Things are moving quickly in Congo, where a joint Rwandan-Congolese force has been tasked with eliminating the FDLR--a radical Hutu militia whose leaders facilitated the Rwandan genocide, and whose continued existence has been the root cause of Congo's civil wars. Until the week of January 20, the two countries were locked in a proxy war over the FDLR's status (among other things), but then a sudden Nixon-to-China-like diplomatic reversal turned them into allies against the militia. Will they succeed?
Right now, that's an open question. By all accounts, the Congolese and Rwandan armies are not meshing well--something that might be expected of two groups that were enemies until late last month. Moreover, the FDLR's leaders may be hard to catch. The organization is a predatory guerrilla force that inhabits the mountainous jungles of eastern Congo, maintaining sway over local villages through campaigns of terror and ethnic cleansing. (They coordinate their activities using solar-powered radios.) As the joint force hunts them down, the FDLR's leaders will try to evade by fleeing into the bush.
Both the Rwandans and Congolese have long claimed they have enough quality intelligence to track down the FDLR's leaders--whose organization cannot survive indefinitely if they lose physical control of the coltan and casserite mines that are their primary source of income. Still, as the FDLR flees, it could leave a bloody trail. When the UN threatened to use force against them in 2005, FDLR forces responded by surrounding the village of Mamba. They hounded its entire population into huts, doused them with gasoline, and set them ablaze, hurling infants into the fires while chanting, "Where are your blue helmets now?" This is the FDLR's strategic m.o.: When confronted with half-hearted attacks in the past, such as Congo's failed offensive against the FDLR in 2007, the FDLR re-emerged from the jungle and commited mass atrocities in order to deter future action. Now that it has been launched, this joint incursion will have to be decisive to avoid risking a human rights crisis.
And the FDLR isn't the only group prone to committing atrocities. The Congolese army is prone to committing mass human rights abuses of its own: "We call them soldiers because we don't have another name for them. But what they actually do is pillage and retreat," one Congo expert told me. So are the forces of former rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, which have now been ostensibly re-absorbed by the Congolese. For their part, the Rwandans may have their own agenda--and, since most Congolese have unpleasant memories of past Rwandan invasions, a wrong step on their part could set off more fighting that throws the entire mission off its rails.
But, despite these dangers, there are some signs that the Congolese-Rwandan assault is achieving its goals. The FDLR's core leadership consists of about 25 to 50 hardened ideologues that still live by the anti-Tutsi ideology of the Rwandan genocide--but the rest of the organization is far less committed. The bulk of FDLR fighters--about 6,000 of them--are younger Hutus, often child soldiers, who were inducted into the group by a combination of seductive promises of a "right of return" to Rwanda and brutal coercion. Over the past decade, many have proven quite willing to leave the FDLR as long as they can be assured that they will not face reprisal from the FDLR's leaders--who keep them in constant fear using a Stasi-like intimidation force known by the acronym CRAP--and that they will be allowed to return and reintegrate into Rwandan society.
Now, in the face of newfound resolve on the part of Congo and Rwanda, this trickle of defections has become a flood. MONUC--the UN peacekeeping force that is supporting Congo and Rwanda's effort--reports that it has absorbed and repatriated over 1,000 FDLR defectors since the joint assault was launched in late January. (By contrast 1,103 were repatriated during all of 2008.) The hope is that, with the rank-and-file gone, the leadership will be much easier to defeat--and much more hard-pressed to commit the types of atrocities that have allowed them to stave off previous reckonings. Here's to waiting.