GOMA, Congo — Dozens of Congolese demonstrated in the provincial capital of Goma on Thursday against what they described as the impotence of the country's armed forces, which allowed a rebel group to overrun the city a little over two weeks ago. They also decried the passivity of United Nations peacekeepers, who did little to stop the fighters saying it was not within their mandate.
Goma, a city of about 1 million people and a major trading hub for minerals extracted from Congo's lucrative mines, fell to a Rwandan-backed rebel group on Nov. 20. It took days of negotiations, intense international pressure, and the hammer of United Nations sanctions for the thousands of fighters for M23 to finally withdraw from the regional capital this weekend.
The rebels, however, remain perilously close to Goma at about 3 kilometers (1.2 miles) outside the city limit. A rebel delegation is expected to travel to neighboring Uganda for talks with the Congolese government.
"We denounce the failure of the ministers of interior, defense and the army chief of staff. We ask for their resignation. A team that does not work must be changed," said one of the demonstrators, Luc Nkulula.
Micheline Mwendike, another protester, criticized the planned negotiations, saying it made no sense to enter into peace talks with the very people who were aggressors in the city. The rebels are accused of numerous abuses, including using child soldiers, summary executions, rape and pillaging.
"We don't want that the negotiations end up rewarding criminals," she said.
In a letter published this week, the United Nations' Group of Experts on the conflict in the Congo provided detailed evidence of how the M23 rebels are backed by Rwanda. In a day-by-day outline of the invasion of Goma, the letter describes how Rwanda equipped, trained, advised, reinforced and directly commanded the rebellion, including sending four companies from Rwanda's 305th brigade across the border to conduct operations.
Rwanda has fiercely denied the accusations, but several countries including the United States and the United Kingdom have cut off aid to Congo's smaller, but more developed neighbor.
The M23 rebels claim that they are fighting for the implementation of the March 23, 2009 peace accord, which saw their fighters integrated into the Congolese army. They withdrew from Goma on the condition that Congo's government would negotiate with them.
Demonstrators on Thursday burned tires and policemen armed with rifles arrived on the scene. Security forces appeared ready to use disproportionate force to repel a group of youths, who were protesting against the forces' lack of resolve in the face of a rebel army.
"We were here alone. The rebels have raped us, looted us. They have scared us. Why today, when we are expressing our anger, you are coming to stop us?" said Nkulula to a policeman.
The crowd watching the demonstrations was largely supportive. People were talking about a feeling of helplessness and of being ignored.
"We are tired with the war. They are seated in Kampala for their own interest while we are dying like mosquitos here," said Katembo Wansiremundu, throwing his support behind the demonstrations. "We are lacking a voice. It's good they are expressing their opinion."