War on the Lava Plains

Congolese army pushes back rebels in furious six-day fight

War on the Lava Plains War on the Lava Plains

Uncategorized November 1, 2013 0

Congolese soldiers advance under fire. Joseph Kay photo War on the Lava Plains Congolese army pushes back rebels in furious six-day fight Early on... War on the Lava Plains
Congolese soldiers advance under fire. Joseph Kay photo

War on the Lava Plains

Congolese army pushes back rebels in furious six-day fight

Early on the morning of Friday, Oct. 25, the Congolese army launched an offensive against M23 rebels. The rebels still occupied positions some 15 kilometers north of the provincial capital of Goma.

After a month’s lull in fighting and coinciding with the latest breakdown in negotiations between the government and M23 in Kampala, the army pushed the rebels 100 kilometers north in just six days.

A burned-out M23 vehicle. Joseph Kay photo

The fighting took place over lava plains in the lee of Nyragongo volcano, through the hilly national park of Virunga — home to mountain gorillas — through lush green valleys in coffee-growing Rutshuru and up steep hills near the Ugandan border.

Using 110-millimeter mortars and standing artillery rifles, the army bombarded positions in hills north of Goma from Friday to Sunday last week. Then, under this covering fire, commandos advanced. On Monday the army took back the town of Kibumba and marched on Rumangabo — some 30 kilometer farther north.

A man tosses a rock at a destroyed M23 vehicle. Joseph Kay photo

Rumangabo is a major military camp, built by Mobutu, which served as a training hub for M23. The town and the camp fell with only minor skirmishes and Col. Mamadou Ndala, in charge of operations in the latest fighting, marched into the camp triumphantly on Monday morning to cheers and the jubilation of the local population.

People chanted his name and cries of, “The national army is here!” while running alongside Soviet-made T-55 tanks rolling up the five-kilometer mud track from the town to the military base.

Bunagana fell two days later. The army marched north from Rumangabo and south from Rwindi in force on Wednesday, Oct. 30. A column of men some six kilometers long wound its way up a mud road through little villages and across a bridge that M23 set fire to as they retreated in an attempt to thwart the national army’s advance.

I advanced with the army on Bunagana and there were minor skirmishes along the road.

The burning bridge. Joseph Kay photo

M23 abandoned its positions and put up only a show of resistance in the town of Jomba some seven kilometers from Bunagana. Exposed in single file marching along the road, the army came under light arms fire from among houses on either side of the road. One rebel rocket flew down the middle of the road past the soldiers and bullets whistled past.

The army’s rockets and machine guns scared away the few remaining M23 fighters — most had fled before the army arrived. According to the local population, a few were hiding in houses waiting for the army to pass. Or change into civilian clothes to blend in.

The army on the march. Joseph Kay photo

At Bunagana, the army split into different columns, spreading to advance on the main road and through gardens and around houses on either side. There were some minor skirmishes and then M23 ran away. I could see, in the distance, soldiers running up the large hill that overlooks the town, on the other side of which is Uganda.

When we arrived at the military base half way up the hill, we found abandoned weapons and evidence that people had left in a hurry.

As shooting subsided, the population of the town crept out of hiding, chanting and cheering for the army. One woman who had been hiding on the floor in her house, on a road along which there had been some shooting, started handing out soft drinks to soldiers in a spontaneous show of appreciation.

Cheering the liberators. Joseph Kay photo

Crowds passed back into Congo over the border from Uganda where they had taken refuge. They danced and chanted in Bunagana’s main square next to the administrative buildings.

Suddenly an army helicopter circled overhead. The ‘copter opened fire on a nearby hill where some M23 fighters had gathered.

The party-goers sobered up as a rocket exploded and the helicopter’s mini-gun rattled at a hill some five kilometers away. This sent civilians scampering back to Uganda or running for cover. Two children fell into a rain gutter by the side of the road, panicked by the loud explosion.

The army quickly reassured the population that the helicopter was the government’s … and slowly the celebration resumed.

Civilians climb on an abandoned M23 tank. Joseph Kay photo

It had taken six days and a lot of marching, but the army had pushed out of Goma and captured the rebel strongholds of Rumangabo and Bunagana. The president of the rebel movement, Bertrand Bisimwa, fled into Uganda.

M23 still holds three small towns in the area.