Authorities and aid groups in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are calling on residents to live in harmony amid reported threats against alleged collaborators of the defeated M23 rebel group.
“The challenge we are facing at the moment is to get people to understand that their neighbours who worked with the rebels may have been forced into doing so, or were trying to get jobs. As I have just been [in office for five days] I think they will finally understand our message,” Michael Magenda, chief of North Kivu Province’s Kiwanja town, a former rebel stronghold, told IRIN.
Magenda, who returned to his job as a local administrator after the rebels were defeated by the DRC army with the help of UN troops, has been trying to persuade residents of Kiwanja not to indulge in revenge attacks on alleged M23 collaborators.
“We have held meetings with community leaders to get them to speak to their fellow tribesmen and explain to them that we have to move forward and not turn against each other. We are also working with local pastors who are spreading the same message in their church sermons,” he added.
Alessandra Menegon, head of The International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in DRC, said in a recent statement: “In situations like this, there’s always a risk that rogue elements of the population, armed forces and armed groups will commit acts of revenge or retaliation,” and called on the Congolese authorities to “prevent this from happening”.
Human Rights Watch has urged the Congolese authorities to “issue explicit orders to all members of the security forces not to carry out revenge attacks or other abuses against members of the Tutsi ethnic group or suspected M23 collaborators. Those implicated in such acts should be promptly brought to justice.”
According to Magenda, some alleged M23 collaborators have fled to the MONUSCO (UN Stabilization Mission in DRC) base seeking protection after being verbally threatened by their neighbours.
“One of them was an [accountant] of the M23 at the Cité’s administration. He fled to the MONUSCO base but when I convinced his colleague that he was a low-level official, with no political authority among the rebels, they understood, and agreed to allow him to return to work.”
Idi Issa, a local resident and teacher, also told IRIN that some former M23 collaborators had fled to MONUSCO’s base.
“Just this weekend, a guy who was working for M23 sought refuge at MONUSCO’s base. He went there when some men ransacked his home looking for him. They accused him of having told M23 that they were local militiamen operating in Kiwanja against M23. They didn't find him, but found his wife who fled to Goma after they left.”
Two moods in Kiwanja
He added: "There are two moods in Kiwanja at the moment. People who were against M23 are jubilant. While those who worked for M23 and who did not flee when the army returned to the town, are afraid because some of them are being verbally threatened.”
Local residents who spoke to IRIN were divided on the issue of retributive justice for rebel aides and sympathizers.
“I’ve suffered so much, and… I think those rebels and their collaborators should be killed because they have killed many people. As I’m talking to you I’m an orphan. I lost my parents in successive wars that these people [M23] have been staging,” said a 24-year-old man who preferred anonymity.
Another resident said: “The rebels and their supporters should face the law, not be killed, so that they can see or testify how the country can stay in peace.”
Some of the rebel sympathizers who fled when the army regained control of Kiwanja are fearful of returning.
Pierre Kibancha, a former rebel collaborator who fled Kiwanja when the army took control of the town but has since returned, told IRIN he was arrested by people he claimed were soldiers, who questioned and later released him.
“During the rebellion I was based in Kiwanja. When the army was advancing, I fled to Bunagana, Uganda... I returned when the governor said on the radio that those who worked with the rebels are welcome to return. When I arrived back in Kiwanja, soldiers… arrested me. They said I was torturing people. They said we were committing atrocities against residents,” Kibancha, told IRIN.
In late October when it was clear the DRC army was gaining ground against the rebels, President Joseph Kabila called for unity and urged citizens to “shun any attitude, behaviour or statement likely to widen divisions between citizens as this would play into the hands of our enemies. This is no time for witch hunts or seeking scapegoats but for the unity of Congolese people in all their diversity around a single objective - the dignity of Congo.”