Soldiers fighting Congo rebels live in squalor

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By MICHELLE FAUL, Associated Press

RUMANGABO, Congo (AP) — The nest of straw, like something an animal sleeps on, was a Congolese army soldier's bed before rebels seized this military camp. Broken windows were stuffed with grass and the only protection from the frigid night air was a handful of charcoal.

The squalid conditions help explain why thousands of government soldiers are on the run from a few hundred rebels — and have little incentive to fight.

Congo's mineral-rich east has been wracked by fighting since April, when army deserters calling themselves the M23 Movement launched a rebellion to demand better pay, better armaments and amnesty from war crimes. The fighting, the worst in years, has forced some 280,000 people from their homes.

Last month, M23 rebels seized the army camp at Rumangabo, the biggest in eastern Congo, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Goma. They point to it as an example of the miserable conditions the regular army faces. Without electricity, running water or even basics like blankets, the rebels refuse to stay in its filthy barracks and are lodged in a nearby hotel.

"The conditions are unbelievable, aren't they?" said rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama as he took The Associated Press on a tour this week. "Animals are treated better than this."

Three blackened stones and some charcoal in a corner of a dormitory were the only source of heat against the cold in a mountain region where nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. Windows were covered with cardboard and plastic; a stone fire on an outside verandah was used for cooking.

Bathing facilities consisted of makeshift enclosures of bamboo branches covered in plastic. Bundles of filthy clothing, an abandoned helmet, a worn black boot and a tin plate littered the barracks floor.

There were pathetic attempts at privacy: a curtain of twigs and netting, a crude door made of mud bricks. A woman's cloth wrap and a child's plastic sandals were signs that wives and children lived in the barracks with the troops.

Congo's 150,000-man army is poorly armed, infrequently paid and badly provisioned with food or other basics. Deserters from Rumangabo told the AP that soldiers did not even have a gun each; among the things abandoned at the camp were home-made batons fashioned from D-sized batteries, lashed together with banana leaves.

An overgrown vegetable garden of corn, potatoes and cassava indicated the soldiers tried to grow their own food at the camp, which housed 1,000 troops before it was seized.

Ordinary soldiers are supposed to be paid $60 a month, but by the time higher-ranking officers skim off a share, a trooper gets only about $5 a month — and that is when the payroll is met, according to Congolese military officers who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being reprimanded.

That helps explain why Congo's soldiers are accused of more looting than any of the foreign rebel and local militia groups they fight in eastern Congo.

And why soldiers have joined other armed groups in illegal mining in Congo — ventures that help fuel the cycle of violence and have made multimillionaires out of rebel leaders like renegade Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.N. has identified Ntaganda as the leader of the latest rebellion, though the rebels deny this.

The M23 rebels are remnants of back-to-back civil wars that drew in the armies of a half-dozen nations in a scramble for Congo's vast mineral resources, and killed as many as 5 million people. An internationally negotiated peace deal was signed in 2002, but the conflict persisted in eastern Congo, where foreign and local militias continue to fight for control of the lucrative mines and to terrorize the population.

Since the civil wars of the 1990s, Congo's army has been a mixture of former enemies expected to fight together. Dozens of local militias, mainly tribally based, are welcomed into the army once they surrender.

At the Rumangabo camp, a collection of gabled white buildings topped by red iron roofs built during the Belgian colonial era, a sign at the entrance is a reminder of that legacy: It describes it as a center for army integration and retraining. "Unity creates might," is the motto inscribed on one wall.

Rebels like those who launched the latest rebellion, were among those integrated into the army in unsuccessful exercises that have left it with parallel chains of command. And those who desert and return are often better rewarded with rank and monetary incentives than soldiers who remain loyal.

"Continuous armed group integration has created feelings of unpredictability and unfairness within the ranks," analyst Jason Stearns noted in his Congo Siasa blog this week.

"Who would want to risk their lives for an enemy that might very well be welcomed back again into the army, perhaps in an even more privileged position than before?"

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