AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo consolidated their hold on the key border city of Goma today after a surprisingly quick takeover yesterday. The U.N. has demanded that the so-called M23 rebels withdraw, while Congolese government has refused to negotiate with them. Meanwhile, leaders from Congo, Rwanda and Uganda are all meeting in Kampala to discuss the problem. NPR's John Burnett was in Goma today and sent this report.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Congolese rebels' cakewalk into Goma has humiliated the national army and the U.N. peacekeepers, according to interviews with disgusted Goma residents today. To a person, they expressed dismay that the government armed forces melted away and that U.N. troops held their fire in the face of a determined but relatively small rebel army.
JOEL BAHATI CELESTIN: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: It was very sad for us when we saw the government soldiers run away and leave the province unprotected and let the outsiders takeover, says Joel Bahati Celestin, hanging out in front of a tire-patch shop with dozens of other men. Fungulo Pastor, a shoe repairman, had a very different take on the rebels.
FUNGULO PASTOR: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: It was a surprise for us to see the insurgence, but we welcomed them, he says. We're happy because we're very tired with our government. We were happy when we saw the M23. They're like a new stepdad who you can look to as a new father.
In this raw, impoverished city of 600,000 with its intermittent electricity, tortuous streets and shantytowns, it's no wonder that some residents welcomed the rebels as an alternative to the distant federal government. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the size of Western Europe, and the far eastern Kivu provinces have long suffered isolation and marauding warlords. Angel Nyabade, a hefty woman in a white headscarf selling bananas across from the U.N. compound, has this to say.
ANGEL NYABADE: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: U.N. peacekeepers haven't done anything here, or the army. That's why the M23 took us over. Asked if residents were anxious about the heavily armed rebels patrolling the town in pickup trucks, she spat out, we're not afraid. We're hungry. After Mama Angel has her say, a man pokes his head up and says he has a question for a reporter.
UNIDENTIFED MAN #1: This guy has a question.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
NYABADE: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: He asks earnestly, since they're not protecting the population, what exactly are U.N. troops doing in Goma? The United Nations maintains its largest peacekeeping force in the world in this country. After the national army fled, the 1,500 peacekeepers stationed in Goma opted not to defend the city. One U.N. official was quoted as saying, "We are not the Congolese army. It's not our position to stop a rebel attack."
The Congolese government, the U.N. Group of Experts and many foreign diplomats accuse neighboring Rwanda of being behind this rebel movement, a charge that Rwanda strenuously denies. But several people interviewed in Goma today suspect as much. A ramp agent at the airport who gave his name as John said quietly, this movement is for Rwanda, not for Congo. John Burnett, NPR News, Goma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.