Fighting between the M23 Rebel Group and the Democratic Republic of Congo government has contributed to the ongoing violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC.) However, a group of 1,400 M23 rebels fighting in eastern Congo along the Ugandan border, surrendered last week to the Ugandan military. The group surrendered after the Congolese FARDC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo) forces, working alongside the United Nation Intervention Brigade, forced the M23 rebels to wave the white flag.
Upon initial screening, 46 children were discovered among the M23 rebel fighters. In fact, the Associate External Relations Officer for the UNHCR Mbarara, sub-office, Lucy Beck explained that upon screening, the children were found to be civilians. Ms. Beck urged the importance of bringing these innocent, orphaned soldiers to safety, away from war conditions and no longer subject them to further forced fighting. She explained, “They are all unaccompanied minors and as such need special attention and protection.” The 46 children are being given refugee services.
Upon surrendering, the group was transported to the Kasese district in Uganda and is currently held under military watch. Rumors have circulated concerning the desire of the Congolese officials for the Ugandan government to hand over Sultani Makenga, the leader of the M23 rebels. However, Ofwono Opondo, a Ugandan government spokesman said he is not aware the DRC is seeking out this option. Opondo further explained that Uganda will not be handing over the remaining confined fighters until a peace deal between the M23 rebels and the Congolese government is signed.
Last week, both the M23 Rebel group and the DRC government came together intending to sign the desired peace agreement. Unfortunately, the DRC government ended up calling off the signing due to a particular disagreement concerning the terms and conditions on which to sign.
At this point, handing over the remaining surrendered fighters from military confinement to refugee status is an event that will not be discussed until a peace treaty is signed. Lucy Beck explained, “as an organization, our duty is to the asylum-seekers and refugees we serve. For this reason we can’t discuss individual cases (Sultani Makenga)—even to confirm or deny whether someone has filed an application with us. I am sure you can understand this is for the protection of the individuals themselves.”
With that said, the influx of refugees into Uganda is already very high. There are currently 236,000 Congolese refugees in Uganda, and that number is growing. Although it is not expected that the surrendered M23 rebels be handed over to the United Nations, it is an issue that concerns the refugee systems in Uganda.
– Laura Reinacher