November 23 2008
By Jeffrey Gettleman
CONSIDER it the capital – the rebel capital, that is. From the cracked concrete steps of an expropriated government building, Jules Simpeze Banga looked out at a mass of hundreds of freshly displaced people last week and delivered one of his first speeches as the new, rebel mayor of this town.
“People,” he said to the crowd, his voice gaining a little more confidence with each word. “We want to help you, but you need to talk to your chiefs. Talk to your chiefs first, have them write down your names and then we will distribute food.”
A loud cheer. The crowd broke up. And Banga exhaled as if he had just ducked a bullet.
Banga is the closest thing in war-ravaged eastern Congo to a white-collar rebel. And like his cohorts, he is clearly under prepared and overwhelmed.
The humanitarian needs here in rebel-controlled territory are staggering, after weeks of heavy fighting and wave after wave of displacement. But administrative resumés are thin. Most of the senior rebels seem much more comfortable in swamp boots than in suits.
Though the rebels have espoused national ambitions – “We will keep fighting until Congo is liberated!” sang a truckload of boisterous soldiers cruising through Rutshuru – they seem to be having a hard enough time just governing the few muddy little towns they now control.
Laurent Nkunda, a renegade army general who leads the rebels, is trying to refashion himself from a military man into a national political leader. But it is not clear if he has the professional rank and file to get him to higher office.
An elderly woman with thick glasses and beer on her breath presented herself as “the secretary” for Rutshuru’s mayor and playfully attacked a group of foreign journalists who walked through their office door. She punched one of the journalists in the back, cackled and then spun around and did a sloppy little dance.
Inside his office, Banga sat at a desk behind a rising stack of paper, listing residents by neighbourhood. Rutshuru and nearby Kiwanja are home to about 150,000 people in all, the largest population area in eastern Congo under rebel control.
“Hoes and seeds,” he said. “That’s what we need. We want to get these people back to work.”
But Banga, a former power plant engineer who said he joined the rebel army “for revolution”, said his new administration was short of cash.
Not surprisingly, rebel soldiers have begun tax collection – at gunpoint, demanding the equivalent of £80 from each truck that passes through their checkpoints. Aid workers say that the rebels seem more serious about providing security than Congolese government troops, who are notorious for raping and plundering, but that the new taxes are hampering the emergency efforts.
There are new rebel stamps saying “Unity, Justice, Development”. And even a new rebel police force, distinct from the bush fighters, with officers wearing stolen government police uniforms.
“What’s the difference between us and soldiers?” said one young police officer, too young to shave. “We protect people.”
But many of their new subjects are not so sure. “At night, they invade our homes, looking for money,” said Kavuo Anatasia, a 17-year-old mother. “Kill us, no. But they beat us.”
Several aid officials have said the rebels are press-ganging hundreds of teenage boys into their army.
“The truth is, children are critical to their operations,” said Jaya Murthy, a spokesman for Unicef. “Children are used as porters, as spies, as sex slaves and as soldiers. Many have been fighting on the front lines.”
Most of that fighting has died down since the rebels declared a ceasefire last month after routing government troops from several strategic towns.
They began pulling back troops from a few towns to give aid workers better access to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people huddled in huts made of dried banana leaves that are no match for torrential tropical rains.
“There’s no excuse for a country as rich as ours to be living like this,” said Mwiti Ngashani, a rebel administrator in Rutshuru.
When asked what his position was, he said, “minister of justice”. Then he paused.
“And human rights.”
Another pause. “Oh, and of aid organisations, too.”
Congo has been in turmoil for more than a decade. But this round of fighting seems different from the scattered battles in the past several years over strategic sites like gold mines and airfields. This time, the conflict seems broader and more focused politically, with the rebels’ leader, Laurent Nkunda, talking at times of marching to the capital and toppling the government.
In Kibumba, a village at the edge of rebel territory about 20 miles north of Goma – the provincial capital the rebels were poised to seize before declaring a unilateral cease-fire late last month – hundreds of children have been turned into desperate street hawkers because their schools were looted last month and no authority has decided what to do about it.
One boy named Severai, who said he was 12 but did not look much more than eight, was scampering after the few trucks that passed through Kibumba on Tuesday, trying to sell their drivers armloads of onions for the equivalent of 20 cents.
“Haven’t sold one yet,” he said, smiling shyly. “But I’ll keep trying.”
The land around here is amazingly fertile. It is the rainy season, and everything seems green and ripe.
Many people are refusing to go back home after fleeing the recent fighting. Kahombo Sebeyeko, a 50-year-old farmer with six children, stood in the rain on Tuesday at a camp for displaced people. Behind him, for miles, stretched tents, lean-tos and little domes made from dried banana leaves, the same type of flimsy structures in which hundreds of thousands of people across eastern Congo now live.
“We are waiting for the order to go back,” he explained.
From whom? A blank stare.
“The government,” he said, in a way that was less an answer than a question.