Congo

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Congolese policeman in riot gear keeps an eye on Goma residents including street children who gathered for an anti Kabila demonstration supported by the M23 rebel movement in Goma, eastern Congo, Wednesday Nov. 28, 2012. Rebels holding Congo’s main eastern city on Wednesday gave mixed signals on whether they would abandon Goma but one thing was clear: For now, the insurgents still hold the strategic locale and no military force seemed strong enough or possessed the will to quickly push them out.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Photo Credit: The Associated Press

GOMA, Congo — Rebels believed to be backed by Rwanda began retreating from the territory they seized last week and pulled out of the region of Masisi, their military leader said Wednesday, in the first concrete sign that international pressure has stemmed the advance of the fighters.


Gen. Sultani Makenga, the military chief for the eight-month-old rebellion known as M23, said that his fighters intend to abide by an ultimatum issued by neighboring nations that called for their withdrawal from Goma by Friday. He said he had ordered his fighters to retreat along the southeastern axis from Masisi to Goma, and they will then leave Goma via the northern route to Rutshuru.
 

“My soldiers began to retreat from Masisi yesterday. We will go via Goma and then after that we will retreat to 20 kilometers (12 miles) past Goma toward Rutshuru,” Makenga told The Associated Press on Friday. “I think that by Friday we will be able to complete this.”

The M23 rebel group is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April. Since then they have occupied numerous villages and towns in mineral-rich eastern Congo, culminating in the seizing of the crucial, provincial capital of Goma last week. Although they claim to be fighting because the Congolese government has not upheld their end of a March 23, 2009 peace deal, an in-depth report by the United Nations Group of Experts says that M23 is a Rwandan proxy fighting in order to control eastern Congo’s lucrative mines.


Congo’s government spokesman Lambert Mende, who is based in the country’s capital over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the west, confirmed that they had received reports of troops pulling out of Masisi.

“Yes, there are reports of movements (of their fighters out of Masisi) but we won’t label it a retreat until it’s over. They have played this game with us before, where they say they are moving and then find a reason not to,” Mende said. “There will be no negotiations with Congo until they are 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside the Goma city limit.”


A regional bloc representing nations in the Great Lakes region of Africa had issued a deadline calling for M23 to retreat no later than Friday to 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside of Goma.

In Goma, there was skepticism over the rebels’ claim and confusion, after the leader of M23’s political wing insisted that the fighters were not leaving the city of 1 million that is the economic heart of one of Congo’s mineral-rich regions.


M23 Vice-Minister of the Interior Theophile Ruremesha told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s government needs to meet their wide-ranging demands for them to leave the city.

“Kabila has to meet our demands if we are to pull out,” he said. “For humanitarian reasons we cannot leave the town in the hands of just anybody,” he said. “Creating the neutral force will take some time.”


While some fear M23, which in only eight months has a record of carrying out executions and of forcing children into its ranks, other residents of this lakeside city are afraid of the undisciplined Congolese army that was pushed out of Goma by the rebels on Nov. 20. Dozens of people came out for an anti-Kabila rally, holding placards and pieces of cardboard decrying the distant government’s inept handling of the conflict.

“I want Kabila to leave because he hasn’t helped the people and our country hasn’t moved forward since he came to power,” said one of the marchers, Augustin Katombo. “I think M23 should stay because we don’t want the army to come back.”


About 1,500 U.N. peacekeepers were in Goma when M23 attacked on Nov. 20 and government forces fled, but the well-armed U.N. peacekeepers did not intervene, saying they lacked the mandate to do so. One of their main missions is to protect civilians.

Many people expressed anxiety about a possible attack by the Congo army, which lies in wait several dozen miles (kilometers) to the south of Goma.


“This is a nerve-wracking situation. It fluctuates every hour and we cannot even plan for tomorrow,” said Goma resident Ernest Mugisho. “The M23 needs to give a clear message because for us, the population, this is not good.”

The rebel group has a large new cache of 1,000 tons of weapons, including heavy artillery, that were abandoned by the fleeing Congo army last week, according to M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga. Six flatbed trucks carrying crates of ammunition were seen Tuesday being driven by M23 soldiers north from Goma.
 

A U.N. group of experts said in a detailed report last week that M23 is backed by neighboring Rwanda, which has provided them with battalions of fighters and sophisticated arms, like night vision goggles.

___

Callimachi contributed from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Jerome Delay contributed to this report from Goma, Congo.

