People & Power

We have more than enough weapons - M23

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Mr Betrano Bisimwa speaking during the interview in Kampala .

Mr Betrano Bisimwa speaking during the interview in Kampala . PHOTO BY FYSWAL KASIRYE 

By Risdel Kasasira

Posted  Sunday, December 16   2012 at  02:00

In Summary

Talking peace. The talks between the M23 rebels and the DR Congo Government started this week in Kampala to help end the armed conflict in North Kivu. The warring parties have had disagreements following accusations and counter-accusations over who is committing atrocities against civilians. Risdel Kasasira interviewed the rebels’ spokesperson, Mr Betrano Bisimwa, on whether the talks will restore peace to the region.

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What does the name M23 Movement mean?
M23 is a platform for the different armed groups and political movements that signed a peace accord with the government of DR Congo on March 23, 2009. These movements requested the government to fully implement the accord but also bring good governance to our country. Therefore, our name is from March 23, the date when we signed this accord. This was CNDP, on the one hand with other armed groups, and on the other hand, it was DR Congo. Therefore, the M23 is composed of all these groups. We want the government to implement fully the peace accord it signed with these groups.

Why are you fighting?
We are not fighting the government. We are reacting to the attacks by Kinshasa. When we told Kinshasa that we wanted the peace process to be implemented fully, they reacted by attacking us. We found ourselves in a situation to have to defend ourselves. We acted in self-defence.
What do you make of the allegations by the government and the international community that you are committing atrocities against the people in eastern Congo?
I would like to emphasise one thing. This is propaganda by the Kinshasa government. They are accusing us of things that have never happened. The crimes in DR Congo are committed by the government. DR Congo is in a chaotic phase. There is nobody in control of this country. Some of these reports are drafted by people in their offices in Paris and Washington. Those who dare to come to Congo, stop in Kinshasa where they get fabricated intelligence. We have asked so many times that an independent inquiry be put in place by any international mechanism to verify those allegations. These allegations are baseless.

Hasn’t the UN written reports talking about areas where you have recruited children?
We recently captured Goma, and journalists, NGOs were there. No one saw a single child soldier among our soldiers. We operate in daylight. These allegations, accusations and counter-accusations are just fabricated for purposes of propaganda. We wrote a letter to the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, requesting the leaders to put in place a commission of inquiry because we do not participate in the ICGLR meetings but the government does. This correspondence was sent but there was no follow up. If the DR Congolese government was sure about the allegations, they would have seized this opportunity and follow up with the ICGLR.
But they didn’t because they know these are fabricated allegations. These allegations cannot be proved. If a commission of inquiry was sent there and they found that there was no single case of murder, or any other atrocity in the areas controlled by the M23, then the whole case would fail. The current secretary General of ICGLR is Congolese, appointed by the government but we don’t understand why he didn’t seize this opportunity to put in place that commission of inquiry to bring evidence.

What about allegations that you are a proxy group for Uganda and Rwanda formed to fight Kinshasa and that you have no cause to fight for?
When we signed the peace agreement with the government and they failed to implement it, is this not a cause? When we say that Congo is not governed or that public service is non-existent is this not a cause? When we say that Congo is populated by foreign armed groups operating with the help of the government and are raping and killing Congolese women, are these not causes? When a national group is systematically marginalised and relegated because of their ethnic origin, isn’t this not a cause to fight for? When the whole country goes into elections, rigs and declares somebody who got minority votes as president, isn’t it a cause that people can fight for?
After all, these causes that I have enumerated, we are also trying to ask those making the allegations whether these are Ugandan and Rwandan causes. What is the immediate interest that Uganda and Rwanda may have as a result of all these factors I have talked about? They are not the ones that created these problems in Congo. When they allege that Rwanda and Uganda are helping M23, it’s a way of trying to divert attention from the real issues and find scapegoat.

