Wagner’s Convicts Tell of Horrors of Ukraine War and Loyalty to Their Leader

In October last year, a Russian news site published a short video of Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary army, sitting with four men on a rooftop terrace in the resort town of Gelendzhik, on Russia’s Black Sea coast. Two are missing parts of a leg. A third has lost an arm. They are identified as pardoned former convicts, returned from the front in Ukraine after joining Wagner from prison.

“You were an offender, now you’re a war hero,” Prigozhin tells one man in the clip. It was the first video to depict the return of some of the thousands of convicts who joined Wagner in return for the promise of a pardon if they survived six months of war.

Reuters used facial recognition software to examine this video and more than a dozen other videos and photographs of homecoming convict fighters, published between October 2022 and February 2023. Reporters were able to identify more than 30 of the men by cross-checking the images with social media and Russian court documents.

In their ranks are murderers, thieves and a self-declared “Satanist.” Several are in hospital recovering from wounds sustained in the fighting. Reuters managed to make contact with 11 of these men. Five agreed to be interviewed by phone and messaging app. What follows is the most detailed insider account yet of Wagner’s convict army: the fighters’ recruitment and training, the combat they saw in Ukraine, and their uncertain future in a Russia turned upside down by war with its neighbor.

Four of the men said they were personally recruited by Yevgeny Prigozhin as he toured Russia’s prison system to bolster his private army. Some of the men were deployed to Ukraine’s eastern Bakhmut region, site of some of the most intense fighting of the one-year-old conflict, where one man described the “utter hell” of the battlefield. Thousands have been killed on both sides. The battle for the city of Bakhmut now hangs in the balance. A former Wagner commander who fled to Norway in January has said he witnessed members of Wagner’s internal security administering brutal treatment to prisoner recruits, including executions for desertion.

Combat training, some conducted by veterans of Russia’s special forces, was short but intensive, according to the men. Ukrainian and Western officials say Wagner is sending poorly prepared fighters to certain death in eastern Ukraine. Mike Kofman, an expert in the Russian military at the Arlington County, Virginia-based CNA think tank, told Reuters the two to three weeks of training received by the convict recruits would be unlikely to bring them up to speed, even if some of the men had prior military experience.

“It takes time to learn combat basics, receive individual training, and you also need some collective training as a unit on top of it – a couple of weeks alone isn’t going to do that much for you,” Kofman told Reuters. A more rigorous training scheme would last several months.

All five ex-prisoners expressed a fierce loyalty to Prigozhin for giving them a second chance at life. Though Reuters could not independently confirm the men’s accounts of their service, many of the details were consistent with one another. Russia’s Defense Ministry and penal service did not respond to detailed questions for this article, nor did Prigozhin and Wagner. Prigozhin has previously described Wagner as “probably the most experienced army that exists in the world today” and said its casualty rate is comparable with other Russian units.

From jail to the Ukraine front

When Prigozhin began touring Russia’s sprawling penal system in summer 2022 offering pardons to those who agreed to fight in Ukraine, word quickly spread among prisoners.

Rustam Borovkov, from the small town of Porkhov, near Russia’s border with Estonia, was one of the four men filmed on the rooftop terrace. Court records show that the 31-year-old was six years into a 13-year term for manslaughter and theft in late July when Prigozhin reached his prison, Penal Colony No. 6 in Russia’s western Pskov region. Borovkov and two friends had broken into a house to steal homebrewed alcohol, according to the court papers. One of them struck the homeowner, who died as a result.

Borovkov had heard from inmates in St Petersburg that Prigozhin was traveling from prison to prison in search of recruits. “I knew right away that I would go,” he told Reuters, “even before he came to us.”

Borovkov said he stood with several hundred other prisoners to hear Prigozhin speak. They were given three days to decide whether to join Wagner in return for freedom. About 40 signed up and after three days and a polygraph test, aimed at rooting out drug addicts, they were on their way to war.

Two months later, in September, as a Ukrainian counter-offensive gathered pace, a film emerged on social media of Prigozhin telling convicts in the Volga River region of Mari El that they had only five minutes to make a decision – and those who changed their minds after joining would be shot as deserters.

