By Taylor Toeka Kakala in Goma and Lisa Clifford in The Hague (AR No. 185, 05-Sep-08)
Eastern Congo's fragile peace process is again in crisis as fighting between rebels and the army pushes the region closer to all-out war.
Observers say armed groups on all sides are digging in after clashes between the Congolese army and fighters loyal to Laurent Nkunda, the head of the Congress for the Defence of the Congolese People, CNDP.
The European Union diplomat who helped broker January's ceasefire signed in the North Kivu capital Goma said he is concerned and disappointed by the recent developments.
"We consider the events of the last few days a serious threat to the peace process, and if over the coming days these violations are not resolved… we will see lasting damage," said Roeland van de Geer, the EU's Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region. "We are in crisis. There is no doubt about it."
Also in jeopardy as a result of the insecurity is the November 2007 Nairobi agreement between the Congolese and Rwandan governments to disarm and repatriate the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR.
The FDLR is a militia group based in eastern Congo consisting of Hutus who fled Rwanda following the 1994 genocide. Its principal opponent in this complex conflict is Nkunda's CNDP, which draws on the Tutsi community.
Although there have been numerous violations of the Goma ceasefire since it was signed by 22 armed groups, the fighting which occurred on August 28 and again on September 3-4 has been the most serious so far.
The United Nations has positioned its peacekeeping force between the militias as part of a peace deal which called on all sides to lay down their weapons and respect international humanitarian and human rights law.
But the UN force, known by its French acronym MONUC, has itself come under attack in recent days from civilians frustrated at the growing security problems. A MONUC vehicle was burned and a civilian injured during a protest in Rutshuru when peacekeepers fired into the air to disperse angry demonstrators.
Diplomatic efforts to defuse the tension are in full swing with van de Geer just back from the Ugandan capital Kinshasa where he met with senior government ministers. Jendayi Frazer, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, has spoken to Congolese president Joseph Kabila, and international mediators have also contacted Nkunda.
"The international facilitators are committed and engaged to continue but we need the political will of all parties concerned," van de Geer told IWPR.
It is unclear who or what provoked the latest fighting, as each side accuses the other of breaking the peace. The CNDP had earlier left the peace process, but several weeks ago it agreed to return after negotiations with van de Geer. "We do not know how the [recent] events have affected that return," he said.
What is clear is that the humanitarian situation on the ground is deteriorating. Aid agencies say civilians are, as usual, paying the highest price, with North Kivu residents caught in the crossfire forced to abandon their harvests and flee.
Even before the recent fighting, conditions were desperate throughout much of the province. Malnutrition is on the increase and efforts by the international community to feed the displaced are being hindered by attacks on humanitarian workers.
Oxfam's Ellie Kemp describes the situation across much of the east as near universal insecurity with mass rape, looting, violent robbery and extortion. "There are gross human rights abuses on a regular basis," said Kemp, Oxfam's policy and advocacy coordinator in DRC.
The forcible recruitment of children by irregular armed groups is seeing an alarming resurgence, and suggests militias are preparing for a new bout of fighting.
Non-government organisations in North Kivu told IWPR that recruitment decreased following the ceasefire, but picked up again in July.
"One fighter in four in the two Kivu provinces is a child soldier," said Joachim Fakiri, the coordinator of a Goma-based NGO working to end the use of children by armed groups. "Many of these children are being taken by force when returning from school."
Camps for displaced people are also being targeted by the recruiters.
Fakiri said the community-based militias known collectively as "Mai Mai" have been particularly active, with the Pareco, Cobra, Mongol, Kasindien, Ruwenzori and Vurondo militias all recruiting children.
The Vurondo group is headed by a child, called General Baraka, believed to be between seven and 11 years old. He inherited his position at the age of two after the death of his father.
"Our reports suggest around 72 children were recruited by Mai Mai groups in July," said Jaya Murthy, communications specialist with UNICEF's mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Most of these armed groups are positioning themselves for conflict, which is obviously tied into the recruitment."
The CNDP's campaign against the army appears to be led by Bosco Ntaganda, against whom the Hague-based International Criminal Court, ICC, unsealed an indictment on April 29.
Ntaganda is accused of pressing children into military service while he was with another militia, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo or FPLC, in 2002 and 2003. The FPLC is the military wing of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo's Union of Congolese Patriots.
Lubanga is currently in ICC custody, but Ntaganda continues to elude the court. He left Ituri, the FPLC's stomping ground, for North Kivu and joined Nkunda's rebel force, in which he is now second-in-command.
"Nkunda has taken Bosco out of his political delegation but the feeling is that he still plays a role in the military strategy," van de Geer said.
Taylor Toeka Kakala is an IWPR reporter in Goma. Lisa Clifford is an international justice reporter in The Hague.