Saturday, March 25, 2006

REINING IN MILITIA GROUPS

Enticing rebels out of DR Congo's forests.
By Nick Miles BBC News, DR Congo.

As The Democratic Republic of Congo prepares for its first multi-party presidential elections in four decades, the world's largest peacekeeping force is stepping up its efforts to rein in the militia groups, which continue to rampage in parts of the east. The peacekeepers hope the leaflets will persuade rebels to leave the forests. The United Nations's peacekeeping operation in DR Congo, Monuc, is using force but increasingly this is an information war. Inside a UN military helicopter flying above impenetrable tropical rainforests, half a dozen men are huddled around some cardboard boxes full of leaflets. They each pick up a handful, open the round cabin windows and hurl them out as we pass a village. "Civilians or combatants from here or abroad please come to Monuc reception centres, we will provide security," the leaflets say in both Swahili and Rwanda's main language, Kinyarwandan.

The leaflets are aimed at members of the FDLR militia group, which has some 10,000 armed soldiers, mostly concentrated in a swathe of forest about 100km to the west of Goma, on the border between DR Congo and Rwanda. Its hardline core is made up of ethnic Hutus from the Interahamwe militia that was involved in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. We've lived a terrible life, eating whatever we could find... I want to go back to see my family and continue my life Miseke Fungan - Former Rwandan rebel. "This terrain - steep hills and thick forest - is similar to that of central Vietnam so there is no way we can win a military victory here," says Ramon Miranda Ramos from Monuc's demobilisation programme. "We have to steal supporters from the militia groups, convince them that life in the forest is no life."

Mr Miranda takes us to another of his projects. Perched high on a hillside near the town of Minova two hours by dirt road from Goma, there is a farmyard. Past a chicken coop and some snorting pigs, sit two men in a wooden shack in front of a black radio transmitter the size of a small suitcase. They talk earnestly into the microphone. Their voices are transmitted in a 50km radius to the rebel held areas all around. "At the moment the messages are about how we are here to make their lives better, how there is no future for them in the forest," Mr Miranda tells me. "If that fails then we'll start more personal attacks of their leaders, we have to undermine their support."

The FDLR is one of the largest of the militia groups operating in the area. Prominent too are the Mai Mai militias, that were mobilised by the Congolese government from 1998 onwards. Those who leave the forests are given pots, pans and a radio.Both groups have been linked to widespread human rights abuses of Congolese civilians, including thousands of rapes. "They are a menace to the population and as far as Monuc is concerned, we can never have enough security here," Jean-Marie Guehenno the UN head of peacekeeping told the BBC in Goma during a recent two-week tour of the region. "But I think if there's the political will here we can have credible elections in all areas this June." There are increasing numbers of foreign militia members coming forward to the UN's disarmament programme. Over the last year, some 1,000 FDLR fighters have voluntarily handed themselves in to Monuc.

When we met Miseke Fungan at Monuc's demobilisation centre in Goma, he was holding a rusting AK47 rifle, which soon joined a pile of hundreds of other guns to be destroyed. He says he fled for his life from Rwanda 12 years ago. Now he feels the situation is safe enough to go home. Some 2,000 ex-rebels have now gone back to Rwanda. "We've lived a terrible life, eating whatever we could find... I want to go back to see my family and continue my life." As with all of the former militia members we interviewed, he denied ever having seen or having carried out any of the long list of atrocities on civilians in eastern DR Congo in recent years.
BBC NEWS REPORT.

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