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What is Happening Here?

DR Congo, January 25, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Children at Buhimba displacement camp. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

It's now been two days since the arrest of General Laurent Nkunda, the ambitious and charismatic rebel leader who terrorized this part of Congo for more than five years. Rwandan troops nabbed him as he tried to flee across the border. This was a stunning series of events by all measures, and almost completely unexpected by everyone here.

When Rwandan troops crossed into Congo just north of here earlier this week, the overwhelming speculation was that they were going to pursue and fight the FDLR rebels, many of whom are culpable in the Rwandan Genocide. (I mentioned this in my Tuesday journal entry.) But, instead of bearing west into the gigantic forests where the FDLR takes refuge, the Rwandans kept marching north and, by all accounts, surprised Nkunda — a former ally of Rwanda's Tutsi leadership.

No one is quite sure of where Nkunda is now — certainly in Rwanda, but that's where the trail ends. Some say he's in Gisenyi, a city just over the border from Goma — within walking distance of the Mercy Corps office and the hotel where I'm staying.

Perhaps a more relevant question is: What happens to Nkunda now? Will he be turned over to Congolese authorities? If that happens, he will almost certainly be brought across the border just down the road from where I'm staying. The convoy hauling him will pass right by my hotel. And he will be flown to the capital, Kinshasa, from Goma's shattered airport.

But, ultimately, will any punishment for Nkunda — even a death sentence for treason, which seems likely — improve the situation here or even assuage the fears of millions? After all, more rebel groups lurk, including remnants of Nkunda's own faction who still allegedly pledge loyalty to him.

The news this morning is that the joint Congolese-Rwandan military force has found and attacked FDLR rebels about three hours north of Goma. Nine rebels are reported dead.

And, of course, that likely means more villages will come under fire as the offensive presses forward. Innocent civilians will die because they're suspected of collaboration. Homes will burn. Women will be victimized. And thousands more will be displaced or, if they're already displaced, they will be forced to find another squalid place to seek refuge.

Over the last week — a time of relative calm to the west of Goma — at least 44 newly-displaced families registered at Buhimba Camp. That added more than 230 people to the camp's already bursting population.

What will happen in towns to the north such as Nyanzale, which is even more isolated and likely to host some of the most intense fighting? And when will that fighting end?

Over the week I've been in eastern Congo, everything seems to have changed. The headlines proclaim that breakthroughs are imminent and security is finally within reach.

But I challenge anyone to look out over a sprawling displacement camp, or talk to a grandmother taking care of four war-orphaned children, and tell me that's really true.