U.N. Addresses Congo Conflict by Helping Hutus Return to Rwanda

In towns like Nyabiondo, home to many Rwandan Hutu refugees, FDLR rebels are entrenched and difficult to disarm. The Rwandan government calls them a genocidal organization, but FDLR leaders say their main goal is political negotiations.
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

NYABIONDO, Congo -- The couple had spent three hard years in a militia camp deep in the forests around this eastern Congolese village when they finally decided to escape.

Droselle Uwonkunda's husband, a militiaman, left first, and a few weeks ago she followed him -- hiking for four days through the rainy forest with their 7-year-old daughter, Grace, crossing rivers and sliding down muddy paths. When Grace was tired, Uwonkunda encouraged her with visions of where they were headed.

"I told her we are going to Rwanda, our beautiful country, with nice houses and good roads," she said, sitting in a grass-roofed gazebo in this village, where she is waiting to be repatriated. "I told her we are leaving the forest, and we are going home."

In some ways, the conflict in eastern Congo comes down to that elusive wish, one shared by hundreds of thousands of mostly Hutu refugees who fled here after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The Uwonkundas' ability to escape the ranks of a potent Hutu militia, formed in these borderlands by several dozen commanders who participated in the genocide, and return to their country is an essential step toward ending the fighting that has overwhelmed eastern Congo in recent weeks.

About 6,000 of the Hutu refugees make up the heavily armed militia group known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, which claims that its sole aim these days is the Rwandans' "dignified" return to their homes. That return is complicated, however, by the fear among Hutus here that comes with returning to a country now run by Tutsis, who took control of Rwanda in 1994 after Hutu militias and soldiers slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Though more than half a million Hutu refugees have returned to Rwanda over the past decade, the enduring presence of the militiamen in Congo's eastern mountains has perpetuated the conflict in this impoverished region with little government presence and a weak United Nations peacekeeping force. In recent weeks, Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi who claims he is protecting Congo's Tutsi minority from the genocidal intentions of the Hutu militia, has advanced across the east and threatened to plunge this vast Central African nation into a wider regional war.

Nkunda, whose biggest sympathizer is the government of Rwanda, alleges that the ramshackle Congolese army is collaborating with the militia and demands that it be disarmed. But Congo's government benefits from the presence of the hardened, well-organized fighting force that considers Nkunda its main enemy and that remains the only reliable buffer against his advance.

Even if the Congolese government wanted to disarm the militia, the task remains complicated by post-genocide Rwandan politics, intimidation by militia commanders, and the difficulty of coaxing militiamen and their families from the protection of the bush. That painstaking work goes on here in this tiny, dirt-road village where militiamen traipse about freely with AK-47 assault rifles slung across their shoulders.

On the edge of town, a small team of U.N. demobilization workers and peacekeepers makes its presence known to the Hutu militiamen and their families via word-of-mouth networks and radio broadcasts that extend into the hills. Then they wait.

"It's like they are living under a dictatorship," said Pascale Buraka, one of the six Congolese demobilization experts here. "The only ideology their leaders give them is that in Rwanda there is no life, in Rwanda they will go to jail, in Rwanda they will live even a harder life than in the bush."

According to Buraka and others, the rank-and-file militiamen -- while guilty of various human rights violations in Congo -- are essentially being held hostage to serve the interests of a core leadership of about 50 aging genocide participants wanted by Rwandan authorities.

The leaders use militiamen to guard and work in the lucrative gold, coltan ore, copper and cassiterite mines that are exploited by all parties to eastern Congo's conflict, including Nkunda, Rwanda and the Congolese army. The leaders have passports, travel abroad and send their children to school in Europe. One of the main leaders lives in Germany; another has settled in the New Jersey suburbs.

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