- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

KISORO, Uganda - The flat ground beneath the Muhavura Volcano and its surrounding terraced green hills shelter tens of thousands of Congolese refugees from North Kivu province just across the border.

More than two dozen green canvas tents embossed with the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) replaced their homes and farms, some 18 miles away or more.

The 1998-2003 war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is officially over, but armed gunmen across eastern Congo refuse to lay down their arms. Nowa Bitegetsimana, 36, his family and their fellow refugees fled to Uganda.

“There were bullets, but I didn’t know who was firing at whom,” he said.

North Kivu clashes

What happened in North Kivu province, according to refugee accounts, is that Congolese army troops clashed with the forces of Laurent Nkunda, a dissident general who was once, and maybe still is, backed by Rwanda.

Balthasar Seminane, 33, a pastor, said Gen. Nkunda’s forces included Rwandan Tutsis — an unverifiable claim, because Congolese Tutsis exist in sizable numbers in the east.

The fighting pushed 20,000 Congolese into southwestern Uganda, though thousands may have gone home by now, according to the UNHCR.

“We want to return, but we need peace,” Mr. Seminane said.

The deployment of 17,000 troops by the U.N. observer mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC, seeks to secure the resource-rich but lawless east by forcibly disarming the militias lurking there.

First vote in decades

Timing is crucial as the DRC moves toward April 29 presidential and parliamentary elections, its first in more than 40 years.

With an aggressive approach that combines surface patrols with air support from helicopter gunships, MONUC has persuaded thousands of militiamen to stop fighting and converted these Congolese refugees as well, despite not being nearby to help them this time.

“If it wasn’t for MONUC, we’d all be dead,” said Mr. Bitegetsimana. “Nobody would be alive.” Yet the leader of his host country, President Yoweri Museveni, has frequently accused MONUC and the Congolese government of failing to clamp down on Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels and two other militias roaming eastern Congo.

Gen. Museveni threatened to again invade Congo if it didn’t take action. “In effect, Congo is giving bases to terrorists,” he said.

Eight U.N. troops killed

When eight Guatemalan soldiers serving with the U.N. force were killed in early January, reportedly by the LRA, Gen. Museveni said his army was ready to return to Congo to take care of the rebels if MONUC and Congo so desired it.

If Joseph Kony, the LRA’s messianic leader, has crossed into Congo from southern Sudan, as Ugandan military spokesmen said last week, it might prompt Uganda to send troops across the border.

“Museveni plays an astute game,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. “He publicly blasts MONUC for not doing enough to stop rebel groups, which he claims threaten Uganda security, while at the same time his army still supports Ituri armed groups who engage in combat with MONUC.”

Uganda’s proxy force

The Congolese Revolutionary Movement, an Ituri-based militia boasting 18,000 fighters, is the current group backed by Uganda, said Ms. Van Woudenberg, Jason Stearns, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG) and a United Nations official.

It includes Hema and Lendu rebels who used to fight each other before uniting in 2005, refuse to disarm, and complain of being marginalized.

According to Ms. Van Woudenberg, Ugandan army officers last July helped facilitate a meeting in Jinja, east of Kampala, that created the group, known by its French acronym MRC.

Dido Manyiroha, a militia leader, said MONUC would never secure eastern Congo.

Disdain for MONUC

“With what they’re doing, it’s impossible to succeed,” he said. “First of all, they failed to bring together all Congolese in the process of dialogue. Instead of dialogue, they are fighting.” However, MONUC does not view the MRC as a major threat to elections in eastern Congo.

“Whatever semblance of political and or ethnic motivations disappeared, the main one is the illegal exploitation of resources and criminal enterprise,” said MONUC spokesman Kemal Saiki.

To clamp down on militias like the LRA and the MRC, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution at the end of January condemning all armed groups involved in destabilizing Africa’s Great Lakes region.

But Uganda also played a role in Congo’s instability, according to a December ruling by the International Court of Justice. It found that Uganda violated Congo’s sovereignty by occupying the region, committing human rights abuses and plundering the country’s natural resources. It ordered the Kampala government to pay reparations.

Museveni is faulted

That decision coincided with the early stages of Uganda’s campaigning for Feb. 23 elections, and opposition parties pounced on it to criticize Gen. Museveni’s failure to seek the consent of Parliament or the public for his invasion.

“Whatever he did in Congo was not primarily for the benefit of [Uganda],” said Morris Ogenga-Latigo, a lawmaker and senior leader of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change.

A 2002 report by a U.N. panel of experts accused several senior Ugandan military officials close to Gen. Museveni of running a network that plundered Congolese resources.

However, as Uganda’s election nears, Mr. Stearns of the ICG said domestic Ugandan concerns could threaten regional stability, depending on the election outcome.

Election looks close

The race between Gen. Museveni and his former personal physician, Dr. Kizza Besigye, is quite close. According to a poll in the Daily Monitor, Gen. Museveni barely has the 50 percent-plus support needed to avoid a second round.

He has hinted several times that he won’t step down if he loses to Dr. Besigye, a former ally.

“It’s important to connect multiparty democracy or the lack of it with domestic insurgency,” said Mr. Stearns. “Domestic insurgency in eastern Congo could be used as justification for suppressing the opposition in Uganda.”

Gen. Museveni’s government linked one anti-Uganda militia in eastern Congo — the People’s Redemption Army (PRA) — to Dr. Besigye after the two men contested the 2001 election.

Rival still on trial

Shortly after Dr. Besigye’s return to Uganda after four years in South African exile, Ugandan authorities charged him with treason for purportedly plotting with the PRA to overthrow the government by force if he loses this month’s election to Gen. Museveni.

That case, which prompted the resignations of two judges already, remains before the court.

MONUC said the PRA exists as an armed group, but analysts and militia leaders said they have never heard of any attacks it carried out in Uganda or the DRC.

For refugees complaining of no food, clothes, or medicine, Uganda’s politics mean very little. They focus on the election campaign in the DRC, almost all of them hoping for a victory by interim President Joseph Kabila.

Mr. Bitegetsimana even showed a reporter his orange voter-registration card. “We are looking forward to” Mr. Kabila’s re-election, he said. “We want to go back home to vote.

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