For Rwandans, Fragile Acts of Faith
Returning From Years in Congo's Bush, Hutu Rebels Seek Their Place in a Homeland Struggling to Forge a New Unity

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

KINIGI, Rwanda -- The 958 Express arrived at last.

In the early-afternoon sun, Leonard Hakorimano, with his wife and two sons, squeezed into a crowded bus that was soon winding down the road, delivering them to an uncertain new life.

"Where are you coming from?" a passenger asked.

"Congo," Hakorimano said quietly, referring to the neighboring country where he had become a rebel.

"When did you leave Rwanda?" the passenger asked.

Hakorimano studied the passing countryside, his face -- at once boyish and tough -- betraying little emotion.

"1994," he said, naming the year he turned 16, the year he last saw his family, and the year of the Rwandan genocide, when an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu extremists in 100 days of well-planned violence. "It's a long time since I left."

Like thousands of other Hutus who fled into eastern Congo fearing retaliation, Hakorimano joined Rwandan Hutu rebels whose leaders promised they would return to Rwanda someday to overthrow the Tutsi-dominated government. To keep their recruits in the bush, the rebel leaders -- some of whom are accused in the genocide -- spread harrowing stories about life back home, saying that returning Hutus would be jailed or killed and that there was no justice in Rwanda.

But this month, Hakorimano, 30, was among several hundred rebels who decided to return home anyway, not knowing whether their families had survived or whether the stories their commanders had told them were true.

Their decisions amount to fragile acts of faith that they will be able to let go of the divisive creed of the bush and find a place in a nation struggling to overcome the legacy of genocide. The effort also reflects a broader struggle within Rwandan society to forge a national identity stronger than the ethnic ones that pulled it apart.

The Rwandan government is zealously encouraging that effort. Genocide survivors are urged to forgive and to live in villages with former killers -- and, indeed, many people bite their tongues these days rather than describe anyone as a Tutsi or a Hutu. In the case of the returning rebels, the government runs a kind of boot camp aimed at transforming them into model citizens.

Busloads of former rebels are arriving at the camp, Mutobo, a sprawl of iron-sheet buildings set on manicured grass amid the blue-green hills just inside the Rwandan border. Hakorimano spent a couple of days there with his family before he was granted permission to go home.

His decision to leave eastern Congo was partly driven by the Rwandan-Congolese military operation that began there last month and is intended to dismantle the Hutu rebels, known as the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, or FDLR. The operation has scattered the militia, and hundreds of fighters have volunteered for repatriation. But his decision was also personal.

"I just thought about my family on the other side and made the decision to start walking," he said. "I thought, maybe I'll die there. Or maybe I'll live. But I will get there."

He found life at camp Mutobo strange, he said. A week earlier, he had been commanding a dozen or so rebels, but now he was taking classes such as "Avoiding Soil Erosion" and "Overcoming Genocide Ideology." He had been told that Tutsis were the enemy, but now, he discovered, the mantra in Rwanda is unity.

"Forget you used to be a killer back in Congo!" the camp director barked at the new arrivals. "Now you are becoming a Rwandan!"

The men were then told to sing a song associated with President Paul Kagame's ruling party.

"We are Rwandans!" most of them sang, while Hakorimano clapped along. "We shall use our hands to build this nation!"

At this moment, he said, he was not sure whether he is a Rwandan or a rebel.

"It's like I'm in a dilemma," he said. "Why should I study if I don't even know if my mother is alive?"

Before the genocide, when the Rwandan government was led by Hutus, Hakorimano's family had been relatively prosperous farmers in a village where many neighbors were Tutsis. They lived in a house with concrete floors and walls, he recalled. He was in high school, with dreams of becoming a judge, when his country was turned into a vast killing field.

Fearful of losing power to the Tutsi minority that had historically ruled Rwanda, a Hutu elite mobilized the nation's Hutu majority to wipe out the Tutsis and any Hutus who did not go along with the plan. Three-quarters of the Tutsi population was massacred, a period that Hakorimano recalled as a blur.

"I was just a boy," he said.

