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Rwandan Pullout Leaves DRC Civilians Still Searching for Greater Security

The joint military operation in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo by Rwandan forces and the DRC army uprooted violent Hutu groups operating the region since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. But the offensive, launched in January, also raised many new concerns about the security of civilians. The Rwanda-Congo mission officially ended this week as Rwandan troops completed their pullout and returned home across their common border.

Advocate Camilla Olson of the organization Refugees International is just back from eastern Congo after studying conditions for citizens displaced by the fighting. She says that now that Rwandan soldiers have departed the DRC, the offensive has left many questions unanswered. These include reprisals committed by remaining Hutu members of the FDLR rebel group (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), relations between Congolese forces and CNDP rebels (toppled General Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People military wing, many of whom are now seeking integration into the DRC army), and the ability of MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force in DRC, to gain greater coordination with the DRC army and pursue added protection for Congolese civilians.

"What we saw while we were on the ground was the impact of the joint operations on civilians. There were several thousand people who have been displaced. There have also been reprisals by the FDLR rebel group against local civilians. So despite the fact that there were several hundred combatants who have been repatriated to Rwanda from the FDLR rebel group, we feel that the impact against civilians far outweighs any sort of positive benefits of the joint operation," she said.

Olson notes that the January arrest in Rwanda of renegade general Nkunda has significantly changed security dynamics on the ground inside North Kivu province.

"The CNDP during the fall did quite a strong campaign against the Congolese. They took Rutshuru. They almost took (the capital) Goma. A lot of humanitarian assistance on the ground has been impacted – protection for civilians. But with Nkunda arrested, and with the beginnings of an integration of the CNDP into the Congolese national army, the FRDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo), there are some opportunities now for both the UN peacekeeping mission MONUC as well as humanitarians to extend their presence to areas which earlier, because of the fighting in the fall, were unable to reach populations there," Olson noted.

Nkunda's arrest is expected to open up new opportunities for humanitarian organizations whose operations have been hamstrung over the past six months in eastern Congo to reach greater numbers of civilians. Olson cautions that it is by no means certain whether the integration so far of hundreds former CNDP fighters will enable NGO's to penetrate and serve war-torn, previously inaccessible areas. She also questions whether relations between the army and CNDP chief of staff Bosco Ntaganda will enable calm to return to the region.

"I think we'll have to wait and see what will happen with the integration of the CNDP. The people that we spoke with, the displaced people, were very hesitant to return home while the CNDP was still on the ground. They didn't have much faith in the integration of the CNDP into the Congolese national army. So they were very concerned. And several Congolese civil society groups have raised concerns about Bosco's presence and his collaboration with the Congolese army," she said.

A limited humanitarian response has left thousands of displaced Congolese civilians seeking better conditions inside camps in the Kivu towns of Masisi and Lushebere. Poor roads and war conditions have hampered food deliveries to such an extent that numerous camp residents whose last food shipment was back in October have risked their lives returning to their endangered home communities in search of provisions. Firewood has been scarce. Access to water, sanitation and educational facilities is almost nonexistent.

In addition, the CNDP's capture of Rutshuru near the Uganda border has forced thousands of civilians to flee displacement camps and relocate in divergent directions. Some have temporarily gathered near the MONUC forces base at Kiwanja, or relocated to Uganda. Others have fled further north towards Kanyabayonga. Some are relying on the kindness of host families and communities in the area. Other Congolese, alarmed by the return of Rwandan army, which had not crossed borders since the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) incursion that followed the 1994 Rwandan genocide, have fled from North Kivu into South Kivu, where Camilla Olson says humanitarian operations also need strengthening. She notes that it remains to be seen if North Kivu residents are safer now from Hutu and CNDP threats because of the recent joint offensive.

"As a result of the operation, the FDLR Hutu rebel group were increasing their exactions and targeting of civilians. At the same time, people were quite fearful as well of the presence of the Rwandans on the ground. So both of these armed groups were having an impact on civilian protection and on their concerns and also forcing people to flee. And what we've heard since our mission is that the FDLR have taken back from areas that they controlled previously since the Rwandans have left. So that it remains to be seen whether people really are safer or not. But their protection concerns are still quite strong," she said.