After being robbed at gunpoint in Congo, I witnessed a homecoming in Rwanda

April 1

Editor's note: Jahi Chikwendiu is a Washington Post photographer who traveled to Congo in 2009. There, he met a Rwandan Hutu rebel who for the first time in 15 years was going back home. Chikwendiu followed the rebel from Congo to Rwanda. 


Members of the Congolese Army patrol the village of Kibumba in Congo. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

I never thought I would be so calm at gunpoint.

There I was, standing amid the lush green forests in the eastern Congo countryside, as two men in military camouflage pointed an assault rifle at me, taking away my cameras and computer. I imagined they wouldn't kill us right after they tossed my passport and wallet — they took the money I had in it — at my feet. They let me keep my bag of clothes because it may have been too heavy for them to carry. A part of me wanted to beg the robbers to let me keep all the memory cards and hard drives, but I immediately realized that keeping my mouth shut would probably be the best way to stay alive.

With all my gear and gadgets gone, I'd lost thousands of images, which told stories of the people and places we had come across in our journey. Thankfully, the robbers had not stripped me of the cash stash I'd separately hidden in my body underneath layers of clothes. With spirits dented, we drove back to the nearest town where, right before we were robbed, we had passed a group of heavily-armed militiamen. There wasn’t a single civilian in sight. My colleague Stephanie McCrummen and I reported the robbery to a military commander who was in charge of the town.

The commander insisted on buying us soft drinks. There was something comical about sipping lukewarm "cold" drinks, and reporting the incident to the head of a group that was dressed and armed exactly like the two men who had just robbed us.

The commander then asked us to get on the back of the truck along with more men dressed and armed like the robbers. They shouted at us, “Take us to the scene where the robbery happened.”

All I could imagine was that either these men were part of the whole plot or that we’re about to get caught up in some sort of a shootout with those heavily armed robbers. The words "at a gunfight without a gun” kept replaying in my head.

Luckily, the driver kept a hidden cellphone in his truck in case of such emergencies. I called my editor back in Washington and explained to him what had happened. I was more hyped telling my editor the story than I was during the incident. My editor's next question caught me by surprise.

“What do you think’s the best way to get some camera equipment and go back into Congo?” he asked.

Although a part of me was already looking forward to heading home, I was glad my editor asked me to plan getting back to Congo. The closest and cheapest place to get used camera equipment was South Africa. In a few days, I would be back through Rwanda into eastern Congo with a less stellar camera and computer gear. I thought to myself, if I were going to be robbed again, they would only be getting away with old gear.

Three days after getting robbed, I returned to eastern Congo. That's when I met Leonard Hakorimano. He, along with his wife and two sons, was among the thousands of Rwandan Hutu militiamen who had emerged in eastern Congo seeking repatriation back into his homeland. Every person we came across had a good story, but something about Hakorimano's was very powerful. I was drawn toward the hope he carried in his eyes, like he had been searching for someone for all these years.


Former Rwandan rebel Leonard Hakokimano left his country in 1994 after the genocide. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Hakorimano had left Rwanda and fled to eastern Congo in 1994, when he had just turned 16. It was the year of the Rwandan genocide, when roughly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed within 100 days by Hutu extremists, and the last time he had seen his family. Now, he was among several hundred rebels returning to Rwanda for the first time in 15 years.

In the days before, Hakorimano had dressed and armed himself like the men who had robbed us in the bushes in Congo. But at this camp run by the United Nations, all repatriating militiamen had turned in their weapons and uniforms in return for civilian clothes, a few meals, sleeping mats and a ride back with their families to their Rwandan hometowns.

Hakorimano would return, not knowing whether any of his relatives had survived, to what was the family farm where he grew up dreaming of one day becoming a judge. He hadn't seen his mother since he lost her in the forest after his village came under attack in 1994. As we weaved through the mountains, I felt nervous for Hakorimano, who was nervously twisting his mouth, chewing the inside of his lips. We were relieved to find his uncle, who told him that his mother was still alive, and took him to her.


Hakokimano is astonished to see his mother for the first time in 15 years. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

With tears in her eyes, Patricia Nyira Habimana simply stood and stared at her son she had lost a decade and a half ago.

Witnessing this one moment between Hakorimano and his mother felt like it somehow balanced the loss of an entire month of work, with a gun pointed at my chest.

See more photographs from the journey.

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