In another video, published in February this year, Prigozhin tells convicts that fighters are paid 100,000 rubles ($1,300) monthly, with the possibility of additional bonuses. That’s far above Russia’s average monthly wage of around 65,000 rubles . But Borovkov told Reuters his only motivation for joining Wagner was the promise of a pardon. “I have a small child. I wanted to get back to my family.” He said prison officers tried to persuade him not to go because he played an important role as head of his cellblock’s medical unit.

Six-time convicted thief Yevgeny Kuzhelev said a sense of patriotic duty drew him to Wagner. The 29-year-old was serving time in Russia’s southwestern Samara region for stealing cognac, beer and instant coffee from supermarkets in the Volga car-making city of Togliatti, according to court papers.

“I was sentenced to 3 years and 7 months and I’d already served two years. So I didn’t have long left. But I went anyway. Why? I thought about it, and I am sure that if I had been free at the time, I would have one hundred percent gone to fight. I would have gone as a volunteer,” he said. “I remember how from February, when it all started, I called my aunt from time to time from prison. She kept telling me that this friend of yours went [to Ukraine], then another one, then a third, a fourth … And I knew that I would have done the same.”

Kuzhelev said the recruitment process took about two weeks, and during this time inmates were free to back out without consequence. Those who enlisted were moved to separate accommodation in the prison, where they encountered a new respect from the prison officers.

“Among us there was a man who was serving a 25 year sentence,” Kuzhelev said. “He had a few months left of his term and he signed up. The prison officers asked him: ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ And he told them: ‘Everything is fine, I’m going.’ How can you not respect such a decision?”

Reuters was unable to establish the identity of the prisoner or what happened to him.

‘It was clear they were going to die’

Prigozhin has said previously that Wagner’s convict fighters spend a month undergoing rigorous combat drills, sleeping for only four hours a day. The fighters who spoke to Reuters said they received two to three weeks of intensive and well-organized training. Some credited it with saving their lives.

The war in Ukraine is straining Russia’s military capacity. Late last year, Putin announced the mobilization of reservists into the army. They would receive just 10 to 20 days’ training before deployment to the front. Basic training for infantrymen in the U.S. and British armies is around 22 weeks.

One of the convict recruits told Reuters he traveled to a Wagner training camp in the Russian-controlled part of eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region. Borovkov said training was conducted by former members of Russia’s special forces. “Everything was organized at the highest level,” said Borovkov, who previously served with the military force that secures Russia’s railways. “It wasn’t that they gave me a machine gun, showed me how to shoot and that’s it. No, they explained everything, and in great detail. Mining, demining, tactics, shooting, physical training. Everything.”

The men who spoke to Reuters said that most of the inmates who joined Wagner had some kind of military experience. They had previously served as conscripts under Russia’s one-year military draft or as professional soldiers. The convicts with the most military experience were appointed squad commanders, two of the men said.

“When we got to training, we were asked in detail who knew what, who had served, where they served,” said 38-year-old Dmitry Yermakov, who joined Wagner 10 years into a 14-year sentence for kidnapping. He declined to discuss his criminal record. “And then, when we had been divided into units, they let the lads choose their own commanders. By that time I had already earned some kind of authority, so I was chosen.”

Yermakov said the recruits who realized the gravity of the situation and asked instructors to repeat drills were the best prepared for what was to come. “Those were the men who were genuinely ready to go to war,” he said. Others hoped merely to run down the clock on their six-month stints, hoping that they would receive their pardon having seen as little combat as possible. Of these men, Yermakov said: “It was absolutely clear they were going to die.”

Paralyzing fear and adrenaline

Of the five men who spoke to Reuters, three said that they had fought in the area around the eastern city of Bakhmut, where intense fighting has cost thousands of lives on both sides. Wagner is spearheading Russia’s months-long push to take the city, which had a pre-war population of 75,000 but is now in ruins. Prigozhin has referred to Bakhmut as a “meat grinder,” and said his men’s task there is to bleed the Ukrainian army dry.

Ukrainian and Western officials have compared the battles around Bakhmut to the First World War, and accused Wagner of using convicts in human wave attacks. According to the United States, by mid-February Wagner had suffered more than 30,000 casualties in Ukraine, including 9,000 dead, almost all of them convicts. Prigozhin has insisted, however, that the casualty rate among convict fighters is comparable to other Russian units.

Yermakov, the convicted kidnapper, said that some fighters lost their nerves in the first hours of battle. “What do they see there? Corpses ripped to shreds. And what do they do? Some of them vomit, some of them cry, and some of them don’t want to climb out of the trench. Fear takes over.”

