, BUNAGANA, October 19 – "Welcome to liberated Congo," greets Oscar Mugabu, an elated supporter of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda whose fighters control this town in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Jubilant residents of Bunagana, which borders Uganda, are revelling in the rule of Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), which recently won the defection of two lawmakers to its side.
The rebels and government troops have clashed regularly since fighting resumed on August 28 in eastern DRC in violation of a ceasefire reached under the Goma peace accord in January.
But one Nkunda aide who spoke on condition of anonymity boasted of relative peace in this rebel-controlled territory.
Women walked freely in Bunagana’s main road, a group of boys kicked about a deflated football while a dunkard mumbled and shouted in the middle of the road.
A ceremony in the town’s trading centre on Friday ushered the defection of the politicians and other leaders from DRC’s eastern Nord-Kivu province from the provincial and national governments.
"Those of you who no longer have fear, put your hands up," Vicente Mwanbusta, a local leader and a Nkunda loyalist asked a crowd attending the ceremony.
Many raised their hands, feeling compelled as dozens of politicians and local leaders peered intently at them.
Some 100 provincial and local officials in both Nord- and Sud-Kivu regions who were previously willing to work with Kinshasa have now decided to ally themselves with Nkunda, according to a spokesman for the rebel leader.
While the CNDP tried on Friday to show that it could offer peace, it also took the opportunity to demonstrate it was prepared to use force.
At the celebration, marked with speeches from various politicians, fighters rolled through the town in massive trucks carrying heavy artillery, grenade launchers and other weapons.
Dozens of Nkunda’s fighters brandished the weapons to boast a series of supposed victories against government forces from whom they claim they seized the arsenal.
A young boy, among many locals who were eager to take a closer look at the weapons, stared down the barrel of a grenade launcher at a field where the arsenal was displayed.
After the daylong festivities, the politicians and the fighters gathered at a guest house to feast on beans, rice, roasted potatoes and meat stew washed down with beers and sodas.
The banquet crescendoed into songs at sun set, while those who extended into late night gatherings shared Bible passages.
As the sun rose over the volcanic mountains that sketch Bunagana’s skyline, Mugabu told AFP why the he believed the rebel cause was worthwhile.
"All around Congo people are suffering. Civil servants are on strike. Schools are closed. Hospitals are closed. The government has been given a chance. It has failed," he said.
CNDP executive committee spokesman Major Mbera Castro told AFP that Nkunda forces expect to engage in clashes with the government again in the coming days, although he did not specify when.