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MWESO, Congo – The wobbly white tarp tents once constructed for people fleeing a violent Rwandan Hutu rebel group have gradually been replaced by more solid huts of branches, banana leaves and mud. After all, it's been nine years now since the residents became refugees in their own country.
"And all this time the rebels are still farming the land in my village," says Witonze Nzambonipa, the camp's elected chief.
But now Nzambonipa and others in the camp have hope their situation might improve, as the Congolese military has vowed to oust the rebels known by their French acronym — FDLR — after they failed to meet a Jan. 2 deadline to disarm.
The military operation is supposed to be gaining additional support from the U.N. peacekeepers in eastern Congo who already helped the beleaguered country defeat another group known as the M23.
The stakes are high in eastern Congo, a region plagued by a myriad of armed rebels in the two decades since the Rwandan genocide. The FDLR includes Rwandan Hutus who committed the 1994 massacres and who fled into Congo to escape prosecution. The instability created by the FDLR rebels in eastern Congo has allowed other fighters to flourish as well.
"In many ways, the FDLR triggered the cycles of war that DRC (Congo) has experienced for two decades," says Fidel Bafilemba, a researcher with the advocacy group the Enough Project. "If these operations manage to really deal with them, all the other armed groups will disappear easily."
Yet days after the United Nations welcomed the official launch of the offensive, internal disputes have kept the forces from kicking off a coordinated offensive. One official, who insisted on anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to journalists, said the U.N. had objected to the inclusion of some Congolese soldiers in the mission.
Congo wants to use the soldiers most familiar with the FDLR group, but the official said those very same soldiers have been "red-flagged" (banned) because of allegations of past human rights abuses.
The U.N.'s deputy spokesman Farhan Haq made those allegations public this week.
"The appointment of two Congolese generals to lead this operation, who are known to us as having been heavily involved in massive human right violations, is of grave concern," said Haq on Thursday in New York. "I can confirm discussions are underway at the highest level with the DRC (Congolese) government to address these concerns." He said U.N. support for the anti-rebel offensive could be withheld.
With an estimated 1,400 fighters, the FDLR are a shadow of the force they used to be but defeating them may still prove difficult. Hardened by years living deep in the Congolese forest, they are experienced guerrilla fighters with little to lose, and who can also easily blend into the population.
Many hope the elimination of the FDLR will create stability not only in eastern Congo but in Rwanda, where the government has long been accused of backing rebels who fight the FDLR.
"This support will fizzle out once the FDLR are gone," said Bafilemba of Enough Project. "Then it will be up to the Congolese army to secure the population and dismantle the remaining armed groups."
The FDLR, though, also have become an integral part of the region's economy, running the illegal charcoal trade that provides thousands of households with fuel to cook and heat their homes despite causing deforestation.
Many Hutu civilians also fear they will be caught in crossfire and confused with the rebels. Rumors that the operations will be led by the Congolese army, instead of the U.N., have increased these anxieties, given the army's record of human rights abuses.
Olivier Ndayambaje was only 6 years old when he and his family fled Rwanda in 1994 — too young to have taken part in any genocide. Now he is 26 and like other Hutu civilians, he worries about the upcoming military operation designed to defeat the FDLR but may also push out other Rwandan Hutus living in the region.
"Life is already so hard here," he says. "Where can we go?"