Congolese soldiers flee as M23 rebels take over town

Some of the Congolese refugees carry luggage as they cross into Uganda after the M23 rebels captured Bunagana border town on the Congo side on June 13, 2022. PHOTO/ROBERT MUHEREZA

What you need to know:

AFP, a global news agency, yesterday quoted a Congolese officer from Goma saying Bunagana “is under enemy control”

M23 Congolese rebels yesterday gained control of a key eastern town of Bunagana on the border with Uganda, local sources and the army confirmed.
Following the Sunday heavy clashes near the eastern border town of Bunagana that claimed two soldiers, the rebels seized Bunagana area in Rutshuru territory of North Kivu Province in the DR Congo.

By yesterday morning, some government forces and those of DR Congo were seen retreating to Uganda. Also, many Ugandans and refugees had fled the ever busy trading centre to safer areas.
The Kisoro Resident District Commissioner, Mr Hafique Ssekandi, observed that about 137 Congolese soldiers and 37 Congolese police officers, who were manning Bunagana border post on the DR Congo side, fled into Kisoro after the M23 rebels seized their stations yesterday morning.

“The fleeing Congolese officers were received by the UPDF forces who were on standby to safeguard any invasions at the Uganda-Congo border. Plans are underway to have them transferred to their home country through a different route,” he told Daily Monitor in an interview yesterday.
AFP, a global news agency, yesterday quoted a Congolese officer from Goma saying Bunagana “is under enemy control”. 

It also quotes Mr Damien Sebusanane, the head of a local Civil Society Organisation, who was on the Ugandan side of the border with DR Congo saying: “The army has just given a way and is heading into Uganda”.
Bunagana border post is one of the official entry points linking Uganda and DR Congo. It is also a key transit point for goods for both countries.
In 2012, Congolese government forces assisted by South African troops defeated M23 rebels who had been in the control of large parts of Eastern DR Congo for more than a year.

Army speaks out
In a telephone interview yesterday, the army spokesperson, Brig Felix Kulayigye, said the Congolese soldiers who surrendered to the Uganda People’s Defence Forces have been accommodated in Kisoro. 
“Once the situation normalises, we shall take them back,” Brig Kulayigye said.
Explaining why the UPDF did not extend its military support to DR Congo as was the case under the operation Shujaa, he said: “This was a different arrangement’’.

Operation Shujaa was a joint operation by the Uganda-DR Congo military forces to flush out rebels. In February this year, they announced they had dislodged ADF rebels in the battle of Triangle of Death in Mukakati, Erigeti, Kainama, Boga, Tchabi, River Semliki Bridge, and Burasi.

The UPDF Second Division spokesman, Capt Geoffrey Sunday, re-echoed Kulayigye’s reaffirmation on the safety of Ugandans. “We are closely monitoring the Uganda-Congo border to ensure that the Ugandan territory is safe. The UPDF soldiers in Kisoro have always been on standby ever since fighting started in the DR Congo,” Capt Sunday said.
Yesterday, AFP reported that the DR Congo has blamed a recent resurgence of M23 violence on neighbouring Rwanda, causing frosty relations between the two countries. 
However, Rwanda has repeatedly denied backing the rebel group. 
Mr Fred Enanga, the police spokesperson, told journalists in a press conference yesterday that security was tight on the Ugandan side to counter any attacks.

 In May this year, however, DR Congo soldiers fought M23 militiamen on several fronts in the troubled east of the country, with the government appearing to implicate Rwanda in the violent flare-up. Fighting took place in the Kibumba area of eastern North Kivu Province, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of the provincial capital of Goma.
The M23, also known as the March 23 Movement, is one of more than 120 armed groups that roam eastern DR Congo, a legacy of regional wars more than two decades ago.
It resumed fighting this year, accusing the Congolese government of failing to respect a 2009 agreement under which its fighters were to be incorporated into the army.

Since March 28 when fighting between the M23 and the Congolese government soldiers started, a cumulative number of 29,025 Congolese refugees have been registered at Nyakabande Refugee Transit Camp in Kisoro.
Of the 29,025 refugees, about 7,000 have been relocated to the different refugee settlements after they voluntarily accepted refugee status.

Transport paralysed
Meanwhile, transport came to a standstill yesterday as movement of vehicles was restricted on either sides of the border. Hundreds of refugees flocked the country amid heavy gunfire.
Ugandans operating at the border closed shops and offices and left the busy trading centre.

