Tensions abound in Masisi
Much attention on the Congo was monopolised by continuous debates over the mounting pre-electoral controversies in the past few weeks. At the same time, a set of events much more immediately impacting the lives of many Congolese went largely unnoticed outside local media and the notable exception of one Reuters report: in northern Masisi territory – more precisely in the Bashali chefferie roughly between Kitchanga, Kashuga, and Mpati – recurrent fighting and the subsequent closure of IDP camps has exacerbated a yet tenuous humanitarian and security situation in the past two months.
Embedded in a wider context of instability due to the burgeoning kidnapping trends in North Kivu (which includes a case targeting MSF close to Mweso town in December 2015) and the complex politico-military connections around the ongoing Sukola II operations against FDLR and other armed groups, well-known cleavages in northern Masisi experience a violent revival. Around March 20, the Congolese army has launched a series of operations near Mpati, Bweru, Mweso and other localities. Most of these areas have previously been under shared control by not only government forces, but also FDLR units, several Nyatura militias (this is the umbrella term for armed groups based on Congolese Hutu populations), and other actors. Lately, civil society actors had deplored that even police detachments had left out of concern for ongoing insecurity, incl. abductions, theft, and attacks.
The area, historically a key theatre of armed conflict for over two decades and in proximity to the strongholds of former major conflict actors such as CNDP or PARECO, currently hosts several IDP camps, including those of Kivuye, Bweru, and Mpati, but also two other – largely ethnically segregated – camps around Kitchanga. Back in 2013, the latter town was the main scene when scores of massacres and tit-for-tat attacks between FARDC and APCLS, but also other militias shook up the fragile socio-political balance of northern Masisi. In 2016, the larger ramifications of Sukola II’s attempts to progress in forcefully disarming again influence the situation in Bashali (for some background, read this detailed report by the Life and Peace Institute). Chased away from the headquarters further north (Ihula, Katobo etc.), the FDLR – despite being on the run – managed to deflect attention through the spike of violence between Hutu and Nande communities in Southern Lubero. While this confrontation most probably involved little actual FDLR-FOCA (instead, FDLR-RUD and local Hutu militias opposed a coalition between Guidon’s NDC branch and the mysterious UPDI and Mai Mai Mazembe), the Rwandan rebels took a deep breath after the perhaps most consistent attempt at dismantling them in the past few years.
Only weeks later, local sources began reporting an increase of tensions and attacks in northern Masisi, which in geographic terms is to the south of FDLR’s ex-strongholds what southern Lubero is to their north. A couple of newly refurbished armed groups were presumed to engage in the fighting, amongst them the APRDC – a group that claims to fight for the timely holding of elections. Although there are contradictory reports on the emergence of APRDC, most indications point at its potential roots in FDLR and Nyatura. While the APRDC has gone public in claiming responsibility for counter-attacks against FARDC (and, reportedly the capture of government soldiers), it is not the only group in the area. Just two months ago, another Nyatura branch formed under the acronym ACRD, and new groups were said to emerge in Rutshuru, mostly close to Virunga Park.
It was in this context that Sukola II began its offensive, including the temporary dismantling of IDP camps that were allegedly hiding militiamen. The Mpati and Kivuye camps were emptied late March, Bweru around ten days later. Keen observers of the region will be reminded of the history of militarised refugee camps, but thus far no proof has been presented on whether or not this claims were true or not. In the meantime, anti-FDLR operations have reached a lull. While movements of the group have been reported towards southern Masisi and Kalehe, following FARDC’s advance in late 2015, the group has also been successful in regrouping in different zones in northern Masisi, northwestern Rutshuru, and towards the southern parts of Virunga Park (where ICCN guards recently detained several people, including a local chef de groupement). RUD-Urunana, a longtime FDLR splinter, is concentrating its troops in northern Rutshuru and operate regularly into southern Lubero, where numerous attacks have been attributed to the group in the past two months. Both the APRDC and Nyatura-FPC (led by ‘Domi’, and not to be mixed up with other groups called FPC, inter alia Lafontaine’s group in Lubero and the former Mayi Mayi Shetani).
Most of these dynamics are underwritten by wider local and provincial politics that unfold along community lines. In particular Congolese Hutu have gotten proverbially under fire with the army’s stronger push towards disarming the FDLR. In many areas, civilian populations have, in the past months, been subject to general suspicion – a key factor that has led to the burning of many villages as well as to some extent triggered the dissolution of IDP camps. However, at the same time, non-Hutu communities in Masisi and Rutshuru have historically feared a numeral supremacy of the former. This is another aspect heightening tension and politicising belonging. In the meantime, the closure of camps – Mpati and Kivuye in particular – may backfire as those IDPs who did not reach the camps in Mweso and Kitchanga went further into allegedly FDLR-held areas (in lack of other ways out, as both FARDC and NDC-Guidon operational positions limit alternatives), where they might potentially constitute a human shield, and in the worst case, a pool of recruitment.