RUTSHURU, Congo – A feared rebel leader sought Saturday to reassure people in territory recently seized in a lightning advance, telling thousands gathered for his first mass rally that his men intend to bring peace, not war, to Congo.
Laurent Nkunda, whose rebel army captured this town last month, offered the crowd a message of unity, playing down ethnic divisions that have fueled a long-running rebellion in the central African nation.
"We are all Congolese!" he said, to what could best be described as lukewarm applause.
Nkunda says he is fighting to protect Congo's minorities, especially ethnic Tutsis, from Hutus who fled to Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. But critics say he is more interested in raw power in the mineral-rich country and accuse his forces of committing multiple human rights abuses. Congo's army and other militias have also been accused of pillage, rape and extra-judicial killings.
Fighting between government forces and Nkunda's men surged in August, sparking a humanitarian crisis that has uprooted more than 250,000 people from their homes and prompted the U.N. to approve more than 3,000 more peacekeepers.
In late October, Nkunda's fighters advanced just north of Goma, 45 miles south of this eastern town, forcing Congo's army into a retreat. Rebels called a unilateral cease-fire, but sporadic clashes with the army and pro-government militias have continued.
The advance saw rebels seize the main road running north from Goma to Rutshuru, and enabled Nkunda to link his previously isolated stronghold of Kitchanga with a rebel zone further east along a volcanic mountain chain that straddles the borders of Rwanda and Uganda.
Most of the area is rural pastureland, and its greatest value lies in giving rebels a stronger hand to force the government to negotiate. Today, rebels are digging in, collecting road taxes and replacing some town officials with their own members.
The rebel advance has emptied the Congolese countryside, including at least half the population of Rutshuru; hundreds of thousands of villagers have taken refuge in hastily erected camps.
In a camp of about 70,000 people in Kibati, about six miles from Goma, people expressed little faith in the eloquent leader's rhetoric.
Evania Nyirakarugire, 70, who fled her town of Kibumba, south of Rutshuru, said she won't return as long as the rebels are still there.
"Nkunda is always killing people," she said. "We are Hutu. I am afraid."
Gaspard Zabonimba, 38, said his family had remained in Kibumba — and suffered as a result.
"The rebels took the daughter of my younger brother," he said. "She was 14. They raped her. I don't want to go back because Nkunda's soldiers will rape my wife."
The U.N.'s 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission has been criticized for failing to stop the violence.
Nkunda told the stadium crowd in Rutshuru — estimated at around 3,000 — that they cannot rely on foreign U.N. peacekeepers to protect them.
"It is not foreigners who will bring peace," he said. "It is us the Congolese."
He beseeched the population to join him.
"Rise up and fight the enemies who do not want peace. I am not afraid to fight our enemies," he said. "If you do not want to fight, then clear the way."