Other fighters recalled only the thrill of combat.

“It was amazing,” said Andrei Yastrebov, a 22-year-old native of St Petersburg, who was serving time for car theft when he joined Wagner. Yastrebov also goes by the name Andrei Kiriyenko on social media. “So much adrenalin. I wish all real men would join Wagner. You can write that. The Ukies ran and Wagner fucked them up.”

Four of the men interviewed by Reuters were seriously injured and invalided out of Ukraine long before completing their stints. They said Wagner had told them that time spent in hospital and rehabilitation would be counted towards their six-month terms and they would receive clemency regardless. Two said they have already got their pardons.

Yermakov lasted only four days before receiving a serious wound to his arm and groin in mid December while dragging a wounded comrade to safety. He said his squad had been tasked with taking and holding a road junction near the village of Pokrovske, on the eastern approach to Bakhmut. He described his final day on the front as “utter hell,” lying flat on the ground for 24 hours as Ukrainian tanks and mortars shelled his squad’s position and drones flew overhead.

“In a war, you’re almost always lying flat on the ground. It’s the only way to survive,” said Kuzhelev, the convicted thief. He told Reuters he spent two months at the front before receiving a shrapnel wound to his arm. “We always wish people ‘Happy Birthday’ after they have been wounded” because they have dodged death. “That’s what they said to me,” he added.

A new start

Now free years ahead of schedule, whether at home or facing long periods of treatment and rehabilitation, the surviving fighters are returning to a country where their actions on the frontline are lionized by many. Prigozhin has previously said that he is giving convicts who join Wagner a “second chance” at life, and an opportunity to redeem themselves.

Earlier this month the State Duma passed a law making it a crime to “discredit” Wagner fighters. The law, which previously applied more narrowly to Russia’s armed forces, was extended at Prigozhin’s request.

Prigozhin’s growing power has not been greeted warmly by all sections of the Russian elite. In February, a long-running feud between the Wagner leader and Russia’s military chiefs exploded into open hostility. Prigozhin accused Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of “treason,” saying they were starving Wagner of munitions out of personal animosity towards him. Shoigu and Gerasimov could not immediately be reached for comment. Earlier the same month, Prigozhin said he had ended Wagner’s recruitment of prisoners, hinting in an interview that he was forced to do so by unnamed officials.

The five fighters interviewed by Reuters felt a deep personal gratitude to Prigozhin for recruiting them and wiping their criminal records.

“We’re better than ordinary citizens,” said Yastrebov, the car thief, now at home in his native St Petersburg. “We are not ex-convicts now, thanks to Wagner.”

In a January video, Prigozhin is shown telling injured convict fighters: “The police must treat you with respect. Everything has already been agreed at various levels, so that there is no nit-picking… If necessary, I myself will call and talk to the governors and so on, and we will find a solution.”

For Kuzhelev, who as of February had been in a Krasnodar region hospital for four months, Prigozhin had given him a new lease on life. Court documents show he spent almost seven of his 29 years in prison for six separate convictions. “The last time I was sent to prison, I was thinking: ‘Well, here I am again, what’s next?'” he said. “I’ll serve a year, another, a third, and then what? I’ll go out, and what am I going to do on the outside? What am I going to do with myself, given my background?”

“Well, now I’m clean. I have some money. I can think about the future. Think about getting a mortgage to buy an apartment … I have all this thanks to our esteemed Yevgeny Viktorovich,” Kuzhelev added, using Prigozhin’s patronymic as a sign of respect.

All five of the men who spoke to Reuters said either that they would remain with Wagner after their six month service, or were seriously considering doing so.

Some said they wanted to get back to the frontlines as soon as they were able to. Nikita Lyubimov, a native of the Volga city of Cheboksary who had been serving a four and a half year sentence for grievous bodily harm, said his first priority was “to support the lads, to recover as soon as possible, and get back to the front line.” The 23-year-old had received a shrapnel wound two months into his initial stint in Ukraine, and was invalided out.

The men said that the able-bodied among them were offered the chance to sign on as professional full-time mercenaries, while the injured were offered supporting roles. Borovkov, who is getting a prosthetic arm after amputation, said that he had been offered a job at a Wagner hospital in Luhansk when he recovers.

