By Evan Gray, Blog Writer

Since January 2nd, the deadline for the surrender of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), UN and Congolese forces have begun preparations for a major military offensive against the Hutu rebel group, which has wreaked havoc in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since its formation in 2000. With the 3,000-strong United Nations Force Intervention Brigade and the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) readying to lead the assault against the 1,500 or so remaining FDLR rebels, the stage is set for a major confrontation. Yet, at the time of writing, the DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila, has still not signed off on the joint agreement that would allow UN and FARDC forces to begin their operation.

For those familiar with the situation in the DRC, Kabila’s inaction is perhaps unsurprising, as he has frequently been accused of lending support to the FDLR. This has acted as a major destabilizing factor in the DRC’s relations with its neighbour, Rwanda, in part because the FDLR’s leadership is composed of Rwandan Hutus, many of whom participated in the brutal genocide of the country’s Tutsi population in 1994. The fact that Kabila recently authorized campaigns against other rebel groups like the Front de Résistance Patriotique de l’Ituri (FRPI) and the Uganda-based Allied Democratic Forces while holding back on action against the FDLR has only increased the suspicions of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, leading him to accuse Kabila of “making excuses” for the FDLR.

The nature of the FDLR’s extended occupation of the eastern Congo also presents another serious obstacle to UN and FARDC forces. After 20 years living in the heavily forested border region between the DRC and Rwanda, FDLR personnel have acquired knowledge of the terrain that exceeds even that of the Congolese army. Furthermore, FDLR camps in the region are heavily populated by civilians – mostly wives and children and of FDLR fighters – and the group has shown itself willing to use these innocent bystanders as human shields in past engagements with the FARDC. As a result, observers such as Jason Stearns, Director of the Rift Valley Institute’s Usalama Project, are predicting significant civilian casualties in the event of any military offensive. Though the UN has been broadcasting radio messages into FDLR territory encouraging the families of rebel fighters and other civilians to evacuate, many still remain in the area. Planning documents released by the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) indicate that at least 368,000 people in North Kivu province and 118,000 in South Kivu province would be affected by the fighting, creating mass displacement which is likely to quickly overwhelm local aid organizations.

Clearly, any attempt to put an end to the FDLR’s campaign of violence will not come without significant costs to the DRC’s civilian population. However, continued inaction will only prolong the crisis that has wracked the country for more than 15 years while further increasing tensions with Rwanda. Either way, the next few months may be crucial in determining the long term future of the DRC and of the region’s political situation as a whole.