Some Congolese refugees that include Stevo Munyangorore and Seresite Kwitonda Nibishaka Nsegiyunva said they were ready to work with the M23 rebels as long as they were safe.
Mr Stevo Munyangorore, 62, who has fled his home more than 23 times, said he is ready to work with the rebels to restore peace.
Mr Ssekandi also revealed that the security team arrested 47 Congolese refugees that staged a demonstration rejecting being relocated to refugee camps.

Using logs of wood, they blocked the Kabale-Kisoro road at Nyakabande Trading Centre.
“They accused Congolese refugees shall be charged with inciting violence and disobedience to lawful orders,” Mr Ssekandi said.
The mayor for Bunagana Town Council in Kisoro, Mr Ismail Ndayambaje, said the influx of the Congolese refugees have disrupted business and trade at Bunagana Town.
Mr Ssekandi expressed fears that the seizure of the Bunagana border on the Congo side may interfere with the planned construction of the Bunagana-Goma road.

    ‘‘It is true we captured that area today (yesterday) at about 8:45am. Right now, M23 can assure you that the town is in their hands. The struggle started on Saturday, they came and attacked our camps and that is how we chased them up to Bunagana. So we caught Bunagana at around 8:45am.
    You know when we had a quarrel and we left DR Congo around 2013, we went and settled in Ibanda District at a school called Biyanga Training School for four years in Uganda. We returned to Congo in 2017. We talked/agreed with the government of Mr Tshisekedi on many issues. But they have refused to expedite those matters and they want to harass us. 
      Bunagana is in our hands indeed, but we didn’t want to capture Bunagana, the government always comes and attacks us in our camps and that is how we chased them and managed to capture Bunagana. Whenever they attack, we shall fight back, but the truth is all we want is peace, we want to sit and talk with the government. It is now 10 years since we left Congo that is why we need to talk.

We went to Uganda and spent four years there and even when we returned after four years, we have not had an engagement with the government. 
     We have been here for 10 years and tried to talk with the government of Congo but they didn’t do anything for us. In 2013, we signed an agreement with the government of Congo and we sat in Uganda, but the government refused talks. 

   We have intelligent people that can hold talks, even when they say we get someone from African Union like Mr Museveni, this is a person we believe in so much because we sat in his home and he gave us something to eat, medicine and he is a knowledgeable person who understands and wants to see peace in all African countries. We shall be happy when such people sit the African community and the AU come together to bring us together, even if it is UN. 

     The problem is that inside Congo, there are people who don’t want to see peace prevail. They spread propaganda to the government of Congo and the army and they take a lot of wealth. So the problem is people hate each other, they don’t want peace. Some people don’t want others to get wealth, they want it to themselves. 
    In Congo, people are suffering a lot, even getting something to eat is a very big problem. When you have two children, one will eat today and another has to eat the following day because of the poverty among the people. Even in the prisons, people are dying, people are dying of hunger. 

     These are the issues we are saying we need to sit and discuss with government. There is also the problem of corruption and some people keep saying that in M23, there are people who speak Kinyarwanda and that these are Rwandans fighting Congo, look at such talk. That has brought a lot of problems because we stayed in Uganda and we saw how the different tribes there appreciate each other. Someone could move from Ibanda to Arua and there was no problem, but here in Congo, that is not the case. When you speak another language, they begin saying you are not Congolese and they kill you.

     In Congo, whenever there is a problem, they see Rwanda. For us we are Congolese, what would Rwanda be doing in Congo? The people of Rwanda don’t know the issue of Congo and they even don’t know what is happening within M23, this is a lie. They bring in the issue of Rwanda as propaganda so that they can continue to steal, loot and kill. Ok, is it Rwanda that has stopped the government of Congo from delivering services to the people? Is it Rwanda that is stopping visitors entering Congo? Is it Rwanda that is stopping the army from being a good army? Is it Rwanda that is stopping the government from giving prisoners food? Is it Rwanda that is stopping the government from building good roads? So all these are lies, they only want to make themselves rich and their children study from abroad and all that.
    These people are our people and we have children in Bunagana, so those that have left will come back and will find their houses the way they left them. They will live peacefully without any disturbance because they are our children, sisters and brothers as well as neighbours. I stay near Bunagana, so they will come back.  
All we want is bringing all the Congolese together and bring peace and solve these issues so that we stay in harmony. I love Uganda and send my greetings, webale nyo (thank you very much).’’
[Translated from Kiswahili to English by Derrick Wandera]

M23 spokesperson Maj Willy Ngoma