(4 of 5)
Perhaps mindful of the International Criminal Court charges against Ntaganda, which claim he used child soldiers in 2002 and '03, M23 officers I meet claim somewhat unconvincingly barely to have heard of him. They also lay out a long list of local grievances. The Congolese state is inept and corrupt. It routinely fails to pay them. Congolese army generals use soldiers as enforcers to take control of private business. CNDP officers have been integrated at lower ranks. And Kinshasa is still trying to kill them: scores of CNDP soldiers redeployed from eastern Congo before the rebellion have not been heard from again. Over a lunch of chicken and sorghum beer with several M23 colonels, a recent defector, Major Emille Shabani, claims: "When soldiers die on the front line, the national army doesn't even bury them. They don't even tell their family. What kind of army is that? It's a government without conscience."
So is Rwanda backing the M23? Its soldiers deny it. But villagers who live in the area are insistent. So are U.S., E.U. and Monusco officials. "We are absolutely convinced Rwanda is supporting the M23 at the highest level," says a Western diplomat I meet later in Kampala. Monusco's Meece says: "We have a pretty good knowledge of the M23. They're Tutsi who never accepted central [Congolese] command authority." Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, calls Kagame's denials of involvement "remarkable." "Does he realize no one believes him? Are there local grievances? Sure, but that's beside the point. The main issue is Rwanda is fueling a conflict led by a guy wanted on a war-crimes charge."
I find evidence for Rwandan support but none of it categorical. When questioned, the villagers say they recognize Rwandans by their accents. The Western diplomat and Meece both report something similar, based on conversations with Congolese officers who fought the M23. In an area of fluid ethnicity, overheard conversations and foreign accents fall far short of definitive proof. But that's not the only evidence put forward. To advance so quickly, villagers say, the M23 had to have outside help. Diplomats focus on how, after starting feebly in April, the M23 suddenly became stronger. "They had different tactics and weapons systems," says the Western diplomat. "They had airburst ammunition."
On Sept. 11, in a lengthy press release it says was based on interviews with 190 witnesses, Human Rights Watch accused the M23 of numerous war crimes, including the forced recruitment of child soldiers, the summary execution of M23 recruits who try to escape, the murder of at least 15 civilians and the rape of 13 children. They repeat their claim that the Rwandan army is backing the M23, making, says the group, some Rwandan officers complicit in war crimes. But the most detailed account of how the rebels are supported by Rwanda remains the U.N. Group of Experts report that caused such outrage in June. In 48 pages of testimony culled from 80 individuals, it describes M23 troop movements through Rwandan territory, the recruitment of Rwandans inside Rwanda to fight for the M23, the supply of weapons and uniforms to the M23 and the deployment of Rwandan troops inside Congo. The report includes photographs of Rwanda-issued ammunition and uniforms found on the battlefield. The group says it adds up to "overwhelming evidence that senior [Rwandan] officers ... have been backstopping the rebels through providing weapons, military supplies and new recruits."
The evidence is copious but, to my eye, it's still all circumstantial. There is no smoking gun: a picture of a Rwandan soldier in Congo, perhaps, or a confession from a named, serving Rwandan officer. Most of the testimony is from anonymous M23 deserters. The space given to the Rwandan response is minimal and relies mostly on public statements.
I return to Kigali, where the Rwandans present their alternative account of the conflict. Rwandans are indeed fighting for the M23, they say. The M23 is supplied with men and weapons from Rwanda. Just not from the Rwandan state. "Equipment from Rwanda? People from Rwanda?" asks James Kabarebe, Rwanda's Minister of Defense. "It's possible. These people have friends and family in the refugee camps in Rwanda. The M23 go into the camps and recruit. We've told the Congolese this. We've intercepted people recruiting in the camps." At our second encounter at his office, Kagame adds: "This isn't military-to-military relations. It's blood relations, and there's no way of policing it."
Kabarebe and Kagame insist they only want to help stabilize Congo. They give exhaustive accounts of meetings with Congolese officers and attempts to mediate between them and the M23. The Congolese, they say, repeatedly asked for Rwanda to intervene, arrest Ntaganda and stop the rebellion a repeat of 2009. But wary of provoking more allegations of interference, Rwanda demurred. Instead it advised Kinshasa: Negotiate. Avoid conflict. Address the M23's grievances or the mutiny will escalate.
To Kagame, the controversy over whether or not Rwanda is backing the M23 is an affront. A far bigger issue, he says, is why Congo, a country of vast resources and 80 million people, is such a mess. Why, in particular, has a world so quick to condemn him been so slow to have any impact on one of the planet's most enduring disasters let alone fix it? The aid groups have had decades on the ground. The U.N. has written endless reports about the country's legacy of killing, rape, recruitment of child soldiers and the militia-controlled trade in gold, coltan, diamonds and cassiterite. The U.N. set up MONUC, later Monusco, in 2000, and today it amounts to more than 19,000 uniformed personnel from 58 countries costing $1.49 billion a year. And yet for all this effort and expense, asks Kagame, "Where are we? After 10 years, how have you not made even a dent in Congo's problems?"