GOMA - Following the withdrawal of the M23 rebel troops that for 12 days occupied the eastern city of Goma, locals remain cautious and fearful, despite reassurances from government authorities.

Meanwhile, those who had supported the M23 are keeping a low profile.

The M23 rebels took control of Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, at the end of November in a bid to overthrow President Joseph Kabila’s government.

"It is not the time to settle scores or hunt those who collaborated with the M23 rebels. It is time to work together to bring peace back to the city," said North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku Kahonga when he returned to Goma from Beni, some 400 kilometers away –where he had escaped after the M23 entered Goma.

Kahonga assured residents that calm had been restored in the city. On Dec. 1, after 12 days of occupation, the rebels agreed to withdraw peacefully from Goma. This was unexpected for Goma's population, who believed that the rebels would maintain their positions in the city, sparking a counter-attack from the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) based in Minova – 50 kilometers away from there. 

As they left the city for Kibumba, their camp north of Goma, the rebels danced and sang, waving goodbye to the locals from their trucks.

The rebels’ withdrawal did not appease the local population’s worries. Many had hoped that before leaving, the M23 would hold talks with the government aimed at avoiding further attacks on the city in case of future disagreements.

"The population is the victim of consecutive civil wars that are the result of botched negotiations and always end up causing deaths and forcing people to flee their homes,” says a journalist from the Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) organization.

His fears are enhanced by Sultani Makenga's words, the head of the Congolese Revolution Army (ARC, the armed branch of the M23). Although Mankenga says he respects the conditions of withdrawal set during the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) last month in Kampala, Uganda, the military leaders says: "We are ready to take Goma again and continue our struggle against the Congolese government as long as our demands are not taken into account."

Meanwhile, the line adopted by the Congolese government remains unclear. On the one hand, the authorities refuse to negotiate with the rebels. On the other hand, delegates from the Democratic Republic of Congo are now present in Kampala, where peace talks are happening.

In the streets of Goma, life seems to have gone back to normal: Shops, drug stores, grocery stores and small markets have re-opened. In front of the ngandas (the local bars), young people talk about the hardships of war while sipping Primus beers to the sound of rumba music.

The mayor of Goma, Kubuya Ndoole, who has also recently returned from Beni, says that everything is now "fine" and that "everyone should go back to work as usual."

Where to for M23 supporters?

"It is not time to settle scores," as officials keep saying, but those who supported the M23 now feel very isolated. "Like the M23, I want Kabila to be replaced so that we can put an end to unemployment and so that human rights are finally upheld. In this country, we live in a jungle," says a supporter of the MSR party (Social Movement for Renewal) – a party however, that is part of the ruling coalition.

Party supporters, whose majority is against President Joseph Kabila's regime, were convinced that the ARC would successfully march on the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. Ali Musarag, head of the youth branch of the M23, had declared on Nov. 29 that the rebels’ mission was to free the people of Congo: "With your support and courage, we will kick Joseph Kabila out because he is a dictator."

The M23 had managed to spread its views amongst youths and politicians. Now, these people – who are not happy with the way the country is run – feel uneasy at having publicly supported the M23. In TV and radio shows, politicians feel the need to deny ever supporting the rebel movement in order to avoid being fired from their own party. "Yes, I embraced the views of the M23 but I’m the provincial spokesperson of the provincial majority," said for instance Eli Mutela, during a broadcast on Kivul radio.

On the edge of the road where a battalion of the FARDC army was returning to Goma, people were talking. "According to the M23, the reason for this war lies in the violation of the March 23, 2009 peace treaty between the National Congress Defense of the People (CNDP) rebels and the government. If the demands agreed after the current Kampala peace talks are not respected by the government, will this create yet another armed movement?" asks René Kakule, an independent political analyst who worries that conflicts will spark again in this region where the humanitarian situation keeps deteriorating.