Congo rebels recruiting by force

Young men rounded up and marched to camps for training and indoctrination to aid in fighting against government

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KIBATI, Congo -- A new category of displaced people has begun arriving at this muddy, sprawling camp in the green hills of eastern Congo: young men who say they are running from rebels who bang down their doors at night and force them to join their cause.

"I ran away with about 20 others my age," said Christophe Maombi, 27, who fled his rebel-held village of Rugari when he said rebels tried to march him into the bush. "There are so many weapons there. If they see a young boy, they just give him a weapon and tell him to fight."

Rebel leaders dismissed the accusations as "propaganda" from pro-government militiamen.

The young men who have fled, however, said a campaign of forced recruitment has begun in a swath of territory that rebels seized two weeks ago in a major offensive that sent the ragtag Congolese army into a humiliating retreat to this area just north of the provincial city of Goma.

Since then, Congolese President Joseph Kabila has refused to negotiate directly with the rebel leader, renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda, a cultish figure known here simply as "The Chairman" who has vowed to fight all the way to Kinshasa, the capital.

Now it seems both sides are beefing up their forces however they can.

On Wednesday, Angola announced that it was sending troops to Congo to help Mr. Kabila, raising fears that the fighting could spawn a wider conflict similar to the one that devastated the region from 1998 to 2002. That fighting eventually involved more than six countries in a mad scramble for diamonds, gold, copper, tin and other minerals and came to be called Africa's World War.

At the moment, less than a quarter-mile separates government soldiers from the rebels along a gravel road leading out of this town, a stretch of banana trees and bushes where soldiers loiter in front of abandoned houses and lie in the grass with rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Fighting broke out Tuesday night between the two sides, an hour or two of machine-gun fire and bomb blasts, according to locals. In the morning, the bodies of two government soldiers lay across the road on the rebel side like gruesome roadblocks.

"If they come again, we'll beat them, as usual," boasted a rebel posted nearby.

The rebels, meanwhile, are consolidating control over their new territory, setting up local administrations and holding "sensitization meetings" with villagers.

At one session in Rugari, the rebel administrator called on all men ages 15 to 40 to join the rebel army, said Mr. Maombi and two other men who attended and eventually fled.

The next two days, the rebels went through the village of mud-and-wood-plank houses with a local guide, who pointed out which ones had young men inside, they said.

"They were coming at night. They forced the door and took the people out," Mr. Maombi said. "What I saw with my eyes was seven people they took."

Another man, Jean-Didier Nzaboninpa, 23, said fighters burst into his house, where he was talking with friends. "We were four, and they took two," he said. "Alexi and Bizera."

Several other young men interviewed said forced recruits are marched to a ranger station in Virunga National Park, where they are trained and indoctrinated in the rebels' ideology.

"They are saying all jobless boys must join the army," said Semanza Sendoki, 15, who fled a village near Rugari. "They can kill you if you refuse."

Gen. Nkunda's forces have been accused for years of kidnapping boys and beating them if they refuse to submit.

In Sake, a town just outside Goma, the local chief, Michel Chiza, carries the names of more than 27 young men and boys in his pocket -- the youngest is 11 -- who are missing. Only one of the boys, Samuel Kalamu, 15, managed to escape, running through the forest one night last month when his captors were drunk.

"I was going to repair a car that was broken down, and on the way I was taken," he said. "When we reached there, they told us we have to become soldiers. When we refused, we were beaten. I escaped, but others, they are still there."

Gen. Nkunda, who has close ties to neighboring Rwanda, has said he is fighting to protect Congo's minority Tutsi population from ethnic Hutus who fled into the region after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutu militias killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days of well-planned violence. More recently, Gen. Nkunda has vowed to liberate all of Congo.

Rwanda shares Gen. Nkunda's central complaint that the Congolese government has failed to follow through on its promises to disarm the Hutu militias and is using them as a proxy for its own weak army.



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