An internally displaced Congolese man listens to the radio Saturday. Regional leaders meeting in Uganda on Saturday called for an end to the advance by M23 rebels toward Congo's capital, and also urged the Congolese government to sit down with rebel leaers as residents fled some towns for fear of more fighting between the rebels and army.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KAMPALA, Uganda — Congolese officials are in talks Sunday with representatives of M23, the rebel group that last week took control of the eastern Congo city of Goma, according to Ugandan officials.

Ugandan Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga said that he is mediating discussions to help both sides reach a settlement that would end a violent rebellion that has sucked in Uganda and Rwanda, which both face charges of backing the rebels.

M23 President Jean-Marie Runiga is leading the rebels in the talks, according to Rene Abandi, M23’s head of external relations.

Abandi, who is now based in the Ugandan capital Kampala, said M23 representatives met with Congolese President Joseph Kabila in a tense, two-hour meeting that was also attended by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

“He tried to accuse us and we also tried to accuse him,” Abandi said of the meeting with Kabila on Saturday. “It was a meeting to have a common understanding of the principle of negotiation. (Kabila) said he’s ready to negotiate directly with us.”

But some Congolese officials in the capital Kinshasa have said there will be no talks with the rebels unless they quit Goma. A regional summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region in Kampala — attended by both Kabila and Museveni — on Saturday called on the rebels to leave Goma and urged Kabila to listen to the “legitimate grievances” of M23.

Despite the regional leaders’ demands for the rebel forces to withdraw from Goma, M23 soldiers were visibly in control of the city Sunday. M23 also still held Sake, a contested town 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Goma. The Congolese army attacked the town Saturday, but M23 retained control.

M23 President Runiga said that withdrawal from Goma was “under consideration” and, while M23 did not oppose the idea “in principle,” no decision had been taken yet, according to M23 spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama, speaking to the Associated Press. Runiga is still in Kampala and no official response to the demands from the regional summit is expected before his return to Congo, said Kazarama in Goma.

“We are waiting to hear from Runiga when he will be back from Kampala,” said Kazarama.

“Since May we have asked to meet with President Kabila,” said Amani Kabasha, M23’s deputy spokesman. “At least now there has been contact. The door is open for talks to find the durable peace that eastern Congo needs.”

Government troops remain in Minova, 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Sake, following a failed attack on M23 last Thursday. Unruly Congo army soldiers had looted residents for the third night running, according to a United Nations official in the town who insisted upon anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. U.N. peacekeepers patrolled Minova throughout the night to protect civilians from the rampaging government troops.

In Minova, Congo Gen. Francois Olenga, who was recently named head of the Congolese army, held meetings with area commanders . “The country is in danger. We cannot defend our country with traitors,” said Olenga to The Associated Press.

Pickup trucks packed with Congolese army soldiers armed with automatic rifles and rocket propelled grenades sped through Minova to regroup at the local soccer stadium. Army soldiers were also walking in the streets, looking for food. Some army soldiers were selling cigarettes on the side of the road.

An M23 communiqué sent Saturday night claimed that government regiments were moving into attack positions around rebel-held territory.

“Let them attack us!” said M23 spokesman Kazarama. “Do they have the strength? Absolutely not, we are in a strong position.”

Clay bones made by UT students and community members will be on display this Tuesday in the South Mall. The bones were made for the project One Million Bones which promotes awareness of genocide in Africa. Photo courtesy of Jenny Nguyen.

UT students and their collaborators will lie 6,500 to 7,000 clay bones on the grass of the South Mall Tuesday. The area usually populated by students studying in the sun will be transformed into a symbolic graveyard of sorts as handmade bones are laid down as part of the national art activism project One Million Bones.

Started by artist Naomi Natale in New Mexico, the UT installation of clay bones is only the latest in a string of nationwide “One Million Bones” projects that span from New Orleans to New Jersey.

One Million Bones is a collaborative art endeavor that aims to promote awareness of genocide and daily atrocities occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Somalia and Burma. Ultimately, the bones made by UT students will be combined with more than 900,000 other bones in Washington D.C. as part of the largest One Million Bones exhibit in 2013. Through the sheer number of bones present on the South Mall, the UT exhibit hopes to serve as a visible reminder of the staggering loss of life within these African communities.

“The bones symbolize that beneath every person’s skin, we’re all the same, and also helps us to remember victims and survivors from these atrocities while representing hope for the future at the same time,” education junior Julie Zhang said.