Yermakov said he hoped to recover sufficiently to re-enroll as a contract mercenary, and hoped to be deployed in future to Libya, Syria or the Central African Republic, where Wagner operations predate the group’s present campaign in Ukraine. He cited limited prospects available in Russia’s civilian economy as pushing him towards returning to Wagner.

“People work hard without days off for 12-14 hours a day, and at best they earn 50-60,000 rubles ($672-$806) a month,” said Yermakov, who told Reuters he has two small daughters. “I will return to the (Wagner) company and I will definitely be able to earn 150,000 rubles ($2,000) a month.”

For others, a return to Wagner offers an alternative to sinking back into a life of crime. Kuzhelev, who has spent almost seven of his 29 years in prison, told Reuters that he hoped that service in Wagner would enable his young daughter to build a career in future, without the stigma of her father’s criminal past.

“My daughter, when she grows up, can go on to study banking, or attend the police academy,” said Kuzhelev. “And she will not have problems because her father was in prison. Isn’t that motivation? Of course it is.”

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IMF Changes Seen Opening Path for New Ukraine Loan

The International Monetary Fund said Friday its executive board has approved changes to its financing policy aimed at countries facing “exceptionally high uncertainty.”

The measure is widely viewed as a way to open a new loan program for Ukraine as it enters the second year of fighting back a Russian invasion.

The IMF said in a statement, “The changes apply in situations of exceptionally high uncertainty, involving exogenous shocks that are beyond the control of country authorities and the reach of their economic policies, and which generate larger than usual tail risks.”

Meanwhile, DreamApp recently conducted a sleep quality research study on 745 Ukrainians and how the Russian invasion has affected their sleep, dreams and mental health.

A little more than 82% of the participants said they remembered their dreams, which is an indication, DreamApp said, of “superficial sleep that does not provide a full rest.”

“When the brain does not receive enough sleep, traumatic experiences cannot be processed adequately, causing further strain on mental health,” according to Jesse Lyon, Dream App’s chief dream scientist. “It effectively traps these experiences in the brain causing a state of constant tension and heightened fight-or-flight response.”

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UN Weekly Roundup: March 11-17, 2023

Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this past week, as seen from the United Nations perch.

Will Ukraine-Russia grain deal continue?

The package deal that facilitates the export of Ukrainian grain, Russian food and fertilizer products to international markets faces another renewal on Saturday. If neither party objects, it will automatically continue. But Russia has said it wants only a 60-day extension, rather than the agreement’s mandated 120 days. Ukraine and Turkey, which helped broker the deal, have both backed the four-month extension.

During a Security Council meeting Friday afternoon on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths told council members that the deal is “vital for global food security” and must continue and be fully implemented. He said the U.N. is doing everything it can to make sure the Black Sea Grain Initiative can continue. Under it, Ukraine has exported almost 25 million metric tons of grain and other foodstuffs from three ports since the deal was signed in late July, while Russia has received assistance in removing obstacles to the export of its food and fertilizer products.

Hague tribunal seeks Putin’s arrest for war crimes

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant on Friday for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes for his alleged involvement in the abduction of children from Ukraine.

This comes on the heels of a report published Thursday from an international commission of inquiry that alleges Russia has committed wide-ranging war crimes in Ukraine. The report is based on more than 500 interviews as well as satellite images and visits to detention sites and graves.

Special envoy for Myanmar warns no political settlement in sight

The United Nations envoy for Myanmar said Thursday that the prospect for a political settlement to that country’s military takeover is unlikely. “With both sides intent on prevailing by force, there is no prospect for a negotiated settlement,” Special Envoy Noeleen Heyzer told the General Assembly in a briefing on the situation.

Nuclear watchdog says uranium missing in Libya

Some 2.5 tons of natural uranium stored in a site in war-torn Libya have gone missing, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said Thursday, raising safety and proliferation concerns. The IAEA said it is working to “clarify the circumstances of the removal of the nuclear material and its current location.”

Labor study: Essential workers underpaid, ill-treated

A new study by the International Labor Organization finds that essential workers are undervalued, underpaid, laboring under poor working conditions, and exposed to treatment that “exacerbates employee turnover and labor shortages, jeopardizing the provision of basic services.” Data from 90 countries show that during the COVID-19 crisis, key workers suffered higher mortality rates than non-key workers overall, with transport workers being at highest risk.

