By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
GOMA, Congo, Feb. 3 -- With their wives and children, the Rwandan militiamen are arriving from the bush here in eastern Congo by the truckload. Skinny and tired, they have voluntarily surrendered their weapons and say they are ready to go home.
"The international community has set plans to help us surrender, so we decided to go back to Rwanda," said Antoine Uwumukiza, who fled across the border to Congo 15 years ago along with hundreds of thousands of other Rwandan Hutus and was waiting here the other day in a dirty white tent to be repatriated. "We've heard people say, 'In Rwanda, there is a good government,' and we have decided to go see if it's propaganda."
A potentially brutal joint Congolese-Rwandan military operation underway across these lush hills is aimed at forcibly disarming the estimated 6,500 Rwandan Hutu militiamen who organized in Congo after the genocide in their country in 1994, when Hutu extremists killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
At the same time, growing numbers of the fighters -- many of whom were only boys when they fled Rwanda -- are choosing to lay down their weapons and volunteer for repatriation as part of a long-standing U.N. operation to peacefully entice the militiamen and their families out of the bush. But as the numbers swell for the first time in years, the United Nations is struggling to keep up.
"We have responsibility without the means -- we need transport, more tents, more helicopters, more food," said one U.N. official with the program, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It's not happening fast enough."
Human rights groups have expressed alarm about the joint military operation, saying that more emphasis should be placed on peaceful alternatives to disarming the Hutu militia known as the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, or FDLR, as well as on protecting the tens of thousands of civilians who live among the militiamen in camps and villages.
But the arrival of an estimated 7,000 Rwandan troops to hunt the FDLR fighters in eastern Congo came as a surprise to the U.N. peacekeeping mission here, the largest in the world. The mission has drawn sharp criticism in the past for failing to protect civilians during rebel advances and military operations, such as a separate one underway in northeastern Congo targeting Ugandan rebels known as the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA.
In that instance, the rebels retaliated with the slaughter in late December of more than 600 civilians in three villages. U.N. peacekeepers were caught flatfooted by the operation and the deadly response to it, not reaching the villages until several days after the killings.
With Rwandan troops approaching FDLR positions, some of the militia's leaders have threatened to "do an LRA."
Meanwhile, Rwandan and Congolese military officials are only just beginning to share vital information with aid groups and U.N. agencies dealing with displaced villagers so that they can prepare humanitarian corridors and other means to allow trapped civilians to escape.
"Let's be honest: We are not there in the field," said a U.N. official who did not want to be named criticizing his own agency, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "There is very little cooperation right now. How can we create humanitarian corridors when we don't know where the operations are taking place? We are preparing, but blindly."
There is slightly more cooperation between the joint military operation and the U.N. demobilization teams, whose members work almost like spies deep in the bush to orchestrate the secret exit of fighters who are ready to leave but feel intimidated into staying by commanders.
For now, the teams are doing what they can with limited resources, setting up two additional "welcome centers" in areas where the military operations are taking place, dropping leaflets -- "You still have a choice!" one reads -- and broadcasting radio messages in FDLR areas encouraging fighters to leave.
While the fighters normally come out in ones and twos, about 30 came out the first week the military operation became known last month. Forty came the next week. And last week, more than 100 were plucked by helicopter and truck from various demobilization camps in the bush.
About 25 militia leaders, now entrenched in eastern Congo's lucrative mining industry, are wanted by Rwandan authorities for participating in the 1994 genocide. But many of the militiamen were teenagers then and would qualify for amnesty in Rwanda.
A small military team from the United States is in the region and is expected to assist with psychological operations aimed at FDLR fighters. U.N. officials say the U.S. government could also help by arresting Rwandan militia leaders who, according to Rwandan and U.S. officials, are now living and working in the United States. Other top leaders live in Germany and France, Rwandan officials say.
"One of the keys to getting these fighters to surrender peacefully is to break the leadership," said Bruno Donat, who heads the demobilization program. "We have to separate the leaders from the rank and file."
Rwandan authorities have asked the United States to arrest Jean-Marie Vianney Higiro, a professor at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass., and Félicien Kanyamibwa, who was recently working for Hoffmann-La Roche, a pharmaceutical company based in Nutley, N.J., according to an October 2008 letter from the Rwandan government to U.S. officials. Higiro and Kanyamibwa are accused of financing the militias and being "politically responsible" for war crimes committed in eastern Congo. The letter also names five Rwandans wanted for participating in the genocide.
"Instead of being apprehended," the letter states, "the FDLR leaders are walking scot-free, employed in the U.S."
Kanyamibwa could not be reached for comment, but he has previously denied any link to the FDLR.
Higiro, reached at his home in Springfield, acknowledged a past connection with the FDLR but said his current group, the splinter faction known as the Rally for Unity and Democracy, is a political and military organization aimed at opening up political space in Rwanda and peacefully removing what he called "the dictatorial government" of President Paul Kagame.
At the same time, he said that his faction, at least, was ready to leave eastern Congo and pursue its goals inside Rwanda.
"Congo has suffered enough," he said.