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In Eastern Congo, M23 Rebels Battle for Hearts, Minds

by Gabe Joselow July 22, 2013

M23 rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are trying to strengthen their grip on areas under their control as they come under attack by the Congolese army. The residents of rebel-held towns in eastern Congo, however, are growing weary of the ongoing conflict.

At a church in eastern Congo, the faithful pack the pews in what looks like a regular prayer service. But this is not about religion. It's a lesson in rebellion taught at the M23 rebel group's military academy.

The people here, gathered from nearby towns, are being taught the ideology of this group of disaffected soldiers that has controlled territory in eastern Congo since breaking away from the army last year.

M23 rebels are trying to cement control over this area, which they say has been neglected for too long by the government in Kinshasa.

War's strife

Outside the academy walls, though, the rebels have been losing ground to the Congolese army in a week of fighting a few kilometers from the economic hub of Goma, which was held by the rebels for 10 days last year.

Meantime, continuing peace talks in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, have shown little progress.

M23 spokesman Vianney Kazarama said that with weapons they took from their raid on Goma, his group has no problem continuing the military campaign, but they would rather see a political solution.

"We don't have the intention to continue the war. There is no benefit to war, for solving the problems of the Democratic Republic of Congo," said Kazarama.

In the M23 stronghold of Rutshuru, residents have long paid the cost of conflict since the rebellions of the 1990s.

Civilians pay the price

People here want nothing to do with war and politics.

That includes Valerie Baoukahe, who heads an association for victims of sexual violence. "We want to get peace. Whoever wins can win, whoever loses can lose. For us, all we want is peace," she said.

Other residents complain of looting, abductions and murders being committed in the area, with no one ever brought to justice.

Ntamu Gashamba, a history professor at Rutshuru Institute, said businesses also have been hurt by the insecurity brought by the M23 rebels.

"If the army could return it would be better, because the sellers would be able to sell their merchandise without any problems, it would be a good situation," said Gashamba.

Back at the church, M23 still hopes to win the hearts and minds of the population.

With pressure on the battlefield, and growing discontent in towns, though, the future of the rebels is far from certain.

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