ATHE ENTRANCE at an ex-rebel base in Mubambiro, a town in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, a young man walks back and forth, clutching a wooden replica of a AK-47, the rifle of choice for guerrillas everywhere. “I’m the keeper here,” he explains, “And I’m used to having a gun, that makes me feel comfortable.”
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Shukuru Bijadunia, 23, handed over his real gun to the Congolese authorities in 2018 and has been languishing in a dismal camp ever since. He sleeps without a mattress in a shabby tent with other former rebels. Last year, no food was provided to the camp for nine months. “I sleep badly, I barely eat and there are no medicines when we get sick,” says Bijadunia. “Life in the bush was better. Hundreds of other former rebels agree. At its peak, the camp hosted more than 1,700 fighters, from 30 different militias, who surrendered. Today, fewer than 400 remain. Some have returned to the bush to join their former armed groups. Others were recruited into new ones.
The conflict has ravaged eastern Congo for more than 25 years. More than 120 armed groups are hiding in the forests. Many are said to be backed by Uganda and Rwanda, although both countries deny this. The militias which had surrendered or dissolved regroup and new ones are formed. Some groups say they want to overthrow the president, Félix Tshisekedi, although he is usually more than 1,000 km (621 miles) away in the capital, Kinshasa. In the meantime, many are attacking local civilians or smuggling minerals.
On November 7, armed men attacked two villages near the Ugandan border, killing Congolese soldiers. The attackers are believed to be members of the M23, a Rwandan-backed militia that in 2012 captured Goma, a city of 2 million people, before being defeated and forced to surrender a year later by UN military and the Congolese army. Now he seems to have recovered. The US embassy recently warned its citizens in Goma to stay at home, fearing another attack on the city.
Also this month, members of a new group calling for Mr. Tshisekedi’s resignation stormed the town of Bukavu. The attacks highlight the president’s failure to keep one of his main campaign promises before he came to power in 2019: to pacify eastern Congo. During his first presidential visit to the besieged province of North Kivu, Mr. Tshisekedi encouraged the rebels to come out of the bush and start a peaceful new life. “To all my brothers in the armed groups, it is time for a change,” he said. “The government is reaching out to you. But those who disarmed have been left to rot in camps like Mubambiro’s, which hardly encourages others to do the same.
Foreign donors have injected millions into dysfunctional disarmament programs. The World Bank alone has contributed $ 171 million to three programs. Some have been laughable. The UN once offered the rebels $ 100 for each of their weapons. But, as Séverine Autesserre underlines in her book “The Front Lines of Peace”, a Kalashnikov sells for $ 40 on the black market. So a militiaman could make his most rusty weapon, buy two more, and still have money to buy beer. Other programs have been horrible. In 2014, more than a hundred rebels and members of their families died of hunger and disease in a government camp.
Mr. Tshisekedi recently launched another disarmament program which, this time, aims to reintegrate the rebels into the villages they come from. Yet the program is underfunded. Chastened by the failures of past projects, Western donors are reluctant to pay for it. In addition, the president chose a former Rwandan-backed rebel, Tommy Tambwe, to lead him. Given Rwanda’s continued interference in the Congolese conflict, this has been unpopular. Politicians and rebels have called on Mr. Tshisekedi to change his mind.
When Mr. Tshisekedi visited the east in June, he did not visit Mubambiro. However, emaciated former rebels at the camp tried to get his attention by blocking a nearby main road with burning logs and branches. “We regret having come here, we do not understand why the president called us here,” said Héritier Bahati, a veteran, standing in front of the smoking barricade. “It’s like he’s calling us here to die.” ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “No Farewell to Arms”