With thousands of Rwandan troops fanned out across eastern Congo's green hills, many residents and international observers are questioning what is really behind the operation in the mineral-rich region and how long it is likely to last.
The official explanation, offered by both Rwandan and Congolese diplomats, is straightforward. After two wars and a decade of mistrust, the two nations finally agreed to deal militarily with a common menace -- the Rwandan Hutu militia known as the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, or FDLR, which reorganized in Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide and has been a principal cause of the deadliest documented conflict since World War II.
By some estimates, at least 5 million people died in multi-sided wars over more than a decade, mostly from disease, hunger and the collapse of human services associated with the fighting. The humanitarian catastrophe was largely ignored by the United States and other Western nations, while United Nations peacekeepers failed to halt the violence.
In acting now, Congo and Rwanda have in theory ended a proxy war that had played out for years in eastern Congo. Rwanda pulled the plug on rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, whom it arrested last month. And Congo abruptly turned on its longtime ally the FDLR, joining the Rwandans in an operation to hunt down the militia.
"Rwanda and Congo have decided to come together as neighbors," said Joseph Mutaboba, who was Rwanda's envoy during several rounds of talks. "And we have been able to tackle the problems that are ours."
But some observers see much broader economic and political motives behind Rwanda's military foray -- its third in Congo in the past decade -- that have more to do with Rwanda's regional ambitions than with the 6,000 or so FDLR militiamen. As recently as October, Rwandan officials had cast the militia as "a Congolese problem," saying it did not pose an immediate military threat to Rwanda.
"Is the FDLR now suddenly on the verge of becoming more militarily powerful? I don't think we've seen that," said Alison Des Forges, a Human Rights Watch researcher and leading expert on Rwanda. "And if they haven't, then what you have is Rwanda trotting out an old warhorse of an excuse to go in again. The question is, what is the intent?"
The stakes are high for the joint Rwandan-Congolese military offensive against the FDLR, given its potential to trigger more regional instability than it resolves. Rwanda's two earlier invasions succeeded in disrupting the militia's operations but also helped spawn more than a decade of conflict that at one point drew in as many as eight African nations in a scramble for regional supremacy and a piece of Congo's vast mineral wealth.
'Congo is rich'
Although the two Rwandan invasions were devastating for the Congolese, they were hugely beneficial for Rwanda, which is still struggling to rebuild after the 100 days of well-planned violence in 1994 when Hutu extremists killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Many Rwandans became involved in the lucrative mineral trade out of eastern Congo after the genocide, and some observers speculate that the current military operation aims to solidify Rwanda's economic stake in the region.
"It was a period of great economic boom for Rwanda -- a lot of people got rich, including military officers," Des Forges said, adding that the current military operation could help Rwandan President Paul Kagame relieve internal pressures on his government, which allows little room for dissent. "Presumably, if the troops were back in Congo for a substantial period of time, they could expect to reap certain benefits. It could also be beneficial for Rwanda to have greater control over economic resources than they've had before."
On that score, unverifiable rumors abound about secret deals and gentlemen's agreements struck between Congo and Rwanda over mineral rights and mineral processing. At a local level, Congolese villagers who have long suspected Rwanda of wanting to annex a swath of eastern Congo say they are certain that their tiny but militarily powerful neighbor is interested in more than disarming the FDLR.
"Congo is rich," said Eric Sorumweh, who said he watched hundreds of Rwandan troops pass by his village last month. "So they just come to loot the wealth of Congo."
Those suspicions, along with Rwanda's messy history in Congo, have fueled criticism of Congolese President Joseph Kabila, who has been lambasted by political opponents for inviting an old enemy back into the country. Late last month, Kabila pledged that the estimated 7,000 Rwandan troops in Congo would leave by the end of February. This time, his supporters say, the situation with Rwanda is different.
Some support joint operation
While conspiracy theories swirl, Kabila's backers -- as well as a number of Western diplomats who support the joint operation against the FDLR -- say Congo's deal with Rwanda represents a mature realization by Kabila and Kagame that their interests are better served by working together officially, rather than through rebel proxies.
"I think the two presidents have understood that official contact can be to their advantage," said Julien Paluku Kahongya, governor of North Kivu province in eastern Congo. "Now we can start thinking together of how we can lift the economy. For agriculture and trading and other economic reasons, Rwanda will be coming here, and we will be going to Rwanda."
According to Kahongya and others, the downsides of the proxy war between Rwanda and Congo were becoming increasingly clear. Kabila was politically threatened by the stunning advance of Nkunda's rebels across eastern Congo last year. And Rwanda was embarrassed by a U.N. report in December that found it to be directly or tacitly supporting Nkunda. As a result, Rwanda's prized reputation as a darling of the aid world suffered, the Netherlands and Sweden cut off aid, and international pressure mounted for the government to solve its differences with Congo. The report also found that Congo was collaborating with the FDLR.
At the same time, hundreds of millions of dollars from the European Union, the World Bank and other donors -- for major road, railroad and power projects that would benefit both countries -- were largely predicated upon a detente between the two sides. That is supposed to become official when Rwanda and Congo restore full diplomatic relations, probably next month.
"Rwanda's interest is in a stable region, and you can't have that with multiple armed groups running around in eastern Congo," said a Western diplomat in the region who was not authorized to speak publicly. "Plus there's a whole system of militia taxes and corruption there, and none of that benefits Rwanda. They see their economic welfare as tied to greater integration in East Africa."
And so Congo and Rwanda devised a way to cut out the middlemen -- launching the joint military operation to disarm the FDLR, neutralize Nkunda's rebels and, in theory, fold an array of other, smaller militias into the Congolese army.
Stepping in where the U.N. failed
The entry of Rwandan troops into Congo also represents the failure of U.N. peacekeepers to tame the militias and rebels of eastern Congo. A deal signed in Nairobi in December 2007 called upon the peacekeepers to assist the Congolese army in disarming the FDLR, but that effort never got off the ground. A recent U.N. request for an additional 3,000 peacekeepers also fell flat, with only Bangladesh offering troops so far.
"Now things have turned in such a way that it's possible for the Rwandans to do it," said Philip Lancaster, a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada who has been involved in U.N. efforts to demobilize Congo's militias. "I think this is a clear case of two African states agreeing to solve their own problems, seeing that the international community can't."
According to a U.S. official who is in close contact with the Rwandan military, the goal is not to completely dismantle the FDLR, but merely to scatter it. Several of its key leaders are not even in eastern Congo, but are living in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, or in Europe.
So far, very little information is trickling out about the operation. According to U.N. officials, Rwandan forces were able in recent days to capture two villages that had served as FDLR bases. More than 40 FDLR fighters have been killed and 11 taken prisoner, and more than 500 fighters and their families have simply surrendered.
Several large groups of militiamen were fleeing west last week, deeper into Congo, the U.N. officials said, and Rwandan soldiers were pursuing them.