In brief

— The United States, Albania, Japan and South Korea co-hosted an informal meeting of the Security Council, known as an Arria meeting, on Friday to highlight North Korea’s ongoing human rights violations and their link to Pyongyang’s illegal WMD and ballistic missile programs. Two North Korean defectors shared their stories. The hosts pointed to Pyongyang’s use of forced labor to earn revenue and other abuses used to fund its weapons program while its population struggles with food insecurity. China blocked the hosts from airing the meeting on the U.N. website and their representative said the session was not constructive.

— Humanitarian efforts continued this week to assist victims of Cyclone Freddy in Malawi and Mozambique. Search-and-rescue operations continue in Malawi and aid efforts are scaling up as floodwaters subside. Aid workers are mobilizing air transport and boats to ship supplies to areas that cannot be reached by road. In Mozambique, the U.N. is working with authorities to reach more than 49,000 displaced people and access areas that remain cut off by floodwaters. The U.N. says cholera is also spreading and there is a shortage of water purification supplies. On Thursday, the U.N. released $10 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund for cyclone relief.

­— The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously on Thursday to renew its assistance mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, for another year. In a second decision, the council was also united in passing a resolution calling on the secretary-general to launch an independent assessment for an international approach to Afghanistan. The panel would report to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres by mid-November with recommendations for an “integrated and coherent approach” to dealing with humanitarian, political and development challenges in the country.

— The secretary-general announced the members of his next Youth Climate Advisory Group on Thursday. The seven young climate leaders come from Colombia, Gambia, Ireland, Philippines, Poland, St. Lucia and the United States and will each serve a two-year term. Guterres has said that young people are on the front lines of the climate fight and are central to keeping society on track to meet global goals to slow the planet’s warming. The U.N. says the advisers will work with youth climate movements and leaders around the world to bring youth perspectives and solutions directly to the secretary-general and to major climate decision-making meetings.

Next week

March 22 is World Water Day and the U.N. will mark it this year with a three-day conference on charting a course to a more water-secure world. The U.N. says by the end of this decade, the global demand for fresh water is expected to exceed supply by 40%. The conference will look at ways to integrate water and climate policies for current realities. A major outcome is expected in the Water Action Agenda, which will include commitments from governments, businesses, civil society and other groups.

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Donors Pledge More Than $850M for Venezuelan Refugees

International donors pledged more than $850 million at a conference in Brussels to help support millions of refugees and migrants who have fled Venezuela, the European Union said on Friday.

The EU and Canada co-hosted the two-day meeting aimed at raising awareness and funds to help tackle what they call one of the world’s largest displacement crises.

“Almost 810 million euros [$860 million] have been pledged at the 2023 Solidarity Conference with Venezuelans and their hosts,” European crisis management commissioner Janez Lenarcic said. “I am encouraged by the renewed commitment of the international community.”

More than 7 million Venezuelans have left their country, propelled by grinding poverty and a political crisis, according to estimates by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

Among the main pledges were $171 million from the United States, $80 million from the EU and $42 million from Canada.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government had accused Canada and the European Union of convening a “hostile” conference that politicizes migration.

Caracas strongly objected to the International Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants and their Host Countries and Communities, with the foreign ministry calling it a “spectacle that only serves the commercial interests of some participants.”

The UNHCR and International Organization for Migration, which were both involved in the conference, had urged increased international support for Venezuelan refugees and migrants and the Latin American and Caribbean countries that host them.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi thanked the EU and Canada for hosting the event. He called the plight of the Venezuelan refugees “one of many dimensions of human mobility in the Americas that need humanitarian and development responses.”

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White House Celebrates St. Patrick’s Day With Irish PM Ahead of Biden’s Ireland Trip

U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Friday, part of the longstanding White House tradition of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations of Irish culture in the United States.

“It’s a big day in my grandparents’ household, our household, big day here,” Biden told Varadkar in reference to his Irish heritage. “Ireland and the United States share great friendship and long, long traditions,” added the president, who was wearing a green tie and shamrock in his suit pocket, traditional Irish symbols.

Varadkar thanked Biden for his “support and understanding for our position on Brexit.”

During negotiations on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, also known as Brexit, the Irish government pushed to include the Northern Ireland Protocol, designed to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.

