As rebels gain, Congo again slips toward chaos

Jeffrey Gettleman / New York Times News Service /

Published Nov 26, 2012 at 04:00AM

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The lights are out in most of Goma.

There is little water. The prison is an empty, garbage-strewn wasteland with its rusty front gate swinging wide open and a 3-foot-hole punched through the back wall, letting loose 1,200 killers, rapists, militia leaders, rogue soldiers and other criminals. Rebel fighters are going house to house arresting people, many of whom have not been seen again by their families.

“You say the littlest thing and they disappear you,” said an unemployed man named Luke.

In the past week, the rebels have been unstoppable, steamrolling through one town after another, seizing this provincial capital, and eviscerating a chaotic Congolese government army whose drunken soldiers stumble around with rocket-propelled grenades and whose chief of staff was suspended four days ago for selling crates of ammunition to elephant poachers.

Riots are exploding across the country — in Bukavu, Butembo, Bunia, Kisangani and Kinshasa, the capital, a thousand miles away. Mobs are pouring into streets, burning down government buildings and demanding the ouster of Congo’s weak and widely despised president, Joseph Kabila.

Once again, chaos is courting Congo. And one pressing question is, why — after all the billions of dollars spent on peacekeepers, the recent legislation passed on Capitol Hill intended to cut the link between the illicit mineral trade and insurrection and all the aid money and diplomatic capital — is this vast nation in the heart of Africa descending to where it was more than 10 years ago when foreign armies and marauding rebels carved it into fiefs?

“We haven’t really touched the root cause,” said Aloys Tegera, a director for the Pole Institute, a research institute in Goma.

He said Congo’s chronic instability is rooted in very local tensions over land, power and identity, especially along the Rwandan and Ugandan borders. “But no one wants to touch this because it’s too complicated,” he added.