Displaced Congolese Return To Prospect of More Violence

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 25, 2009

KIBUMBA, Congo, Jan. 24 -- With the menacing rebels gone and the equally menacing Congolese army again patrolling this muddy market village, people who fled months of fighting have begun to return, hoping for a life better than one lived in a banana-leaf hut in a cold displacement camp.

What they have found here is more uncertainty: homes wrecked and looted, and this week, the unwelcome surprise of thousands of Rwandan soldiers traipsing across the hilly green border, loaded down with machine guns and grenade launchers.

"They passed through today with all kinds of guns and new weapons," said Anastase Kazibaki, 25, a farmer, referring to an hours-long march of Rwandan soldiers through here Saturday morning. "We were so afraid that we started packing our luggage again."

The Rwandan soldiers are participating in an offensive with Congolese troops aimed at disarming thousands of Rwandan Hutu militiamen who fled into eastern Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The continued presence of the militias, known as the FDLR, has been a perpetual source of tension between Congo and neighboring Rwanda, and the deal to finally disarm them could be a step toward solving one of Africa's most intractable conflicts, some analysts say.

But human rights groups have warned that the operation could degenerate into another disaster for Congolese villagers, who live like prisoners among the militias across the densely forested east.

John Prendergast, co-chairman of the Enough Project, an organization that aims to end genocide, said the United States could play a key role in preventing a new crisis by pushing Rwanda to reintegrate FDLR militiamen who turn themselves in and did not participate in the 1994 genocide, for instance. Without that sort of international pressure, he said, the operation "could end up being a civilian blood bath."

That possibility is not lost on people here.

"They are coming to track the FDLRs, but the FDLRs look just like us," said Simba Kambale, 27, a taxi driver who was among those trying to resume a normal life here, catching up with neighbors, getting children back in school, buying tomatoes for dinner.

At least nine FDLR militiamen were killed Saturday in fighting between the FDLR and the joint Rwandan-Congolese forces, according to Congolese military officials.

Meanwhile, a delegation of those officials sped Saturday afternoon in a convoy of Land Rovers and trucks up to Rutshuru, a main town just north of here, to inform locals of the operation against the militias and ask for support.

But people remained rather bewildered by the sudden turn of events over the past week. On Wednesday, Rwandan troops began pouring across the border. On Thursday, the Rwandans arrested their former ally, Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, whose recent advance across this region displaced at least 250,000 people. On Friday and Saturday, the Rwandan troops kept coming, making their way down a narrow dirt road that leads from Rwanda to this village in the misty, green foothills.

"The unarmed people are going to suffer so much," said Kinongo Bahati, 33, an English teacher who heard about the joint operation on local radio. "But maybe it's not bad, because the FDLR also has made us suffer very much."

Over the past decade, Congolese villagers have dodged conflicts involving at least 20 rebel and militia groups, including the FDLR, or Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

Rwanda invaded Congo in 1996 to hunt down the Hutu militias, massacring Hutu refugees in the process, according to human rights groups.

In recent years, Rwanda relied on Nkunda to battle the Hutu militias, who say their only goal is the "dignified" return of Hutu refugees to Rwanda. Nkunda made a career out of the cause, saying he was protecting Congo's Tutsi minority from a genocidal menace. In reality, though, Nkunda's rebels were brutal, often accusing villagers of supporting the Hutu militias and summarily executing them.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company