He was in school with Tutsis one day and being told to break with his friends the next. His village was flooded with fleeing Tutsis being hunted like animals. For a while, Hakorimano said, his family hid several Tutsi neighbors in a bedroom; what happened to them later, he could not recall.

Then the situation changed dramatically. Kagame's Tutsi-dominated rebels began defeating the genocidal Hutu forces, and soon it was the Hutus who were running for their lives, pouring into eastern Congo. "We ran in all directions," Hakorimano recalled.

Somewhere in the forest, he was separated from his mother, so he made his way into Congo alone. He eventually joined the Hutu militiamen who were regrouping in Congo's vast refugee camps, vowing to "finish the work" in Rwanda.

Over the years, though, such ambitions appeared to fade as the group became known for exploiting Congo's mineral resources and preying upon Congolese villagers.

"It was a miserable life," Hakorimano said of his time in the bush. But he added, "I never killed anyone."

He married another Rwandan refugee and became a father to Baraka, 11, and Solomon, who is a month old. "I noticed I was aging," he said, explaining why he left.

He made his way with his family to a U.N. base and eventually to Mutobo, where on a recent sunny afternoon, he and his family boarded the white bus for the trip back to his village. The scenes that unfolded only vaguely matched his memories.

The hills were covered now with patchwork plots. The once-potholed roads were smooth, and the bus rolled past forklifts widening the lanes. A group of schoolboys, about the age Hakorimano was when he fled, traipsed along in khakis and sharp white shirts.

The bus zipped through little towns with new Internet cafes, and Hakorimano had the feeling, he said later, that he'd been left behind as the world marched on.

He turned to his wife, a pretty, quiet young woman whose parents had died in Congo's refugee camps. "This is the place I used to tell you about," he said, pointing. "That's home, below those hills."

Soon, they turned onto a narrow dirt road. Hakorimano got out and began looking around. Little was familiar.

They walked a bit, and Hakorimano spotted a tall man in a tattered black blazer -- his uncle.

"You're very welcome," his uncle said, hugging him. "You're so very welcome."

An aunt joined them, and Hakorimano soon learned that his mother was alive. As the group walked down a path to her house, he saw, not the concrete structure he had left, but a crumbling, mud-walled shack covered with rusted iron sheets.

Seeing her lost son, Patricia Nyira Habimana just stared.

"Mom, you're still alive," Hakorimano said. "Mom! It's me, it's me!"

Still staring at him, she began to cry.

The family talked into the night. Hakorimano learned that his father had been killed and that there had been trouble ever since.

By morning, his initial joy had been tempered further. His mother was frail. The family's house had been destroyed after they fled in 1994. And they had lost most of their land through a combination of family squabbles and government land reform that has been widely praised but that some Hutu farmers see as the oppressive policy of a Tutsi-dominated government.

Some of Hakorimano's friends had stopped by. "They told me they went to school and built homes," he said. "In the past, people would come work for us. Now we have to go to them to ask for jobs in their homes. Look at this house. Has the government done anything for us?"

He lowered his head. "These things might force me to go back to Congo to fight until I die," he said.

Hakorimano walked out into the afternoon, along a narrow path through fields of potatoes and sorghum, his bitterness seeming to grow with each step. He finally came to a grassy clearing.

"This is where the house was," he said.

"People with government connections were the ones who caused this confusion," he said, referring to his family's lost land. "They were Tutsis. I have no fear to say that Tutsis were the ones that caused these problems."

Later, Hakorimano sat with his uncle in his mother's house. "Things have changed so much -- there is unity," his uncle told him.

For now, though, the nephew was in some vast limbo between believing that and believing the stories his commanders had told him back in Congo.

Over the years, according to U.N. and Rwandan officials, some ex-rebels have become community leaders, others are struggling to make a living like everyone else in Rwanda, and a small number have returned to Congo.

Hakorimano would go back to camp Mutobo in a few days, where there would be classes on Rwandan history and reconciliation. After that, he could expect a few hundred dollars to start his new life. All the ex-rebels would also be taught the Rwandan national anthem.

"I know bits of the song," Hakorimano said. "Some I don't know. I'll try to learn it."

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