Why would the international community be against you if you have problems with Kinshasa?
The answer is simple: The international community, represented by the UN, is not with us because they are partners with the government. In fact, the UN has ceased to be a force that is neutral. If they had come to us in order to understand our concerns, they would have listened to our side. They are held prisoners of their principle of neutrality. It’s only recently that the people of Palestine were admitted and given a position at the UN. The UN considers governments as its partners and the UN Secretary General works for the union of the governments. However, the UN was one of the signatories of the March 23 agreement. But they have kept quiet. They are actually part of the problem. They cannot go public and say that they have failed in Congo. They have failed and they continue to fail because they don’t put in efforts to understand the needs of the people of Congo. Recently, when we were fighting in Goma, the government troops were backed by the UN. They used UN helicopters and bombed our troops and we lost a number of fighters. When the UN workers are coming to work in Congo, they get their accreditation from Kinshasa. That’s why they do not understand us.

You continuously say that the Congolese government has failed to implement the March 23 agreement. What are those issues Kinshasa has refused or failed to implement?
First, it was the repatriation of refugees who have been living in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi for 18 years. These refugees were supposed to be repatriated when we signed the agreement in 2009. But no one was repatriated until the election of 2011 when few of them were brought back. The refugees are seen as foreigners. They are not considered Congolese.
Secondly, we had agreed with the government that permanent reconciliation committees be created at the grassroots level so that we tackle all the problems that may arise as a result of tribal and ethnic conflict. Apart from that, the government made a formal commitment to put in place a ministerial structure that would be in charge of national reconciliation since 2009. This ministerial structure was not put in place and nothing was done with regard to national reconciliation.
We see danger, when people were chased away from their land in 1996, their properties, including their ancestral land were seized by those who remained. We told the government that before these people are repatriated, we need systems in place to sort out all these challenges. Let the government show the world these structures exist and that we have no point to make. The third and the most important is that our accord also had incorporated the Great Lakes region security agreement on all negative forces operating in Congo, have to be neutralised and eradicated.
But as you may be aware, the FDLR that’s well known operates jointly and manages Ishasha, a very important border point with Uganda with Kinshasa government. They are the ones controlling this border point. Why would a serious government give part of its territory to a foreign rebel group to manage it? That country has an obligation to disarm this negative force.

What about those who say that you want to secede from DR Congo and form a new state called Kivu?
As M23, we believe that we are not even competent to talk about creation of a new state of Kivu as they allege. We believe that this is the choice of the people that can decide how they want to be governed. When you try to talk about their weaknesses, they use propaganda to cause confusion. If we were to create a state, we would not create a small state. Our interest is clear. We want to have a government in Kinshasa that protects its people. Our concerns are national. We are condemning poor leadership. We are condemning poor service delivery. In fact, to be realistic, DR Congo is like a country that does not exist. We have resources that no other country has, but we are the poorest, ever suffering. We want this to end. Therefore, to hide its weaknesses, the government wants to portray us as people who want to secede.

Do you see these peace talks succeeding?
Our position is that these negotiations must succeed and whoever will be responsible for failure of the talks, will be answerable to the people of Congo. The Congolese will decide on that person’s fate. We have the obligation to succeed. We have made sacrifices for peace. When we captured Goma, the whole world said it wanted to listen to grievances on the condition that we withdraw. We had gone beyond Goma. But because of peace, we withdrew 60km and went to our old positions. We have made so many sacrifices. Whoever participates in the failure of these negotiations, will have to pay a price.

Will you resume fighting and recapture Goma if the negotiations fail?
Our aim is not to take new areas. We are aware, cautious and very sorry about this war and the suffering it has caused to our people who are now tired of fighting. We are optimistic that these talks will continue and end well. If our aim was to capture ground, we would have captured many more towns because we have the capacity. We are not the ones who started this war. But if the talks fail, the people of Congo will decide the next move.

We have seen your forces dressed in new uniforms, new boots and carrying strong weapons. Where do you get these from?
Everybody knows that the M23 soldiers came from the government side. They came with their guns. All the commanders we have were big commanders in the government units. They came with soldiers and their logistics. It’s also well known that when we are fighting government forces, they abandon everything on the battlefield. They abandon weapons and ammunitions in the quantities that we cannot even manage. Recently, in Goma, we captured thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition, including BMs and we are saying, if unfortunately, we were attacked today and we used these weapons that we got from Goma, the whole world would say these arms were supplied by Rwanda. We got 33 containers full of weapons and ammunition. We have more than enough weapons. We don’t need to ask from the neighbours. Why should we ask for weapons from Rwanda, or Uganda or Burundi, when we can get them easily from the government soldiers who abandon them on the battlefield?