Bihanga Camp, Uganda -
Three months after their ignominious military defeat just across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rebels of the M23 are still waiting to be able to go home.
Close to 1 300 former rebels, who once made up the strongest army in the mineral-rich but impoverished Kivu region, have been left in limbo in a camp in Uganda following their defeat at the hands of he national army and a special United Nations intervention force.
“I want to go home and it's my right to go home,” said one former fighter, disarmed and stationed here in this military camp.
“We're waiting for the agreements to be implemented,” he said, referring to a deal reached with the DR Congo government in December in Kenya that officially ended 19 months of fighting in DRC's North-Kivu province.
In the meantime the rebel, who would not give his name but who said he was once in charge of M23's public relations, just sits around, like his hundreds of comrades.
The camp is situated in quiet, rural southwestern Uganda. It is surrounded by sparse woodland and has a river running next to it, where the rebels can wash. Access is by a narrow dirt road, which passes through a few hamlets.
The single-storey buildings in the camp have seen better days. The once beige paintwork is veering to grey, and the metal, barbed-wire topped fencing, on which the men and few women of the M23 dry their laundry, is getting rusty.
But once the household chores and the laundry are done, boredom reigns. The former rebels spend most of their time sprawling in the shade of the trees, thinking of home.
The camp was chosen because of its isolated situation.
“A few of them ran away when they were in Kasese,” the camp close to the DRC border where they were first confined when they fled into Uganda, explained Peter Elwelu, a division commander in the Ugandan army.
But the M23 are not confined to the camp. They are allowed to come and go during daylight hours. Their status remains ambiguous Ä they are essentially detained, but are not prisoners.
“We can't keep them locked up,” said Ronald Kakurunga, a Ugandan army spokesman, who admits that he would also like to see the rebels go back home as feeding them is becoming expensive. “We're running out of money. They're a burden for us.”
In early February the DR Congo parliament adopted an amnesty bill, the first step in the process of getting the rebels to return home. But the bill, which still needs to be signed into law by President Joseph Kabila, remains controversial.
DR Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende for his part said that discussions are still underway with the authorities in Kampala “to determine who is coming back home” and to see if the returnees “are really coming back for re-insertion into civilian life or whether they should be answering for crimes that do not qualify for amnesty.”
The M23 sprang up in April 2012 when a group of former rebels who had been integrated into the army mutinied. The group was active in North-Kivu province, where it claimed to protect the local Kinyarwanda-speaking population against several armed groups operating locally.
Both the UN and Kinshasa have accused both Rwanda and Uganda of actively backing the M23.
More recently the UN has also accused M23 of regrouping. The rebels stationed here deny that anything of the sort is happening, while the Ugandan army denies training them.
“We're not here for training. We're here to get some rest,” an M23 lieutenant-colonel, Dieudonne Padiri, told AFP.
“And when we do get home we hope we'll find peace there,” he said, adding he hopes the political negotiations will lead to a lasting solution for the root causes of conflict in North Kivu. - Sapa-AFP