A Brief History of Congolese Rebel Leader Laurent Nkunda

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Lionel Healing / AFP / Getty

Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.

War, famine and disease have killed more than 5 million Congolese citizens in the past decade and it's hard not to lay a good part of the blame at the feet of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.

Nkunda is the leader of a group of rebels who have been fighting the Congolese army and other militias off and on since 1998, creating violent upheaval in the eastern province of the country where between 100,000 and 200,000 people have been driven from their homes in the recent weeks. (Between 1 and 2 million have been displaced since 2007 in the region.) Despite several attempts at cease-fires, peace agreements and negotiations between his group and the democratically elected government, Nkunda has refused to lay down his arms since he formed his rebel faction in 2004. ((See pictures of the humanitarian disaster in Congo.)

Aid agencies and other critics call Nkunda a power-obsessed warlord whose troops have raped and terrorized civilians in a quest to control a part of Congo with rich farmland and valuable mineral deposits. Nkunda, of course, sees things differently. He professes to be a protector and liberator of ethnic Tutsis like himself, still hunted by Rwandan Hutus who crossed the border into Congo after the genocide of the mid-1990s.

In 2003, the Congolese government sketched out an agreement where rebels and militias would join together in a national army. Nkunda was eventually offered the post of general, but instead defected; he has been fighting for the disarmament of Rwandan Hutus in eastern Congo ever since. Despite the 2006 election of a democratic government — not to mention the presence of 18,000 United Nations peacekeepers — efforts to achieve peace have been stymied, in part, because of Nkunda's resistance. His rebel group recently took over a national park that's a sanctuary for endangered gorillas, forcing park rangers to flee. Human Rights Watch has pleaded with the Congolese government to capture Nkunda and prosecute him for war crimes. (See pictures of Congo's child soldiers.)

Fast Facts:

•Nkunda is in his 40s and is married with children. He has been a soldier since 1993.
•He studied psychology at the university level and is fluent in English.
•He is a self-described devout Pentecostal Christian and sometimes wears a pin that says, "Rebels for Christ." He says he prays every day and claims many of his soldiers have converted to the faith.
•He is a native of North Kivu, an eastern Congolese province that shares a border with Rwanda.
•He is almost always photographed in a military outfit, wearing sunglases.