Coming Home to Rwanda

In a surprising turn of events, a new alliance between Rwanda and Congo is drawing many former Hutu guerrillas home to live at peace among their former enemies

demobilization camp in congo
A "demobilization" camp for former Hutu soldiers in Mutobo, Rwanda

Photos by Michael Graham

MUTOBO, RWANDA—Picture a battle-hardened group of ruthless killers living peacefully in a community with no fences and no security guards. The setting is a run-down collection of corrugated aluminum barracks, nestled beneath spectacular sloping green hills.

We were at a “demobilization” camp inside Rwanda. Kigigi, the young man with whom I was speaking, had for two years been a bit player in one of the world’s most brutal conflicts—the long wars in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, previously known as Zaire. This 20-year-old refugee from Rwanda had been a soldier in the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a violent guerrilla army accused of widespread rape, massacres, looting and pillage across swaths of ungoverned territory in the DRC and western Rwanda.

The conflict had begun with the 1994 genocide, in which Hutu extremists slaughtered some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda. The Hutu were eventually largely driven from Rwanda, into the Democratic Republic of Congo. But from there they continued to menace Rwandans across the border. In the mid-‘90s, Rwanda’s leader, Paul Kagame, sent troops into Congo in pursuit of these marauding Hutu soldiers. The situation then metastasized into a complex free-for-all, involving several neighboring countries and local armies, and fueled in part by a struggle for control of gold, copper, coltan (found in cell phone chips around the world) and other resources. The culture of lawlessness that prevails has helped turn eastern Congo into the rape capital of the world. And, according to the International Rescue Committee, since 1998, as many as 5.4 million civilians have died from malnutrition, disease, and violence, making this crisis far deadlier even than the better-known war to the north in Darfur, Sudan.

In recent months, however, things have begun to take a curious—and potentially positive—turn. Congo and Rwanda, which for years have been on opposite sides of the war, are now apparently working together. In January, in an about-face, Rwanda arrested Laurent Nkunda, a man believed to be one of Rwanda’s leading proxy commanders. Shortly afterwards, Congo joined Rwanda in joint operations taking aim at the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – the violent guerrilla army organized by Hutus exiled from Rwanda, who still harbor dreams of retaking power. Congo and Rwanda’s collaborative efforts have succeeded in flushing out hundreds of these Hutu guerrillas, sending them to this “demobilization” camp near the Congo/Rwanda border (where they are re-educated to coexist with their former enemies) for peaceful repatriation to their country of birth.

It was on a visit to one of these demobilization camps that I met Kigigi and heard his story. The camp is now home to some 500 former members of the FDLR— some here voluntarily, some by compulsion—who have given up their fight and begun the process of re-entering Rwandan society.

Most of the young men I met there had harrowing tales to tell (translated by a camp official from their native Kinyarwandan) of having grown up in refugee camps without parents or much extended family. These soldiers had been minors at the time of the Rwanda genocide and professed to have little direct knowledge of the killings. They portrayed themselves as unwilling fighters who had participated in the war through coercion and said they were not even sure why the FDLR continues to fight, given that its long-term goal of overthrowing Rwanda’s government seems to have passed it by.

former hutu guerrilla
Kigigi, a former guerrilla soldier in the FDLR

Kigigi’s story was typical. Short and squat, with powerfully built biceps, he told me that his parents had fled with him to a refugee camp near Goma in 1994. His parents died soon afterwards, so he was raised by other family and friends. When he was nine, he began to attend a school operated by the FDLR in Congo. At 18, he joined the FDLR army, serving as an aide to a commander whose nom de guerre was Commander Rommel (after the German general of WWII). A few months ago, Rommel and dozens of his soldiers decided to abandon the fight and return peacefully to Rwanda. They had to plan their actions secretly because the FDLR threatens to kill anyone who drops out.  Tired of conflict, Kigigi says, he’s now hoping to return to school and study to be a mechanic.

Of course, the FDLR is hardly the only actor driving the violence in Congo, where other armed groups—including the underpaid, undertrained Congolese army—are widely seen as constant threats to defenseless villagers. But on both sides of the border, authorities believe they can take the edge off the conflict by convincing all but the most battle-hardened FDLR guerrillas that their future lies in returning peacefully to Rwanda. One way they do this is by treating the returnees with respect and forbearance; the camp in Mutobo has no fences or security guards, and its inhabitants are encouraged to visit their families on unaccompanied furloughs. Many have wives and children living with them.

On the day I visited the camp last week, it was “spring break”: Most of the residents had gone off on family visits, leaving behind just a few former soldiers to watch television, play soccer and otherwise idle away the time until “sensitization” classes (on subjects like human rights, violence against women, patriotism and the 1994 genocide) were to begin again in a week or so. Those leaving on the break had received funds to travel home for several days. And when their program is complete in a few months, they’ll receive the equivalent of  roughly $250 in Rwandan money to get started on their new lives.

The residents, most of them young, clad in jeans and fraying tee-shirts, watched us intently, as we looked around the camp, dodging the cows that loitered in the path and poking our heads inside the spare dormitories. Rows of metal bunk beds were arranged close together on cement floors and a handful of sports posters hung on the walls.

Kigigi told me he is convinced that many of the 5,000 or so FDLR soldiers remaining in Congo would be happy to defect if only they knew that they would not be killed if they come back to Rwanda. Others I spoke with in the region, however, were more skeptical.  Many FDLR soldiers simply have no trust that they will be treated fairly by their former enemies, no matter what blandishments may be offered by the government. (Indeed, they responded to the recent Rwanda-Congo operation by staging a new round of attacks on civilians.) But Rwanda appears to be betting that by seeking stability over retributive justice, it can eventually douse the fires that have for so long fanned the war. Many of the FDLR soldiers in custody almost certainly committed terrible crimes in Congo—“looting, killing, rape, mass atrocities,” one international civil servant told me. But unless they were involved in the 1994 genocide, they will go unpunished.

“Please come home” is the message Rwanda is sending to its refugees in Congo: Whether or not they listen may go a long way toward determining the future course of this long-running conflict.