Many Flee as Congo Rebels Approach Eastern City

Women with babies on their backs. Families crammed into cars with coolers and suitcases stuffed to the windows. United Nations trucks. Aid workers. Businessmen. Panicky government troops literally running for their lives.
On Wednesday afternoon, countless people of all kinds poured out of Goma, a strategic Congolese city on the border of Rwanda, fleeing the advancing rebel forces massing on the outskirts of town.
This was a place that was supposed to be safe, a town full of war-weary, displaced people who had come here for shelter, a town that the United Nations peacekeepers had defended against the very same rebels before.
But this time may be different.
“The Congolese Army has abandoned most of their positions,” a United Nations spokesman, Madnodje Mounoubai, said. “The road to Goma is now open to the rebels.”
Eastern Congo has been torn by conflict for more than a decade. But if Goma falls, it will be the first time in years that rebels have snatched a major city — and a particularly important one — because it is a staging ground for United Nations aid efforts that are helping keep millions alive.
On Wednesday night, the rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire, saying they did not want to spread more fear in Goma. But gunfire continued to rattle across the hills, punctuated by the loud, deep bark of artillery.
“We are waiting and seeing,” said Lt. Col. Samba Tall, a United Nations military commander. The rebels are not known for keeping their word, he said.
Congo is home to the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission, with 17,000 troops with tanks and helicopter gunships. But United Nations officials said it was not necessarily their job to beat back the rebels, who are led by a charismatic leader with unclear intentions.
Mr. Mounoubai said the peacekeepers’ primary role was protecting civilians, though on Wednesday many people in Goma did not have much faith in that, either.
“I’m going to Rwanda,” said Safi Dayoo, a mother of six. She cd the border, on foot, as dusk sank over the city and the streets emptied.
Several residents said that vanquished Congolese soldiers were looting shops on their way out of town. Fleeing soldiers commandeered a car rented by a team of Western journalists and threatened them at gunpoint to drive them away from the rebels. At one Goma hotel, the manager demanded payment up front.
“Who knows what will happen tomorrow,” he said.
A desperate, dangerous security vacuum seemed to be opening up. Congolese officials seemed dismayed — but not surprised.
“What can we do?” said Kikaya Bin Karubi, a member of Parliament. “Our so-called army is a combination of different rebel militias, with a hundred from this group, a hundred from that group, and so on. They haven’t even trained together for a year. How do they stand a chance?”
Their enemy is a relatively well-armed, cohesive force, led by Laurent Nkunda, a renegade Congolese general with impressive military acumen and a taste for crisp uniforms, dark sunglasses and power. He considers himself a protector of the Tutsi people. Many here call him a warlord.
Congolese officials, including Mr. Karubi, have accused Rwanda, which is led by Tutsi, of backing Mr. Nkunda in an attempt to turn eastern Congo into a buffer zone. Officials in Rwanda have denied this, though tensions along the border are steadily building. On Wednesday, Rwanda and Congo blamed each other for gunfire along the border near Mr. Nkunda’s territory. Alain Le Roy, United Nations under secretary general for peacekeeping, confirmed that there had been exchanges of heavy fire across the Rwanda-Congo border, but who started the firing was unclear.
Mr. Nkunda has tried several times before to seize Goma, a large trade hub that sits near the crossroads of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. His previous attacks were foiled by peacekeepers who used helicopters to blast his rebels from the air.
But this time, he seems more determined — even talking about “liberating” the entire country, which would not be unprecedented. The rebellion that overturned Congo’s longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1997 started out in the same green hills.
Mr. Nkunda seems to have learned from his mistakes. United Nations officials said he had deftly calibrated his tactics to a more guerrilla-style war, with his soldiers attacking in small groups that blend into the thick forest or the civilian population.
In 2004, when his forces briefly seized control of Bukavu, a city south of Goma, Mr. Nkunda’s men (and boys — because many are child soldiers) ransacked the town, smashing windows, pillaging stores and raping women.
Many people in his path, who live in the hilltop, thatched-roofed villages that ring Goma, are now fleeing in droves.
“We have thousands and thousands of refugees on the move,” said Ivo Brandau, a United Nations spokesman in Kinshasa, the capital. “Access is still a huge problem. Because of the fighting, we can’t get to many of them.”
United Nations officials said on Wednesday that they were considering a formal evacuation of personnel in Goma but that they had not made the decision yet. Many United Nations aid workers in Goma spent Wednesday night holed up in fortified compounds. The Congolese people have turned against them as well. On Monday, a furious crowd stoned a United Nations compound here, saying that the peacekeepers and aid workers had failed to protect them.
At the United Nations, the Security Council, after meeting in an emergency session late Wednesday, urged Congo and Rwanda to rein in their forces and to stop supporting all armed groups in eastern Congo. The Council issued a presidential statement calling on both governments to “defuse tension and restore stability.” It also urged Mr. Nkunda to respect the cease-fire and the previous political agreements. Goma residents are now frightened by what lies up the road. Several residents said Mr. Nkunda’s forces were only five miles away.
Oscar Batezi, a law student, stood on a Goma street and watched his world spin once again into a cycle of the violent unknown.
“If Nkunda comes here, nothing good will come of it,” he said. “Our government is a total disappointment. I have no place to go. All I can do is wait.”