Zhang, who estimates she has made approximately 400 bones, is one of eight students in Kara Hallmark’s visual art studies service-learning course that are responsible for putting together the event. As part of the class, these students have organized bone-making sessions on campus and as well as sessions with elementary school students, museums and professors at Southwestern and Temple Colleges.

Hallmark, the course instructor, was hired by Natale as the Central Texas state coordinator for the project after helping graduate student Matthew Remington organize the first One Million Bones display in Austin at the state capitol last spring. The role art could play in promoting social justice intrigued Hallmark, who had previous experience with service-learning in the K-12 system.

“A project like this will create within you a deeper sense of connection with the situation,” Hallmark said. “Art has a way of doing that. It’s that visceral experience in conjunction with knowledge, stories, photographs and video.”

While an intriguing idea in practice, making 10,000 bones for social justice is no easy feat. Hallmark said that in addition to meeting for six hours every week, most students spend countless hours outside of class making bones.

Psychology senior Brianna Herold, Hallmark’s student and the project manager for the UT installation, noted that while time consuming, the project affects everyone it touches.

“Whatever the outcome may be of our total bones or the amount of bones that make it to D.C. in the spring, anyone who has been involved in the project in any form has been affected and inspired,” Herold said.

For Zhang, the effect of the project is already noticeable.

“Before I started on this project, my level of awareness about these genocides and conflicts was at a much lower level, I knew that these atrocities existed in certain countries, but I didn’t know which specific countries and to what extent,” Zhang said. “Through the process of working on this project, I learned more about how people around the world are suffering from these kinds of events and how much they need our help.”

For One Million Bones, the aim of these installations is als to make a significant contribution toward enacting positive change as well. 

For each bone made, One Million Bones, in collaboration with Students Rebuild and the Bezos Family Foundation, donates $1, until they reach $500,000, to the CARE foundation, which works in the Congo and Sudan to enact change.

When the bones are laid down this Tuesday at 11 a.m., primetime for students rushing to classes, Hallmark hopes students take the time to stop and participate as well.

“When we did this the first time, many people joined in and participated spontaneously. I hope that will happen here,” Hallmark said.  “The bones are powerful in large numbers, both visually and symbolically. I hope that students who participate that day have the opportunity to see how art can be a vehicle for social justice as well as the symbol of the bone moving us toward a future of change.”

Printed on Monday, November 12, 2012 as: Clay art to symbolize genocide

DJEMA, Central African Republic — An Internet campaign that’s gone viral aims to capture notorious rebel leader Joseph Kony, but Ugandan foot soldiers who have spent years searching for the man are starting to ask a question their top commanders prefer to ignore: Is it possible he is dead?

Ugandan army officials say the Lord’s Resistance Army leader is alive and hiding somewhere within the Central African Republic. Rank-and-file soldiers, however, say intelligence on Kony is so limited that if he dies, or is already dead, his foes might never know and could wind up chasing a ghost through this vast Central Africa jungle.

In interviews last week with an Associated Press reporter who trekked with them in the jungle, soldiers in one of many Kony-hunting squads said their task in the Central African Republic could no longer be described as a manhunt. The soldiers, who requested anonymity for fear of punishment, said for years there has been no LRA presence in the areas they patrol.

The soldiers are growing increasingly disillusioned, complaining of boredom and having to carry around heavy guns they never expect to use.

“Our commanders don’t want you to know the truth,” one of them said on the banks of the Vovodo river, his colleagues nodding in approval. “They want to keep us here, but up to now our squad has never come across any rebels.”

Another soldier said: “We are bored. We have nothing to do. We are mobile every day but we never see the enemy.”Kony, an enigmatic rebel leader who has lived in the bush for the last 26 years, last month became the subject of intense international focus after U.S. advocacy group Invisible Children made a popular online video purporting to make him famous. He has been silent since 2008, when the Ugandan army raided his forested base in northeastern Congo.

Ugandan officials say Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, fled to the Central African Republic hours before the aerial attack, but LRA attacks have been frequently reported in Congo recently. Ugandan troops left the Congo last year after Congolese authorities asked them to go.

Soldiers told the AP they should be in Congo for the hunt.

Ugandan officials say the LRA, which has no more than 200 men scattered in small groups all over Central Africa, is hard to eliminate completely because the jungle is where the rebels are most comfortable. Last year U.S. President Barack Obama sent 100 troops to help regional governments fight the LRA. The Americans play an advisory role in Uganda, the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, countries that have been affected by the LRA over the years.

