lakes region are meeting in Kampala Thursday, seeking a solution to the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo during a lull in fighting between the armed forces and the M23 rebels. But, accusations that Rwanda continues to support the rebels are complicating efforts for peace.
On a cloudy morning in Goma this week, the Congolese army paraded alleged M23 defectors and children who had been forcibly recruited by the rebels in front of a group of visiting journalists.
A 14-year-old boy named Joseph tells his story of being abducted by M23 from his home in Rwanda, being brought across the border to the DRC and forced to carry supplies and weapons for the rebels.
It is difficult to verify his story in this environment - a frightened child talking to reporters with TV cameras as Congolese soldiers loom nearby.
But still, his case presents a real challenge: getting the two countries to work together while Congo accuses Rwanda of fueling the conflict from behind the scenes.
Congolese army spokesman Olivier Amuli says it is a complicated issue.
“They are young children; they are also foreigners,” he said. “The two countries have to come together and talk about this. And we are still waiting to find a solution.”
Human Rights Watch is among the groups that have documented evidence of Rwanda’s support for rebels in eastern Congo.
Senior Africa Researcher Ida Sawyer says the country’s reluctance to acknowledge its involvement has complicated efforts to resolve the crisis.
“It’s a big problem, and I think we’ve seen this for the past 17 years, as Rwanda has backed different armed groups in eastern Congo or sent their military across the border, they’ve always denied it," said Sawyer.
Rwanda first sent its army into eastern Congo in 1996 to chase down the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. Kigali has been accused of supporting other rebel groups in the area since then.
That includes the M23 movement, which briefly seized the city of Goma in November, but has been losing ground in recent fighting with the Congolese army, backed by a more aggressive U.N. peacekeeping brigade.
Despite growing international pressure to lay down its arms, Human Rights Watch reports M23 continues to receive supplies from Rwanda.
“We’ve interviewed dozens of civilians who live along the border between Congo and Rwanda, and they’ve told us about significant movements of troops, weapons and ammunition from Rwanda into Congo in the past couple weeks," she said.
Local rights groups in DRC have also reported an influx of Rwandan soldiers in areas under rebel control.
Rwanda has repeatedly denied any links to the rebels, and has accused groups like Human Rights Watch of having a political agenda.
The foreign ministry has also accused the Congolese army of deliberately trying to provoke Rwanda, after a number of bombs fell in Rwandan territory during recent fighting around Goma.
For some observers, Rwanda’s involvement in eastern Congo is inevitable.
Jean-Louis Kyaviro, a former member of parliament who now leads a political pressure group, says, with Congo’s vast mineral wealth and poor management on the part of the government, outsiders are simply taking advantage of the country’s weaknesses.
“You know, when we are condemning the thief who entered into the house through the window, we should also look for the kids who left the window open," said Kyaviro.
A framework agreement signed by regional leaders at the African Union in February called for the DRC to make security sector reforms and to consolidate state authority, particularly in the east.
Members of the Great Lakes region also have sought to resolve the conflict through dialogue, although talks in Kampala between the Congolese government and the rebels have broken down.