The M23 rebel group gave back a key military base in eastern DRCongo on Friday, the latest move in its pledge to retreat from conquered territories after months of advancing toward Goma.
Local residents gave a cautious welcome to the handover ceremony near Rumangabo, the Congolese army's largest base in the region, just 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of the capital.
"We're happy because God has freed us from this open-air prison," said Nyiramwiza, 35, carrying a baby on her back.
"It was a nightmare. We were even scared to go the field just to get water."
Taken over by the Tutsi-led M23 two months ago, Rumangabo was silent and already overgrown with vegetation that made it feel abandoned, according to AFP journalists allowed to cover the handover.
It was overseen by Kenyan forces deployed by the East African Community (EAC), and followed a similar handover last month at a base in Kibumba, around 20 kilometres to the south.
But even after promising to pull back its positions, M23 forces have gained ground elsewhere, raising doubts about the future of the year-long conflict.
"EAC forces will continue to coordinate M23's systematic retreat and asks other armed groups to put down their weapons," said General Emmanuel Kaputa Kasenga, deputy commander of the East African contingent.
'Living in prison'
Imani Nzenze, described as an M23 colonel, told attendees that the rebels, who captured Goma in 2012 before being driven out the following year, had no plans to "conquer territory."
But he made no secret of the group's intention to retaliate if attacked by the DRCongo army or its allies.
"The rebels are leaving but they are still in other areas," said Innocent Bwenge, 38, adding that his village home near Rumangabo was ransacked during the base's occupation.
Another woman, 65-year-old Semahane, said her children had been trapped in Goma since the start of the fighting.
"We've had no peace because the road is blocked. It's like living in prison," she said.
Abandoned homes with smashed front doors were strewn along the highway leading from Rumangabo to Goma, an area that saw fierce fighting in November.
No cars were seen on the road partially blocked by a destroyed army tank.
M23, whose name stands for "the March 23 Movement," again took up its weapons against the government in late 2021, accusing Kinshasa of failing to respect promises to reintegrate the rebels into the army.
After M23 announced its withdrawal from Kibumba last month, the Congolese army slammed the move as a sham designed to distract as the group reinforced its positions elsewhere.
Since then, clashes between the M23, Congolese troops and rival militias have continued.