For a moment, the time is over for combat. Assault rifles and rocket launchers raised in the air in victory, about twenty men in fatigues dance around one of the main roundabouts of Kitshanga, a town located at the entrance of the territory of Masisi, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The images of the entry of the rebels of the Movement of March 23 (M23) in the city, filmed on January 26, 2023, made the rounds of social networks. “The enemy has packed up and we are still standing”, sing these young fighters mixing Swahili, the majority local language in the region, and Kinyarwanda, spoken in part of the province of North Kivu in the DRC and in the neighboring country, Rwanda. “We are happy to be back here for the second time! », continues one of them.
For the M23, the capture of Kitshanga looks like revenge on the past. In the early 2000s, the city was the stronghold of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), a former Congolese Tutsi rebellion, ancestor of the M23. In 2009, the men of Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese officer close to Rwanda and Uganda and founder of the CNDP, agreed to leave their headquarters and join the army, after the peace agreement signed on March 23, 2009. Three years later, a mutiny, launched by a few dissatisfied ex-rebels, resulted in the creation of the March 23 Movement (M23). Although defeated by the Regular Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) in 2013, the same men once again took up arms at the end of 2021.
Since then, despite diplomatic pressure led mainly by Angola and Kenya, their influence has continued to expand in the province of North Kivu. Even if the group claims to have withdrawn from Kibumba and Rumangabo, two strategic positions conquered at the end of 2022, the M23 still controls a large part of the territory of Rutshuru. Since the end of January, he has been attacking the prosperous neighboring region, that of Masisi, of which Kitshanga is one of the gateways.
This territory, nearly 5,000 km wide2is full of coltan, an essential mineral for the manufacture of electronic devices such as smartphones or computers. “The mines are, for the time being, quite far from the area occupied by the M23”relativizes Reagan Miviri, an analyst at the Congolese research institute Ebuteli.
Beyond mining resources, the hills of Masisi are also rich in arable land and pasture. Agricultural wealth that has fed, since the independence of the former Zaire in 1960, major land disputes and community tensions. Many landowners or breeders belong to the Tutsi community, “minority compared to that of the Hutu, the Nandé or the Hundé, but with great economic and political influence”continues Reagan Miviri.
Some Masisi notables are suspected of collaborating with the M23, which is predominantly Tutsi. The home of former deputy Emmanuel Kamanzi, currently president of an association of breeders in North Kivu, was raided in Goma, the provincial capital, on January 31, after “a slanderous denunciation”, he defends himself, before alerting on the “risks of ethnic conflicts in the region. »
Because if the M23 positions itself as a defender of the Tutsi community, other local militias, such as the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS), the CMC Nyatura or the Nduma Defense of Congo-Rénové (NDC-R ) also intend to protect the interests of their community. “Before, everyone had their zone. But the arrival of the M23 risks shattering this fragile balance.adds Reagan Miviri.
“All the signals of war”
For its part, the army – regularly accused of cooperating with these local militias – ensures that the fighting continues to defend Masisi against the M23. In a press release dated January 31, the FARDC spokesman, General Sylvain Ekenge, once again denounces the presence of the Rwandan army on Congolese soil alongside the rebels and is surprised to “Rwanda’s relentlessness on Kitshanga and other towns in the territory”.
Kigali, however, continues to deny its involvement in the conflict, despite the publication of several reports by the United Nations Group of Experts. On January 24, tensions between the Rwandan capital and Kinshasa were further strained after a Congolese fighter plane was attacked by a Rwandan missile. “The aircraft violated our airspace”, defends Kigali in a press release. What Kinshasa refutes. “All the signs of war are visible, we must prepare for it”reacted on the day of the event in a local media, Lieutenant General Constant Ndima, Governor of North Kivu.
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For the inhabitants of Masisi, the war has already begun. Since mid-January, several thousand have abandoned their land, estimates the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA-DRC). In total, according to the report of this organization published on January 19, 521,000 people have fled the acceleration of the fighting since March 2022.