The Irish government feared that a hard border could threaten the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace deal that ended decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland over the question of whether it should unify with Ireland or remain part of the UK.

Under the 2021 protocol, Northern Ireland remains in UK customs territory, but it follows many EU rules and regulations.

“And we’ve got to a good place now I think with the Windsor framework, where we can have an agreement that lasts,” Varadkar noted, referring to the post-Brexit deal designed to fix trade issues under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The White House said the framework is an important step in maintaining the peace accord.

Biden is expected to visit Ireland in coming weeks to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The White House has not officially announced the trip, but Varadkar said he was looking forward to it.

“I promise you that we’re going to roll out the red carpet and it’s going to be a visit like no other,” Varadkar said.

Support for Ukraine

Biden thanked Varadkar for his support in Ukraine. “It means a great deal, speaking out against Russian aggression,” he said.

The taoiseach, as the Irish prime minister is officially known, in turn thanked Biden for his leadership against Moscow.

“I never thought we’d see a war like this happen in Europe in my lifetime,” Varadkar said, repeating a line often used by Western leaders that his country will stand with Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”

After their meeting, Biden and Varadkar headed to Capitol Hill for a Friends of Ireland Caucus luncheon hosted by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, before returning to the White House for a St. Patrick’s Day reception in the evening, where the taoiseach presents the president with a crystal bowl full of shamrocks, as per tradition.

St. Patrick’s Day in-person meetings at the White House and lunch with congressional leaders at the Capitol were suspended the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 44-year-old Varadkar served as prime minister from 2017 to 2020 before returning to the office in December 2022 and was the last Irish leader to visit the White House in person in March 2020 under former president Donald Trump. Biden met with Varadkar’s predecessor, Micheal Martin, virtually in 2021 because of the pandemic, and virtually in 2022, after Martin tested positive for COVID-19 while already in Washington.

With Indian heritage from his father’s side, Varadkar is the first minority taoiseach in the country’s history. He also is the first openly gay Irish leader.

Prior to his White House engagement, Varadkar and his partner, Matthew Barrett, attended a breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, at the vice president’s official residence.

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Western Donors Pressed to Sanction Rwanda as DRC Violence Escalates

Around 100,000 people in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have fled their homes following a string of recent attacks, and fighting between M23 rebels and government forces, according to the United Nations. The U.N. accuses Rwanda of backing the rebels, a claim Rwanda denies.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says at least 800,000 people have been forced to flee the fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in the past 12 months. Many are living in refugee camps in the DRC and in neighboring countries.

Espoir Ndagije, who fled to a camp in Goma in the DRC, said he had no choice.

“Coming here to Goma was the only option because the M23 rebels control all the other territories. Life is hard here. We need help,” Ndagije told Agence France-Presse.

M23 rebels

The M23 rebels claim they are defending ethnic Tutsis in the eastern DRC, drawing on longstanding tensions between Tutsis and Hutus that led to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when over half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by armed Hutu militia forces.

The heavily armed M23 rebel group has seized swathes of territory in the DRC’s North Kivu province since reemerging in late 2021.

A panel of United Nations experts released a report in December that found widespread evidence that Rwanda was supporting the M23 rebels and sending its own troops over the border. The rebel group is accused of conducting widespread atrocities, including the arbitrary slaughter of civilians and mass rape.

The DRC, the European Union and the United States also blame Rwanda for supporting the insurgency.

Following the visit of a U.N delegation to the region this week, the DRC’s minister of humanitarian affairs, Modeste Mutinga Mutushayi, called on the rebels to withdraw.

“We are all listening, hoping that clear instructions, clear messages, will be sent to Rwanda and to the M23 so that on the 31 (of March) at the latest, our territory can be liberated,” Mutushayi told reporters March 12.

France’s ambassador the United Nations, Nicolas De Rivière, was also part of the delegation. He urged a political solution and said the U.N. Security Council will address the conflict.

“It is clear that Rwanda supports the M23,” De Rivière said. “It is also clearly established that there are incursions by the regular Rwandan army in North Kivu and that this too is unacceptable. So, this is one of the subjects that must be discussed (at the U.N. Security Council) and it must stop.”

Rwandan backing

Observers say the evidence of Rwandan involvement is clear.

