Last year on Thanksgiving weekend, our partners in Congo were under siege.
The M23 rebels, under the command and control of the Rwandan military, had invaded the city of Goma, and were terrorizing its residents. (They kicked off their campaign in the spring of last year by murdering 2 children, kidnapping 6 boys, and raping 12 girls in a Falling Whistles-funded rehabilitation center.) The UN peacekeepers who were charged with protecting Goma stood aside and let the rebels in. The Congolese army retreated to the town of Minova a few miles away, and retaliated against civilians for their defeat, raping hundreds of women.
The rebels’ first moves upon arrival were to release thousands of prisoners into the streets, loot the central bank, and take control of the airport and the central armory. Under cover of darkness, they kidnapped dozens of Congolese whistleblowers from their homes. Several more were executed in public.
During this critical moment, you stood in solidarity with our partners and rallied with us to #StopM23. We had been working behind the scenes in collaboration with dozens of partners for many months, but needed massive public pressure to tip the scales and change international policy towards Congo and Rwanda.
Together, working from a microsite that we built in 48 hours - http://stopm23.com - we bombarded Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, with over 25,000 Tweets, asking the US government to sanction and cut aid to M23’s chief backers in the Rwandan government. This campaign generated 60 million impressions and trended on Twitter in the US over the course of 24 hours.
It worked. International headlines exposed the connection between the Rwandan government and M23. Congress held emergency hearings on the issue. 9 Western countries cut or froze nearly half a billion dollars in aid to the government of Rwanda.
One the same day that these cuts totaled 1% of Rwanda’s GDP and would have triggered pay cuts for civil servants, the M23 rebels retreated from Goma to attend peace talks. President Obama followed up on the rebels’ retreat with a personal phone call to Rwanda’s President to reiterate the consequences of continuing to support the rebels.
The temporary withdrawal of Rwandan support sent the rebels into disarray. After days of bloody infighting, the rebels’ top commander, Bosco Ntaganda, showed up on the doorstep of an American embassy and asked the US government to fly him to Holland to face prosecution for war crimes.
After Bosco’s arrest, the rebels reorganized and consolidated their control over the mineral-rich North Kivu province. They used their territory to traffic in conflict gold and insulate themselves from international pressure on their Rwandan backers. Every time the peace talks collapsed, the rebels would return to violence.
In this context, key parties finally implemented recommendations that our coalition had promoted for years:
The US government finally implemented our recommendation to appoint a US Special Envoy to Congo - former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold. The UK and EU followed suit by appointing Envoys, too.
The UN finally got serious about its peacekeeping mission, installing 2 decisive and aggressive new leaders and deploying an extra 3000 peacekeepers with a unique mandate to neutralize M23 and other rebel groups.
Congo’s government finally implemented critical army reforms, flushing out corrupt commanders, paying soldiers their salaries, and improving logistics.
10 weeks ago, the rebels reacted to these reforms by raining bombs on the city of Goma and killing dozens of civilians.
Fortunately, the terror was short-lived as the Congolese army and peacekeepers took heavy losses to push them back from the outskirts of Goma, forcing them to return to peace talks - this time the talks were brokered by the 5 Special Envoys. Around a week ago, the talks broke down again, and the rebels returned to their bunkers.
The day after the talks broke down, Secretary of State John Kerry made a phone call to Rwanda’s President to deliver this message: “The peacekeepers are coming for your rebels. They are going to win. Stay out of it.”
And win they did. In 5 short days of fighting with limited civilian casualties, the UN and Congolese army flushed out the M23 rebels, liberating all of North Kivu from their occupation.
Almost immediately, the liberators uncovered 3 fresh mass graves on former-M23 territory. The scope of M23’s abusive occupation is just beginning to come to light.
“[Rwandan President Paul Kagame] does not like the reputational damage that has come from people saying that his country has given support to an illegal armed group. It doesn’t fit the positive narrative he is building for his country … I am hoping that Rwanda has decided being tainted by the M23 is not in its interests." - US Envoy Russ Feingold