Story

Former Rebels Go Back to Rwanda

jean_pierre_former_rebel.jpg

Jean Pierre, a former FDLR rebel for 20 years. Image by Tomaso Clavarino. Rwanda, 2014.

Jean Pierre’s expression is hard, severe. His eyes are those of a man who has been fighting most of his life. He has spent the last few years across the border, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), hiding in the forest as a fugitive, raiding villages and attacking army outposts. Fearing retaliation and revenge, he escaped from Rwanda at the end of the genocide in 1994.

As a Hutu, Jean Pierre was a member of Rwanda's army, and he took part in one of the most atrocious crimes of modern times when more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were tortured, killed and often cut to pieces with machetes by Rwandan Hutus. Like thousands of others, Jean Pierre fled his country and decided to join the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), an armed group founded by some of the organizers of the Rwandan genocide. The group’s aim is to recruit Hutu extremist forces to overthrow the Rwandan government currently in power. Indeed, the FDLR remains the most serious threat to the stability of Rwanda, a country apparently at peace, while in reality still beset by powerful tensions.

After 20 years in the forest, Jean Pierre decided to lay down his weapon and give up his life of blood and violence. He showed up two months ago at MONUSCO (the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission) in the DRC, asking to be repatriated. Now Jean Pierre is living in a center set up for the reintegration of Hutu rebels into Rwandan society. It is managed by the government of Kigali, and he lives with 78 others who like him had slipped over the Congolese border with their weapons after 1994 and joined the FDLR or other rebel groups.

“We’d lost the war, and there was nothing else we could do but flee,” Jean Pierre tells me in the yard of the Mutobo Demobilization and Reintegration Camp. “So I joined the FDLR. They’ve been difficult, tough years. The FDLR is fighting a war: Violence is the order of the day, as are rape and robbery — in both the Congo and west Rwanda. I understood it was an unwinnable war, whatever the leaders of the movement say, so I decided to escape and come back to my home country. I can do so thanks to the government program for the rehabilitation of Hutu combatants. Now, at 40, I hope I can start a new life in my own country.”

Like Jean Pierre, many rebels come in to the Mutobo center — about 300 a year. They take courses, learn a trade, try and get back in touch with Rwandan society and with a country that has changed radically in the last decade. They spend two to three months in Mutobo before leaving to return to their villages and their families, if they still have them.

“I fought for the FDLR for years, they told us that if we went back to Rwanda we’d be killed; that we’d soon take over the country, but that’s not true,” explains Innocent, a 33-year old who spent a decade with the rebels. “The government gives us a lump sum to survive a few months so we can look for work and start a business. I hope I’ll be able to; I sure don’t want to go back into the forest ever again.”

At present, the FDLR has between 3,000 and 4,000 fighters, and it has terrorized the villages of North and South Kivu. The same goes for the forests on the border between the DRC and Rwanda, and in the mountains and nature reserves of Virunga.

“For some years, we’ve had an almost constant flow of rebels into our camp,” said Frank Musonera, who is in charge of the Mutobo camp. “But arrivals have slowed down in recent months around here. This means that something’s going on in the forests a few kilometers away. It means the FDLR is regrouping. It’s probably planning something. Anyway, we’ll continue to take in people deciding to turn in their arms, promising to do what we can to give them the chance to start a new life in Rwanda.”

In the corrugated iron hangar in the center of the garden, about 80 ex-rebels and guerrillas are following social studies lessons and taking notes in their exercise books. They seem sincere and hopeful about changing their lives, about going back and living in their home country. In the new Rwanda of President Paul Kagame — who is devoted to virtually forced reconciliation — no one is likely to forget the past. Nor is anyone likely to bring it up.