“The weaponry they have, the Kevlar jackets they have, the backpacks, the RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], these are all identical to what the Rwandan army sports when it goes into battle. So essentially, it’s just a branch of the Rwandan army,” said Michela Wrong, a British journalist focusing on the Great Lakes region and author of a recent book on Rwanda, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad.

However, Rwanda has denied supporting M23 rebels and accuses Kinshasa of supporting Hutu rebels. At a March 1 news conference in Kigali, Rwandan President Paul Kagame accused his critics of ignoring history.

“People who want a short cut blame it all on Rwanda,” Kagame told reporters. “In Congo, there are over 120 armed groups, of which M23 is only one of them. … This fighting that started a couple of years ago was not started by Rwanda by any means,” he said.

DRC resources

The DRC government suspects Rwanda is seeking control of its rich mineral resources.

“Ever since President Mobutu [Sese Seko] fled what was then Zaire in 1997, there’s been a long-standing tradition of neighboring Uganda and Rwanda reaching into Congo and hoovering up its ‘coltan’ [columbite-tantalite metallic ore] — which is what we use to make mobile phones — its diamonds, its gold, its tin,” said Wrong.

There are other possible drivers of the conflict. In 2021, the DRC signed a series of trade deals with its neighbor, Uganda. Analysts say Rwanda’s president disapproved.

“He felt sidelined. He felt bypassed,” Wrong told VOA. “He felt that he is the key player in the Great Lakes region, and he wasn’t easy with the idea that these two neighbors were getting on so well and that in [the] future economic trade was going to be bypassing Rwanda.”


French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to broker a cease-fire on a visit to the region earlier this month. In Kinshasa, a few dozen protesters demanded that Macron impose sanctions against Rwanda. Some burned the French flag, angered by a widespread perception of a close relationship between Macron and Kagame.

Macron insisted he would pressure Rwanda to end its support for the M23.

“France has consistently condemned the M23 and all those who support it. And I am here to make sure that everyone takes responsibility, including Rwanda,” he told reporters in Kinshasa on March 4.


Britain, meanwhile, has not directly blamed Rwanda for backing the M23. Critics say the British government is reluctant to criticize its African ally after striking a deal last year with Rwanda to send asylum-seekers there for processing.

“Rwanda is a key part of that plan, and so, as long as Britain is counting on Rwanda to play a role in its ‘Illegal Migration bill’ we’re not going to see any outspoken statements or any criticism of Rwanda coming from the British government, that’s absolutely clear,” said Wrong.

“So, I’m afraid Britain is highly compromised on this issue and it’s not going to form part of a united donor front and that’s what we need.”

The British government did not respond directly to VOA requests for comment on the accusation that it is failing to criticize Rwanda due to the migrant deal. Government ministers have previously called on all parties to end support for rebel groups and commit to peaceful dialogue.

Rwandan donors

Western aid donors to Rwanda should present the country with a united front, Wrong said.

“What we saw in 2012 when the M23 was previously in action in eastern Congo and creating massive floods of displaced people was that Western donors got together and announced that they were cutting aid. And very, very quickly, you saw M23 fighters withdrawing to Uganda and Rwanda. It was a really startlingly fast reaction.”

“At the moment, what you’re seeing is Western donors, who — because they are not all agreed and they haven’t presented a united front — all they’re doing is just expressing public dismay. But that’s not going to cut it,” Wrong added.

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Xi to Visit Putin in Russia Next Week

Chinese President Xi Jinging is making a state visit next week to Russia where he will meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin from Monday to Wednesday, China and the Kremlin said Friday. 

The two last met in China last year when Putin attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics and in September at a regional conference in Uzbekistan.

Next week’s visit was announced a day after China urged Russia and Ukraine to begin peace talks to end their conflict. 

Russia invaded Ukraine more than a year ago. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday that Xi’s Russian visit will “promote strategic coordination and practical cooperation between the two countries and inject new impetus into the development of bilateral relations.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said last month that he would meet with Xi  after Xi called for talks between Russia and Ukraine.  

China and Russia have strengthened their ties in a number of fields and have entered what they say in a “no limits” partnership.   

Some information in this report came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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After War, Ukraine Might End Up Largest Minefield in World 

The Ukrainian government says that nearly one-third of its territory is mined, and that when the war ends, demining could last a decade or more. Evgeny Maslov has more in this story, narrated by Anna Rice. Videographer: Michael Eckels  

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