A rebel group incorporated into the national army returned to insurrection in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo in April 2012.

They dubbed themselves "M23" after the March 23 peace accords of 2009, which saw the original rebel group, the CNDP (Congrès National pour la défense du peuple, in French), become a political party and their fighters integrated into the Congolese national army.

Citing poor pay and living conditions amongst their grievances, these soldiers defected and, over the summer of 2012, fought against government troops, capturing swathes of the lush North Kivu province.

Eastern Congo is rife with armed groups and therefore insecurity.  Around two million people have been displaced as a result of conflict, with this latest rebellion displacing some half a million.

As troops fought with rebels in the hills of Rutshuru territory in May, Veronica Nyiramitana and her husband, Josephu Jibesho, an elderly couple in their eighties, were the only inhabitants left in Gisiza village. "Everyone ran away", says Mr. Jibesho, talking of the day when the army began fighting M23 in the area. Gunfire rang out as the frail couple sat outside their small straw hut; the rebels occupied a hill overlooking the village. Just metres behind their humble home, a rocket-propelled grenade lay—mercifully unexploded—in the grass.

Nobody knows how many people have died as a result of eastern Congo's 14 year long conflict. The International Rescue Committee estimates 5.4 million "war-related" deaths since 1998, although other studies suggest that it could be half of this. Yet even taking the lower figure, 2.7 million people have lost their lives as a result of Congo's cycle of violence.

By July, M23 had taken the town of Bunagana, an important trade crossing into Uganda. Bolstered by their success over the government army and United Nations peacekeepers who had vowed to protect the town, they advanced to take more territory. UN commanders coordinated with their Congolese counterparts to secure Goma, the provincial capital.

The United Nations mission in Congo is the world's largest peacekeeping operation with nearly 20,000 military personnel, with a mandate to protect civilians. Yet despite repeated promises from UN commanders to halt the advance of M23, the expansion of rebel territory continued.

In their wake, allegations of rape, looting, forced recruitment and the use of child soldiers by the rebels were documented by the UN and by human-rights groups such as Human Rights Watch. Such practices have become synonymous with armed groups in the region and cause entire communities to live in perpetual fear.

Thousands of civilians had fled villages to a camp for the internally displaced on the outskirts of Goma, a city of around 1 million people. But in mid-November, the rebels advanced perilously close to Goma, causing the displaced to flee once again. On November 19, the army were fighting the rebels in the outskirts of the city, and by the 20th, it had fallen. It was the first time in nearly a decade that the government had lost control of this important trade and economic hub.

The rebel occupation of the city lasted twelve days, before they bowed to international pressure and withdrew. 2012 ended with peace-talks in neighbouring Uganda, but at the time of writing, these talks are fragile and a resumption of hostilities never feels far. 

During the occupation of Goma, M23 amassed massive amounts of arms, ammunition and vehicles. They are now stronger, their numbers bolstered, and have proven that they have military strength over the national army as well as little to fear from the UN. Meanwhile, thousands continue to live in camps, their future uncertain.

• Read more about M23 in Congo in the blog
• More work: The Last Days of M23