GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- There is no visa necessary to cross this border anymore. Or red-eyed soldiers hanging around reeking of home-brew. Gone, too, are many of the quasi-government officials who used to buzz around this border post harassing travelers and squeezing out bribes, including one little man who claimed to be a health officer and had "Doc" scribbled in Magic Marker on his coat.
Instead, the doorway to Goma, one of Congo's largest and most strategic cities, is now manned by lean, young rebels in crisp fatigues. They captured this town on Tuesday, ridding it of an often sloppy and menacing Congolese army presence, and on Wednesday the rebels announced at a triumphant rally that Goma was just the beginning.
"We're going to Kinshasa!" vowed Col. Vianney Kazarama, a spokesman for the M23 rebel group.
Kinshasa, the capital, is nearly 1,000 miles away, but the rebels are beginning to eat away at that distance, day by day. On Wednesday, rebel forces met virtually no resistance as they swept into the strategic town of Sake, down the road from Goma. Local militiamen have also pushed the army out of other areas as more of this vast and complicated country spins out of government control.
Up until this week, many naysayers had dismissed the M23 as a parochial, small-time militia, with discipline but neither the resources nor the manpower to upend Congo.
But now it seems the rebels are rapidly gaining momentum -- and making allies along the way. Antigovernment fury is spreading across the country, with people enraged at President Joseph Kabila for allowing Goma to fall.
"Our president is a thief, a thief!" exclaimed Jean-Claude Dumbo, an unemployed man in Goma. "He doesn't pay the army. He steals it all for himself."
Protesters in several cities continued to raze buildings and set cars afire on Wednesday, directing some of their venom toward the United Nations, whose peacekeepers stayed riveted in the seats of their armored personnel carriers, not firing a shot, as the rebels marched into downtown Goma. United Nations officials have said that they did not have the numbers to beat back the rebels and that they were worried about collateral damage, but many Congolese have rendered their own verdict. On Wednesday, rioters in Bunia, north of Goma, ransacked the houses of United Nations personnel.
Whether the M23, whose ranks are thought to number no more than 3,000, has the capacity to shape all this discontent into a national uprising and overthrow Mr. Kabila still remains to be seen.
A big factor will be neighboring Rwanda, which is widely suspected of arming the M23 and sending Rwandan soldiers to covertly fight alongside the rebels. Twice before, in 1996 and 1998, Rwanda clandestinely fomented rebellions in eastern Congo that eventually reached all the way to Kinshasa. At the time, the Rwandan government lied about its involvement, denying that it had thousands of troops inside this country. One top commander back then, James Kabarebe, who is now Rwanda's defense minister, even hijacked planes in Goma and flew across Congo with hundreds of soldiers to open up a new front.
Mr. Kabarebe was recently accused by United Nations investigators of being the secret puppeteer behind the M23, pulling the strings as a way for Rwanda to control Congo's lucrative mineral trade and dominate this area. Rwanda has vehemently denied such involvement.
Some human rights groups say that Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations and a leading contender to be President Obama's next secretary of state, has been far too soft on Rwanda, which is a close American ally and whose president, Paul Kagame, has known Ms. Rice for years. The activists have accused her of watering down language in a Security Council resolution that would have mentioned Rwanda and say she also tried to block the publication of part of a report that detailed Rwanda's covert support for the M23.
Erin Pelton, her spokeswoman, said the United States was helping to "reinforce the diplomatic effort" and declared it "patently untrue" that the United States had blocked the investigative report.
Mr. Kabila is quickly learning that he cannot rely on his army to quell this rebellion, which is no surprise, given that Congo's military has been notoriously corrupt, dysfunctional and predatory for years. Instead, Mr. Kabila now seems to be hoping that diplomacy can save him. Over the past few days he has been meeting with Mr. Kagame, and some indications emerged Wednesday night that Mr. Kabila had been persuaded to negotiate with the M23, despite earlier refusals.
But that may be problematic, too. Human Rights Watch said that the M23's commanders were responsible for "ethnic massacres, recruitment of children, mass rape, killings, abductions, and torture."
So far in Goma, the rebels have been quiet. A beat of life returned to the streets by Wednesday afternoon, with some shops opening their doors and people causally strolling down the road.
"Of course we were scared when these guys came in with guns and we didn't know who they were," said John Kamata, a former government worker now looking for a job. "But they've been O.K. There hasn't been any killing yet."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.