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.
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.
"There is no peace because of the Rwandans who came here," said Christine Kulu, who was selling peanuts along the muddy roadside. "We want them to go back."
One recent Saturday, Buraka walked through town to the local market, making himself available to militiamen who come there every week to sell cellphone scratch cards and sacks of beans and bananas, and who are sometimes ready to desert.
"That guy selling meat there, he is FDLR" and wants to leave, he said, walking by a butcher shop, avoiding direct eye contact.
Not too far away, a few militia leaders were meeting on the second floor of a tiny hotel, where there was a TV, a DVD player and plenty of Cokes. Among them was Commander Soleil Sadiki, whose real name is Kanzeguhera, and who is on the list of militia leaders wanted by the Rwandan government.
"They always tell lies," he said. "The biggest lie of all is that they call us genocidaires," or genocide participants.
The group's spokesman, who uses the nom de guerre La Forge Fils Bazeye, described the militia as a misunderstood organization whose goal is the protection of refugees and their return. It also wants political negotiations with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has refused to deal with the FDLR as a group.
"Kagame just wants to monopolize power, and that's how the Tutsis are," he said. "Inside their heart, the Rwandan government knows that if the FDLR goes back, they will not have a pretext to come here and loot minerals. So that is the problem."
Bazeye and other militia leaders also say the Rwandan Tutsis have not been fully held to account for massacres carried out in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.
The Rwandan army invaded eastern Congo in 1996 to dismantle massive Hutu refugee camps that had become a collective command center for leaders who carried out the genocide and were attempting to reorganize. Human rights groups have documented mass killings by Rwandan Tutsi soldiers during that time.
Bazeye said his 1-year-old daughter was killed clinging to her mother's back. "Was she a genocidaire?" he asked.
Other refugees here give similar accounts and question whether the Rwandan government really wants them back. "They take us all as genocidaires," said Juvenal Mapendo, a refugee and militia sympathizer who said his mother, father and two brothers were killed in the camps.
The U.N. official involved in the repatriation efforts said Rwanda often sends mixed signals to the Hutus living in eastern Congo. The return of 250,000 people, he noted, poses a serious land problem for the tiny, crowded nation.
"They say, 'Come,' and then politicians end their sentences with the word 'sanctions,' " the official said. "The perception among combatants is that Rwanda doesn't really want them to come back."
Uwonkunda said she is not exactly happy with the Rwandan government. She said her three brothers and three sisters were killed when Rwandan soldiers attacked the sprawling Mugunga refugee camp in 1996, and she blames Kagame for that.
Still, she said, she wants to go home, a place she last saw when she was 16.
"The Congolese in this village, they have been patient," Uwonkunda said. "But now when I see them, it's like they are sick of us. Because it's been a long time now."