Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Militias Fears Rwandan Return

Hutu fighters in eastern Congo say they face an uncertain future in Rwanda.
By Jacques Kahorha
Many of the estimated 6,000 Hutu militia fighters now in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, say they won’t be treated fairly if they return to Rwanda.

Many of these fighters say they fled Rwanda more than ten years ago as children, yet fear they will be accused of participating in the Rwandan genocide should they go back.

And although most live as renegade fighters, they say they’re better off in eastern Congo, despite mounting pressures from the Congolese and international communities for Hutus to return to Rwanda.

“Hutus are roughly treated by the leadership [of Rwanda],” said Lieutenant-Colonel Edmond Ngarambe, spokesman for the Abacunguzi, the militant wing of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR. He claims the Kigali government regards all Hutus as bearing responsibility for the Tutsi genocide.

Ngarambe spoke to IWPR at a mountain camp about 100 kilometres from the South Kivu capital of Bukavu in eastern DRC. The militia’s name means “liberators” or “saviors”.

The Hutu militia presence in the region is enormous. According to a recent United Nations report, 40 per cent of the North Kivu and South Kivu provinces are controlled by the FDLR.

Most Congolese want them to return to Rwanda. “The FDLR are controlling the administration, appointing and dismissing whoever they want, exploiting mines and buying weapons,” said Alexis Kanyenye, a Congolese political activist.

During this past January’s peace conference in Goma, participants unanimously called for the repatriation of FDLR because of the abuses they commit.

“I think we all agreed that we should [encourage] the FDLR to go to Rwanda before using armed forces,” said Pastor Desire Kajabika, a human rights activist in Goma. “This is to avoid the deterioration of the precarious humanitarian situation [in] our region.”

The Congolese responded to calls from the international community to accept the Hutus in 1994 when they fled the Tutsi army led by Paul Kagame, who is now Rwanda’s president. It is now time for the international community to help these same Hutus return, said Kajabika

But some suggest that the Hutus have little to gain and much to lose if they go back to Rwanda.

“It is stupid to think that they may agree to leave a country like ours in which they have got everything they need and many other advantages,” said Kanyenye. “The Congolese government has to use pressure on them, otherwise they will not leave.”

For much of this decade, the Abacunguzi have battled forces of Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda, who heads the National Congress for the Defense of People, CNDP, and claims that he is defending his ethnic Tutsi community against attacks by the FDLR.

Nkunda said the Hutu militias should be considered refugees, disarmed, and placed in refugees camps under the care of the UN.

“It is traumatising to see about 10,000 armed men … in a country without any control,” Nkunda told IWPR. “In other countries, when there are illegal immigrants, even if they are not armed, citizens are afraid and feel insecure. What about our country?”

The regional fighting involves a number of other groups, such as the Rally for Unity and Democracy, RUD, a Hutu militia that split from the FDLR, as well as others such as the Mai-Mai in Rutshuru and South Lubero areas.

Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Victor Amani, a RUD commander in Binza, about 100 km northwest of Goma, told IWPR that his group also defends ethnic Hutu.

“Our guns are used to protect our relatives who are refugees in Kivu,” said Amani. “As you know, their security is always disturbed by Laurent Nkunda, the FARDC and [UN] forces. We are obliged to fight to protect them.”

Congolese officials estimate that the FDLR has about 6,000 fighters in DRC, two-thirds of them from Rwanda. Rwandan officials, meanwhile, say they have a list of 6,974 Hutus who participated in the genocide and live in DRC.

The Rwandan list has been blamed for deterring many Hutus from returning to Rwanda.

“The Rwandan list recorded even young men who were less than 14 years old during the genocide,” said Masumbe Katangira, an expert on the FDLR and other local armed groups in Kivu. “This list blocks the repatriation process of FDLR to Rwanda, [as many of them] fear that they will be arrested.”

The Abacunguzi say many on the Rwandan list are being blamed unfairly.

“Only the courts can confirm whether a person committed genocide,” said Ngarambe. “Rwandan leaders are tarnishing our political party … saying that it belongs to people who committed genocide …but they are wrong.”

There may be some validity to Ngarambe’s claim.

According to research by Katangira, about 60 per cent of the FDLR are young men who were not part of the 1994 genocide. But they cannot go home because they are prevented from doing so by their officers.

Ngarambe denied this, saying that no one has been stopped from going back and few fear facing justice. But many doubt that the justice they might face will be fair.

Resolving the conflict in eastern Congo by convincing the FDLR to leave may be extremely difficult.

Among other problems, influential members of the FDLR who live in Europe are reportedly opposed to the idea, in part because the UN has frozen their assets and imposed an arms embargo on them

Then, as recently as March 15, the Congolese chief of staff, General Dieudonné Kayembe, launched military operations against the FDLR in Kivu, drawing a defiant reaction from the Abacunguzi.

“We are not afraid of these operations because they are part of our lives,” said Ngarambe. “Since 1990 we [have] fought, first in Rwanda and for some years now, in DRC.”

They have successfully battled both UN and Congolese forces in the past, he said.

RUD’s Amani suggested that rather than fighting, the international community should encourage Rwanda to enter into talks with Hutus.

“The dialogue we are requesting concerns power-sharing at a political level and in the army,” said Amani. “Power should be shared at all levels.”

But the authorities in Rwanda are not prepared to negotiate until the FDLR disarm. They say they are ready to welcome them back, although they insist that any rebel suspected of committing genocide will face justice.

James Kabareebe, the head of the Rwandan army, said, “We cannot negotiate with men holding illegal weapons in DRC, killing people and raping women. What I am requesting is that the [FDLR] drop their weapons and go back to Rwanda. There are so many FDLR who have already gone back – they do not have any problem.”

But the Abacunguzi are reluctant to comply. “We will not agree to be taken back to Rwanda like cattle to the cowshed,” said Ngarame.

René Abandi, a lawyer and spokesman for General Nkunda, insisted that the Hutus would not face execution if they return. “Rwanda abolished death penalty,” he said, and “this, I think, was to [encourage] the FDLR to go back to Rwanda, to rebuild their country.”

However, some former FDLR fighters who crossed back into Rwanda have returned after facing local community reconciliation councils called gacacas, which they claim are weighted against them.

“There is a problem with gacacas,” said RUD’s Amani. “That is the reason why, there are many returnees among us.”

Jacques Kahorha is an IWPR trainee.