IN THE FIRST WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 2013, I travelled into the province of North Kivu, on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to territories held by the military outfit known as the M23. The group, formed in March 2012, had been in open rebellion against the Congolese government since April 2012, but surrendered to the bloody offensive of the Congolese military in partnership with the United Nations peacekeeping force MONUSCO (the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in November 2013. In December, the government and the M23 signed a peace agreement, officially marking the end of the rebellion.
Before the offensive, I had been invited to the M23-held regions of the DRC by Benjamin Mbonimpa, who was the group’s acting administrator while its leader, Bertrand Bisimwa, was away in Kampala, Uganda, conducting negotiations with the DRC government. Mbonimpa, an engineer by training, met me in the town of Bunagana, in a sparsely furnished office. As we spoke, he repeatedly denied the common charges levelled against the group: no, there was no illegal logging, no gold mining, and no recruitment of child soldiers. “We’re up against a UN army with armoured vehicles,” he said. “Boys would be scared and useless against such vehicles.” Mbonimpa suggested that I ride along with him to Rutshuru and Kiwanja, towns to the north-west of Bunagana. “This way you can see the real M23,” he said.
The M23’s predecessor, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), was a Tutsi rebel group that rose in opposition to the Congolese government and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Congolese remnant of a group of militant Rwandan Hutus, many of whom had been among the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide of Tutsis. In March 2009, the CNDP signed an agreement with the government that, among other things, would absorb them into the Congolese army. But over the next couple of years many of its members began to feel that the government had betrayed the terms of its agreement, primarily its pledge to fight the FDLR’s Hutu extremists, who were still active in eastern DRC.