Despite anxieties around Rwanda’s military presence in Congo, troops have now begun to leave eastern DRC, five weeks after they crossed the border to attack FDLR Hutu rebels. A ceremony bidding farewell to the Rwandan military took place in Goma today, and news reports say approximately 1,500 troops have already left. Though this is a positive advancement, civilians have paid dearly for the joint Rwanda-DRC operation and the FDLR, though weakened, remains a threat to stability in the eastern Kivu provinces.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said yesterday that thousands of new civilian displacements have occurred as a result of increased FDLR attacks. Similar to the situation in northeastern Congo with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the military strike against the FDLR has caused retaliatory attacks against civilians. The inability of the Congolese government to effectively police its eastern territory means that civilians were left vulnerable during the military operation.

However, Rwandan officials believe that their action has severely weakened the FDLR which may result in greater future stability. AFJN has long advised that Rwanda take responsibility for the FDLR who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide but have not felt welcome returning to their home country. It is absolutely imperative that Rwandan President Paul Kagame open political space for Hutus within his government or the progress made in Congo may be easily reversed.

Early in the operation, Rwanda captured CNDP (a Tutsi rebel group) leader Laurent Nkunda whose own forces had been somewhat compromised by recent infighting. It is widely understood that Rwanda’s arrest of Nkunda was a direct result of the December 2008 UN Report implicating Rwanda in providing monetary and military support to CNDP. Nkunda’s fate is still unknown – DRC hopes to put him on trail for war crimes, but he is in Rwandan custody, so it is possible that he will evade any serious judicial processes. The international community should push for justice in this case and should monitor Rwanda’s activity in Congo very closely.

Rwanda’s withdrawl comes as a surprise to some who feared Rwanda would take the opportunity to once again occupy Congo and extract Congolese mineral resources. Officials say all troops will be out of Congo by the end of the week, leaving Congolese troops to handle the remaining FDLR rebels. AFJN encourages the U.S. government to follow up on this promise and to ensure that Rwandan brigades to do not remain in Congo in the long term. In recent years, Rwanda has reported large exports of minerals which cannot be found in its own territory and which are widely understood to be stolen from Congolese territory. The U.S. Congress must enact greater oversight of this supply chain to ensure that Rwanda is not perpetuating violence in eastern Congo.

Thus, AFJN retains a sense of cautious optimism regarding the joint Rwanda-DRC operation. Congolese President Joseph Kabilia took a gamble in enlisting the Rwandans to help dampen violence in the eastern part of his country and it is possible that he may have succeeded in reducing the FDLR threat in the long run. However, civilian displacements and ongoing FDLR attacks must receive immediate attention as Rwandan troops leave, or the operation risks worsening an already devastating situation.

Written by Beth Tuckey