KIBATI, Congo (AP) — A Congolese army mortar shell destroyed Emmanuel Kazingufu's home in mid-August as soldiers hunted down M23 rebels. Now that the rebels have given up their fight, the 27-year-old is rebuilding.
In mineral-rich eastern Congo, wracked by violence for nearly two decades by a myriad of armed groups, the government's victory over the M23 rebels brings only cautious optimism.
"I am not sure this is the end of the M23. I learned that they had fled to Rwanda —that's where they came from. They could come back," Kazingufu said Wednesday as he worked on reconstructing his home with wooden planks.
The 19-month rebellion forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, many of whom have sought refuge too many times before. Now the government must disarm the M23 fighters and negotiate with other renegade militias to establish a sustainable peace, experts say.
On Wednesday, the Congolese flag again flew in Chanzu, the former fief of M23 leader Sultani Makenga, who is believed to have fled the country as his movement disintegrated. Congolese authorities found a stash of some 300 tons of weapons left behind there, Gov. Julien Paluku said.
M23's promise to end its rebellion "signals an important milestone," said Tariq Riebl, Oxfam's humanitarian coordinator for Congo, adding that attention must now shift to eliminating other threats to civilians.
"The demise of one group doesn't spell the end of conflict in the country's east," he said.
"Now, more than ever, the Congolese government and international community must take steps to ensure that other groups don't move in to fill the space left by the disbanding of M23."
On Wednesday, the head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo pledged to do just that.
"Armed groups should know that we're not going to leave a void. We are going to respond with force against all threats to the civilian population," Martin Kobler said.
The greatest remaining menace comes from the FDLR, a group led by Rwandan Hutus who helped commit the 1994 genocide and later escaped to Congo. The presence of the FDLR has prompted Rwanda to invade Congo twice before in an attempt to wipe out the group. It also has provoked a series of Congolese Tutsi rebellions including the latest one launched by M23 in April 2012.
While the FDLR has weakened in recent years, analysts say it is still well entrenched and its presence in eastern Congo is a reason many of the other armed groups say they exist.
Even as the Congolese military celebrated its victory, attention began shifting to the tasks now ahead to secure the peace.
Russ Feingold, special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and Congo, said in a conference call with State Department reporters Wednesday in Washington that an agreement has been negotiated and could be signed this week or early next week in Uganda.
That agreement has "very specific provisions" for how the group will be disarmed and protected from other fighters operating in the region. The Congolese government also must resolve the issue of who will be eligible for amnesty and reintegration.
"If this agreement goes through the way I hope it will and believe it will, it will only provide amnesty for the rank-and-file members of M23 for purposes for having been part of a rebellion," he said.
It marks a change from 2009, when a previous agreement with rebels allowed even those accused of committing major crimes to come back into the Congolese military.
Human Rights Watch has accused the M23 fighters of killing scores of civilians and forcibly recruiting child soldiers, among other abuses. Many of the rebel group's leaders are now believed to have fled into neighboring Uganda and Rwanda.
Congo's government and a U.N. group of experts have long said neighboring Rwanda has provided weapons and other support to M23, a claim the Rwandan government denies.
It remains to be seen how much sway M23's military command still has over its rebels and whether they all will abide by the order to lay down their arms, said Timo Mueller, a Goma-based researcher with the Enough Project, an advocacy group active in eastern Congo.
"M23 soldiers need to disarm and to disarm they need security guarantees," he said. "It's important that the army does not resort to revenge killings and also the wider Tutsi community has to be protected."
Without full disarmament, there is a risk that the M23 could simply return with the same members only in another shape or form. The M23 itself emerged in April 2012 in the wake of a previous Tutsi rebellion. By November 2012, they swept into Goma and briefly held the city of 1 million people, only to retreat under international pressure.
In the aftermath of the Goma siege, internal divisions mounted within M23. The group was substantially weakened after its leader, Bosco Ntaganda, turned himself in to face charges at the International Criminal Court earlier this year.
The Congolese army succeeded in defeating the M23 because it reorganized to become a stronger, more competent force and it received logistical support from U.N. forces that had stronger rules of engagement, analyst said. Another crucial factor was that Rwanda's aid to the rebels substantially diminished during this latest round of clashes, they said.
In the town of Kibati, Emmanuel Kazingufu said he hopes the end to hostilities this time would be followed up with meaningful dialogue that will bring a lasting peace.
"Building and rebuilding is too tiring," he said as he put back up the walls of his home.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.