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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.

Meanwhile, the rank-and-file militiamen, of whom about two-thirds were preteens during the Rwandan genocide, lead comparatively miserable lives in the forest, where they are subjected to a kind of psychological warfare.

According to one U.N. official involved in the demobilization effort, the militia has a special force, known by the acronym CRAP, whose sole purpose is to intimidate the soldiers into staying in the bush.

"They make the combatants think this unit is everywhere, that there are spies," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. "Every month they make an example of someone -- they beat him, or execute him, accusing him of wanting to desert, even if it's not true. It works very well."

Although the militiamen and their family members occasionally desert in groups, they usually come out one by one, each with his or her own epic tale.

Last week, Uwonkunda and her daughter arrived, exhausted and hungry. Like many, she and her husband had heard the U.N. radio broadcasts, which explain, among other things, that anyone younger than 14 during the genocide is granted amnesty in Rwanda.

"I heard those already in Rwanda explaining on the radio how we could come through Nyabiondo," Uwonkunda said. "They were saying Rwanda is peaceful."

The week before, the demobilization team received a militia lieutenant and a nurse. The week before that, a woman arrived at the camp with her husband; she had walked a solid month from Rwanda into Congo to persuade him to leave. Last month, a militiaman sent out a plea to a team member via text message:

"Come quickly to pick me I don't want people to know my secret," it read.

And so the work goes, month after month. A fighter arrives, hands in his AK-47, gets a cold shower, some food and often the first mattress he's seen in years. There is an interview, a helicopter ride to the provincial capital and finally a truck to Rwanda, where ex-combatants go through training intended to transform them into civilians.

At the end, they get a certificate and $306, courtesy of the World Bank.

Since March, about 90 militiamen have defected, along with 60 family members. Congolese villagers say they often see the defectors back in Nyabiondo soon afterward, however.

"They go back to Rwanda, and after two months, I see them back in this town," said Ferdinand Bazungu, adding that fighting between the militia and Nkunda's rebels has destroyed the town at least twice.

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