Crowds of civilians lined the rugged dirt-road leading through a string of villages towards Bunagana. They were cheering and singing for the hundreds of men in uniform that were marching up, the drab uniforms a stark contrast to the colourful cloths wrapped around ululating women. Sweat dripped down these soldiers' faces, their shoulders burdened with heavy, macabre instruments of destruction: tank shells, mortars and boxes of ammunition.
This was the first time the government army had been in these hills for well over a year, having been ousted in July 2012 by an increasingly confident group of army defectors, calling themselves M23. The rebels had captured vast swathes of territory, culminating in November last year with the capture of the regional capital, Goma.
Now, though, it is the government army that is confident. Over the past few months they have started pushing back the rebels, and in just several days, recaptured a string of towns and villages. Bunagana, a small but important town on the Ugandan border, was the last of M23's major settlements, and its loss a severe blow to the rebel group. It had been the seat of M23's political administration since July, and a hefty source of revenue from the border taxes levied there.
Trekking up with these soldiers, the rapidity of their advance was evident. Reaching intersecting roads, soldiers sitting on an advancing tank gestured to cross the bush-lined intersection at speed; there could still be rebels at the other end of the track with guns trained on those crossing. The area was far from secured.
Reaching the outskirts of Bunagana, the ground shuddered from the deathly boom of a .50 calibre machine gun, and as the soldiers manning it rearmed, steam rose from its barrel. An advanced unit of troops walked through town, led by Col. Rama. As they approached the border, men came running across, waving and cheering. Shortly afterwards, the hundreds of civilians that had fled the fighting and sought relative safety on the other side of the border, in Uganda, came rushing over. The troops were welcomed as heroes, this was the first time army boots had trodden this ground in nearly 16 months.
As the afternoon drew on, the troops revelled in their victory, led by one group of "commandos chinois" as they chanted, a Chinese-trained group of elite army soldiers who had led the advance. As a crowd grew around them, they began enacting karate moves, interspersed with break-dancing. And as the light began to fade, the men were assembled in columns, singing a moving song of victory, its words improvised for the capture of Bunagana.
Could this be a turning point in the relationship between civilians and the army? The discipline instilled in these troops has done much to endear them to the populations they have lived amongst; an army that was once feared for its looting and rape, and fleeing from an advancing rebel group, has done much to change its image and conduct. But will it last?
The M23 men, meanwhile, are back where they started in May 2012, having fled to the hills of Tchanzu, Runyonyi and Mbuzi. I remember the endless days—and short nights—reporting that period. The army soldiers raising their rifle butts to my head as they trudged back from a night-attack, frustrated and exhausted and unhappy at the sight of a foreign journalist. The army seems to have changed—or at least these men who represent it—and the rebels have returned to their beginnings. If this is the end of their rebellion, was it worth it? A military defeat would be unlikely to result in the government meeting the demands they have issued over the past 18 months. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in those 18 months, and possibly thousands have lost their lives.
— Whilst on assignment for Der Spiegel; slideshow online here →