Around 100,000 people in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have fled their homes following a string of recent attacks, and fighting between M23 rebels and government forces, according to the United Nations. The U.N. accuses Rwanda of backing the rebels, a claim Rwanda denies.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says at least 800,000 people have been forced to flee the fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in the past 12 months. Many are living in refugee camps in the DRC and in neighboring countries.
Espoir Ndagije, who fled to a camp in Goma in the DRC, said he had no choice.
“Coming here to Goma was the only option because the M23 rebels control all the other territories. Life is hard here. We need help,” Ndagije told Agence France-Presse.
The M23 rebels claim they are defending ethnic Tutsis in the eastern DRC, drawing on longstanding tensions between Tutsis and Hutus that led to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when over half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by armed Hutu militia forces.
The heavily armed M23 rebel group has seized swathes of territory in the DRC’s North Kivu province since reemerging in late 2021.
A panel of United Nations experts released a report in December that found widespread evidence that Rwanda was supporting the M23 rebels and sending its own troops over the border. The rebel group is accused of conducting widespread atrocities, including the arbitrary slaughter of civilians and mass rape.
The DRC, the European Union and the United States also blame Rwanda for supporting the insurgency.
Following the visit of a U.N delegation to the region this week, the DRC’s minister of humanitarian affairs, Modeste Mutinga Mutushayi, called on the rebels to withdraw.
“We are all listening, hoping that clear instructions, clear messages, will be sent to Rwanda and to the M23 so that on the 31 (of March) at the latest, our territory can be liberated,” Mutushayi told reporters March 12.
France’s ambassador the United Nations, Nicolas De Rivière, was also part of the delegation. He urged a political solution and said the U.N. Security Council will address the conflict.
“It is clear that Rwanda supports the M23,” De Rivière said. “It is also clearly established that there are incursions by the regular Rwandan army in North Kivu and that this too is unacceptable. So, this is one of the subjects that must be discussed (at the U.N. Security Council) and it must stop.”
Observers say the evidence of Rwandan involvement is clear.
“The weaponry they have, the Kevlar jackets they have, the backpacks, the RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], these are all identical to what the Rwandan army sports when it goes into battle. So essentially, it's just a branch of the Rwandan army,” said Michela Wrong, a British journalist focusing on the Great Lakes region and author of a recent book on Rwanda, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad.
However, Rwanda has denied supporting M23 rebels and accuses Kinshasa of supporting Hutu rebels. At a March 1 news conference in Kigali, Rwandan President Paul Kagame accused his critics of ignoring history.
“People who want a short cut blame it all on Rwanda,” Kagame told reporters. “In Congo, there are over 120 armed groups, of which M23 is only one of them. … This fighting that started a couple of years ago was not started by Rwanda by any means,” he said.
The DRC government suspects Rwanda is seeking control of its rich mineral resources.
“Ever since President Mobutu [Sese Seko] fled what was then Zaire in 1997, there's been a long-standing tradition of neighboring Uganda and Rwanda reaching into Congo and hoovering up its ‘coltan’ [columbite-tantalite metallic ore] — which is what we use to make mobile phones — its diamonds, its gold, its tin,” said Wrong.
There are other possible drivers of the conflict. In 2021, the DRC signed a series of trade deals with its neighbor, Uganda. Analysts say Rwanda’s president disapproved.
“He felt sidelined. He felt bypassed,” Wrong told VOA. “He felt that he is the key player in the Great Lakes region, and he wasn't easy with the idea that these two neighbors were getting on so well and that in [the] future economic trade was going to be bypassing Rwanda.”
French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to broker a cease-fire on a visit to the region earlier this month. In Kinshasa, a few dozen protesters demanded that Macron impose sanctions against Rwanda. Some burned the French flag, angered by a widespread perception of a close relationship between Macron and Kagame.
Macron insisted he would pressure Rwanda to end its support for the M23.
“France has consistently condemned the M23 and all those who support it. And I am here to make sure that everyone takes responsibility, including Rwanda,” he told reporters in Kinshasa on March 4.
Britain, meanwhile, has not directly blamed Rwanda for backing the M23. Critics say the British government is reluctant to criticize its African ally after striking a deal last year with Rwanda to send asylum-seekers there for processing.
“Rwanda is a key part of that plan, and so, as long as Britain is counting on Rwanda to play a role in its ‘Illegal Migration bill’ we're not going to see any outspoken statements or any criticism of Rwanda coming from the British government, that's absolutely clear,” said Wrong.
“So, I'm afraid Britain is highly compromised on this issue and it's not going to form part of a united donor front and that's what we need.”
The British government did not respond directly to VOA requests for comment on the accusation that it is failing to criticize Rwanda due to the migrant deal. Government ministers have previously called on all parties to end support for rebel groups and commit to peaceful dialogue.
Western aid donors to Rwanda should present the country with a united front, Wrong said.
“What we saw in 2012 when the M23 was previously in action in eastern Congo and creating massive floods of displaced people was that Western donors got together and announced that they were cutting aid. And very, very quickly, you saw M23 fighters withdrawing to Uganda and Rwanda. It was a really startlingly fast reaction.”
“At the moment, what you're seeing is Western donors, who — because they are not all agreed and they haven't presented a united front — all they're doing is just expressing public dismay. But that's not going to cut it,” Wrong added.