Even in extremely dry spells, according to the accounts of Ugandan soldiers who have fought Kony since the 1990s, the rebels can survive on filtered clay, which they mix with honey and then roll into something that resembles a sausage. One piece is enough to satiate a man for several days. Ugandan soldiers call this concoction Kony’s dry ration.

Col. Joseph Balikuddembe, the top Ugandan commander of the anti-Kony mission, said the war on the LRA cannot be rushed. To eliminate the rebels and their top leaders, he said, Ugandan troops must live like the rebels, on scant provisions, to catch them in the jungles.

But this method is a source of discontent among soldiers who are poorly paid — most earn about $100 per month — and who feel that they are being used to justify an expensive war against a degraded rebel force that offers no resistance. Some openly wonder if Kony is still alive.

Their amusement comes from using their cell phones to watch pornography and charging the phones’ batteries with solar panels during long treks. Otherwise, they are forced to walk miles every day through unforgiving terrain, facing jungle threats including crocodiles, elephants and poachers.

The makeshift clinic at a military base in Nzara, South Sudan, is packed with anti-malaria medication that will be spent when the rains fall and mosquitoes become rampant. The jungle experience also demands personal sacrifice from the soldiers because they can’t communicate with their families for months and then years, and sometimes go hungry.

In February, when supplies were slow in arriving, some members of a 60-member Kony-hunting squad tried and failed to eat a wild yam that is a favorite of the LRA’s. It is called abato, and a mature one is about the size of a baby’s folded hand.

“We tasted the yams and they were sour,” said Ugandan Pvt. Godfrey Asiimwe. “I don’t know what the LRA do to those yams to make them edible and delicious. We hear they enjoy them.”

And some soldiers, in an impossible test of endurance, are forced to walk on broken limbs.

Last Thursday, halfway through a 14-kilometer walk through the jungle, a soldier stumbled and fell badly. He tried to stay the course but eventually broke down and asked to be carried around. His colleagues resisted and he limped on. The next day he was bundled onto a military helicopter that also carried the stinking remains of a soldier killed in a crocodile attack on Wednesday.

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Ugandan soldiers hunting Kony insist that they're getting bored

In this photo provided by Virunga National Park Monday, Nov. 14, 2011, Mount Nyamulagira in eastern Congo is seen erupting Friday, Nov. 11, 2011. Virunga National Park in Congo is inviting tourists on an overnight trek to view a spectacular eruption of Mount Nyamulagira, where rivers of incandescent lava are flowing slowly north into an uninhabited part of the park but pose no danger to its critically endangered mountain gorillas.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KINSHASA, Congo — A national park in Congo best known for its endangered mountain gorillas is now inviting tourists to go on overnight treks to see a volcano spurting fountains of lava nearly 1,000 feet into the air.

Mount Nyamulagira began erupting on Nov. 6 and could continue to do so for days, or even months.

“Last night’s was the most spectacular yet,” spokeswoman LuAnne Chad said Monday from Virunga National Park.

Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano attracted tourists earlier this year when a fissure had lava spurting 65 feet high. In comparison, volcanologist Dario Tedesco estimated that the lava on Mount Nyamulagira in Congo is spewing up to 980 feet high high.

Park wardens have named the latest Nyamulagira eruption “Kimanura,” after the name of the area along the volcano’s flank, spokeswoman Chad said.

Rivers of incandescent lava are flowing slowly north into an uninhabited part of the park, but that the lava flows pose no danger to the park’s critically endangered mountain gorillas, a statement from the park said.

Virunga Park is home to 200 of the world’s 790 mountain gorillas, as well as lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants and buffalo.

The park has set up a tented camp nearly one mile south of the eruption where tourists can spend the night. For $300, the park provides transportation for the hour-long drive from the eastern capital of Goma and wardens to guide visitors on the three- to four-hour hike to the camp.

Virunga is located in eastern Congo, where numerous militia and rebel groups continue to terrorize the population nearly a decade after the country’s civil war ended. Some 360 park rangers protect the park and its wildlife from poachers, rebel groups, illegal miners and land invasions.

Rangers worked through the civil war in eastern Congo’s five parks, with more than 150 killed in the last 10 years, according to the statement.

The 3,000 square-mile Virunga National Park is a World Heritage site containing seven of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga mountain range that sprawls across the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Only two are active — Nyamulagira and, closer to Goma, Mount Nyiragongo.

Printed on Tuesday, November 15, 2011 as: Congo invites visitors to see volcano erupt