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Rwanda | Coming Home to Rwanda

After years of resistance, former rebels are being reintegrated into Rawandan society

By TANYA CASTLE | 1 January 2010

NESTLED IN THE SPRAWLING, verdant hills of northern Rwanda, near the border with The Democratic Republic of Congo, the village of Mutobo is home to approximately 500 Rwandan ex-combatants. And here at Mutobo’s demobilisation centre, former soldiers from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) begin their process of re-entering Rwandan society.

Fifteen years after approximately one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred during the Rwandan genocide, the government of Rwanda is still struggling to disarm the FDLR, an extremist Hutu guerilla army operating in Eastern Congo. The aim is to finally restore peace and stability to Rwanda and the region.

Since 1997, Rwanda’s Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission, with the support of the World Bank, the United Nations and international donors has returned more than 25,000 combatants to civilian life.  An estimated 7,000 remain.

The Rwandan government, formed by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has welcomed the return of FDLR soldiers who weren’t involved in the genocide.

At Mutobo, I met Josee Mukamana, a former FDLR soldier, who calmly described in Kinyarwanda, the local language, her years with the FDLR, one of Africa’s most brutal rebel armies.

Mukamana fled to Congo in 1994. Like two million other Rwandans, she feared retaliation by the RPF.  A Uganda-based Tutsi rebel group, the RBF battled Hutu militias and the Rwandan army to stop the genocide.

Five years after fleeing Rwanda, Mukamana was captured by FDLR rebels, and was forced to work as a soldier and nurse. Fearing for her life and the lives of her children, she remained with the group for ten years. But in late 2008, she heard about the joint military offensive to be launched by Rwanda and Congo against the FDLR. She decided to take her chances and return to Rwanda. After weeks of trekking through the jungle with her two young twins in tow, she reached the border.

“I came here for the sake of my rights,” she recalls. “It is also why I decided to leave the military and decided to be with my family and to raise my children in Rwanda.”

The Rwandan genocide was sparked by the death of then President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu whose plane crashed at Kigali airport on April 6, 1994.  Within hours, a hundred-day killing spree commenced, organised by the Hutu Power extremist movement.

While Hutus and Tutsis are generally considered to be two separate ethnic groups, they speak the same language, inhabit the same areas and follow the same traditions—which many scholars argue makes them the same ethnicity. Traditionally, they were differentiated by their occupation; Hutus were farmers, Tutsis were cattle-owners. Supposedly, the Tutsi are tall and thin, while the Hutu are short and squat. It is, however, often difficult to tell them apart.  When Belgian colonists arrived in Rwanda in 1916, they considered the Tutsis superior and introduced identity cards to differentiate them from the Hutus.  At independence, violence between the two groups spread from Rwanda to Burundi, and after 1994, to Congo.

Ex-combatant Timothy Nzabonimpa was 13 years old during the genocide. At 18, he joined the FDLR after he lost his job at a microfinance firm. Sitting outside one of the small red brick buildings in Mutobo, he explained why he became an FDLR soldier: “There are those who earn a living from banditry, there are those who go to school, there are those who work for the church, there are those who are farmers and also there are those who earn a living from the army. At the time I joined the army I didn’t have any other choice.”

Within a couple of years of service, Nzabonimpa deserted. From Congo, he headed to Burundi, the base of the Hutu rebel group, The Force for National Liberation (FNL). He was told he could earn a living there. Again Nzabonimpa was disappointed. So after nine years of fighting, he turned himself in at the Rwandan Embassy.

Following the genocide, Rwanda’s economy was near collapse, making it one of the poorest countries in Africa. Nzabonimpa is one of many young men lured into rebel groups by promises of food, shelter, employment and status. Jean Saynzoga, chairman of Rwanda’s Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission, says most combatants return to Rwanda voluntarily like Nzabonimpa and Mukamana.

The FDLR frequently employs false information and rumours to maintain its ranks and support among displaced Rwandan Hutus. “They used to tell us that in Rwanda there is no peace,” Mukamana recalls. “They say that in Rwanda [Tutsis] kill and terrorise people.  But since I have come back to Rwanda, I’ve seen peace.  There are no problems here. People that are still in Congo don’t understand; they don’t know the real truth. They don’t know there is peace here.”

Saynzoga says this is the main reason Rwandan combatants don’t relinquish their arms and return home. The Reintegration Commission airs regular announcements on Congolese and Rwandan radio stations to counter the propaganda.

After ex-combatants have completed the Commission’s three-month program where they learn Rwandan history, law and trade skills there is still a possibility they will return to Congo to fight, says Saynzoga.

“We say to the ex-combatants, look at what you have gained, please don’t return to the forest, you risk losing your life.  You have all that you need right now and all that we have done for you is to pacify the region, to build Rwanda and create a better future.”

However, few opportunities for steady employment exist in Rwanda, as in most African nations, despite the country’s development.

Still, Nzabonimpa is optimistic. “I can’t wallow in regret about living in the bush; I’ve got to look at the bright side. Now I’m back in Rwanda and have the chance to improve my life.”

Tanya Castle is a freelance writer. She recently returned to Canada for some much needed home time after years in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.  Educated in Ottawa and Paris, she writes on women’s rights and social justice. 

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