DAKAR, Senegal -- The accounts are haunting. Abductions, torture, rapes. Scores of civilians including women and children have been killed by the M23 rebels in eastern Congo, according to a U.N. report
In addition, the M23 rebels have forced children to be soldiers, according to the report by a panel of U.N. experts. The 21-page report based on interviews with more than 230 sources and visits to Rutshuru area of Congo's North Kivu province where the M23 have seized territory, is expected to be published this week.
Conflict has been simmering in eastern Congo for decades where more than 120 armed groups are fighting in the region, most for land and control of mines with valuable minerals, while some groups are trying to protect their communities.
The already volatile situation significantly deteriorated this year when the M23 resurfaced after being largely dormant for nearly a decade.
The M23 first rose to prominence 10 years ago when its fighters seized Goma, the largest city in Congo’s east, which sits on the border with Rwanda. The group derives its name from a peace agreement signed on March 23, 2009 which called for the rebels to be integrated into the Congo army. The M23 accuse the government of not implementing the accord.
In late 2021 the reactivated M23 began killing civilians and capturing swaths of territory. M23 fighters raped and harassed women trying to farm family fields in areas controlled by the rebels, according to the report. The rebels accused civilians of spying for the Congolese army, said the report. They were often incarcerated and some were beaten to death, it said.
Not only are populations living under M23 subject to abuse but they are forced to pay taxes, said the panel. At the Bunagana border crossing with Uganda, the rebels earned an average of $27,000 a month making people carrying goods pay as they entered and left the country, said the UN. Two locals living under M23 who did not want to be named for fear of their safety, told The Associated Press they'd been forced to bring the rebels bags of beans, pay $5 if they wanted to access their farms and take backroads if they want to leave the village for fear of reprisal.
The M23 did not respond to questions about the allegations, but has previously dismissed it as propaganda.
The violence by the rebels is part of an overall worsening of the crisis in eastern Congo, with fighting by armed groups intensifying and expanding in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces, said the report.
“The security and humanitarian situation in North Kivu and Ituri Provinces significantly deteriorated, despite the continuous enforcement of a state of siege over the past 18 months," and despite military operations by Congo's armed forces, Uganda's military and the U.N. mission in Congo, said the report.
Adding to the difficult situation in eastern Congo, attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces — believed to be linked with the Islamic State group — are increasing, said the report. A nearly year-long joint operation by Uganda and Congo's armies “has not yet yielded the expected results of defeating or substantially weakening the ADF,” it said. Since April ADF attacks have killed at least 370 civilians and abducted several hundred more, including a significant number of children, it said. The group also extended its area of operations to Goma and into the neighboring Ituri province.
The fighting is exacerbating eastern Congo's dire humanitarian crisis. Almost 6 million people are internally displaced in Congo with more than 450,000 displaced in North Kivu province since clashes escalated in February. Hundreds of thousands are facing extreme food insecurity and disease is spreading, say aid groups. Cholera cases are spiking in Nyiragongo, a region hosting many of the displaced people in North Kivu, with more than 970 cases of the disease discovered in recent weeks, said Save The Children.
Efforts to stem the violence have yielded little results.
A new regional force deployed to eastern Congo is facing pushback from local residents who say they don't want more armed groups in the area. Tensions are also rising with Congo's neighbor Rwanda, which it accuses of supporting the M23 rebels, findings backed by the UN.
Earlier this week the M23 said it was retreating from Kibumba, a town near Goma which it held for several weeks, as part of an agreement made last month at a summit in Angola, said Lawrence Kanyuka the M23′s political spokesman in a statement. However, residents from Kibumba said the rebels are still there and are still attacking civilians.
“My neighbor was whipped because he refused to let M23 slaughter his goat,” said Faustin Kamete a Kibumba resident. “They lied to the international community with their withdrawal,” he said.
Associated Press journalist Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro contributed from Beni, Congo.