KITCHANGA, Congo — With his silver-topped cane, finger-wagging rhetoric and a tendency to refer to himself in the third person, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda is the latest big man to stake his claim in this troubled country.
As his army overran chunks of eastern Congo last week, sending ragtag Congolese soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians fleeing, Nkunda appeared close to dragging central Africa back into what some estimates describe as the deadliest conflict since the Second World War.
While Congolese officials and human rights groups accuse his army of abusing civilians and stoking ethnic hatreds, Nkunda is trying to act the statesman. The former army general pulled back his forces, saying he preferred a diplomatic approach to resolve his grievances. This verdant, mineral-rich land has been appallingly governed for decades, he says, casting his rebellion as a fight for millions of frustrated Congolese, not the adventures of one renegade military man.
"You can destroy Nkunda; it's not a problem," the 41-year-old rebel said over the weekend in this remote hilltop town, now under the control of his forces. "But are you going to destroy these shouts of freedom?"
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Nkunda's rebellion began as a fight to protect members of his Tutsi tribe, which was decimated by the Hutus in Rwanda, from the Rwandan militias now based in Congo.
But diplomats and independent analysts think that Rwanda's Tutsi-led government secretly backs Nkunda's army and that Nkunda recruits soldiers from inside Rwanda, a charge that Rwanda has denied.
Congolese officials say that Nkunda's battlefield prowess — including the crisp uniforms and sturdy gumboots worn by his soldiers — is courtesy of Rwandan financing.
"Nkunda is not the one making this war," said Julien Paluku, the provincial governor of North Kivu, where Nkunda's forces now control large swaths of territory. "Rwanda has destabilized this regime to prevent us from building a strong army...to defend our borders."
A two-day journey into Nkunda-held territory north of the provincial capital of Goma offered sharp glimpses of a well-trained, well-equipped organization. When a convoy of Western journalists, en route to meet Nkunda in Kitchanga, got stuck on a muddy hillside road after dark, a man dressed in a nylon tracksuit, who described himself as a local administrator for Nkunda's movement, appeared from a nearby village and offered to help.
Within minutes, the administrator had summoned several rebel soldiers, armed with AK-47s. Communicating by walkie-talkie, the soldiers obtained permission to escort the journalists through a jungle to Kitchanga in the middle of the night — a five-hour walk up and down steep hillsides and over quicksand-like mud.
The road led through territory sometimes occupied by the Hutu Interahamwe militia, Rwandan tribal militias that had fled into Congo after the 1994 genocide, the soldiers said. When one journalist said he was worried about walking in the dark, the soldiers rounded up about a dozen small flashlights. "It is important that you meet our chairman," one explained.
Earlier that day, in the town of Rutshuru, residents said that Nkunda's men told them to march to the ramshackle stadium for a rally. For three hours under a warm sun, speakers praised Nkunda's movement and sang songs, to which the crowd responded with lackluster applause.
Several miles to the south, in the town of Kibumba, Nkunda's men were eager to show off two houses that they said had been looted by fleeing Congolese soldiers. They'd installed a new chief, a smiling Katambara Kariwabo, who said that 2,000 residents who'd fled Kibumba returned that day because they heard it was safe.
When pressed, he admitted that Nkunda's soldiers told him to tell families in the village to urge their relatives to return, but that no one had been forced to do so. "No problems," the 58-year-old said, grinning again.
Later, away from the soldiers, a group of men said that they'd been forbidden to leave Kibumba to reunite with family members in displacement camps in Goma. One man, dressed in a gray zip-up sweatshirt and jeans, said that Nkunda's soldiers commandeered food deliveries into town, taking what they wanted before leaving the rest to the people.
"These men just come from foreign countries to plunder here," said the man, who was afraid to give his name. Another man spat that the soldiers spoke Kinyarwanda, a language widely spoken in eastern Congo but more commonly associated with Rwanda.
A senior analyst in Congo, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his organization's neutrality, said that such reports were common in areas held by Nkunda.
"They see (displacement) camps as a threat to their legitimacy," the researcher said. "They want to control the population, to show that everything is rosy in their territory."
Nkunda says that Congo's government needs to be overhauled, and few would dispute this vast country's catalogue of problems. The government is riddled with corruption, the army is less a fighting force than a collection of criminal militias, and foreign speculators and well-connected Congolese use the lucrative mines as personal piggybanks while most of the country's 66 million people endure grinding poverty.
But Nkunda's rebellion may shatter what little stability Congo has managed to create since 2006, when it held the first free election here in more than two decades — one that cost the United Nations and its donor countries more than $500 million. President Joseph Kabila's government has struggled to dig the country out of the mess created by Mobutu Sese Seko, who set the standard for dictatorial flamboyance with his leopard-print hat and a residence that reportedly went through 10,000 bottles of champagne a year.
The coup that ended Mobutu's reign in 1997 plunged Congo into a civil war that drew in the armies of eight neighboring countries in a scramble for pieces of the country's mineral wealth. Tiny Rwanda invaded to flush out remnants of the Interahamwe, and since then Congolese officials have accused Rwanda of meddling in its affairs.
As many as 5 million people have died in the past decade from the conflict and the humanitarian crisis it created.
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