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Image: DW/S. Schlindwein

Rwanda: Fresh start for ex-FDLR fighters?

Isaac Mugabi
June 16, 2017

The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), continue to destabilize eastern Congo and wage war against Rwanda, with hope that one day they will topple the government of President Paul Kagame.


For over 20 years now, the FDLR has killed innocent civilians and pillaged villages in its quest to topple the government in Kigali. Despite regional efforts to disarm and reintegrate them, the rebel outfit continues to destabilize the region and torment civilians. But can former fighters fully integrate in society? DW’s Isaac Mugabi went to find out.

Welcome to Mutobo Demobilization and Reintegration camp, reads a tattered signpost on the road that leads into the camp of former fighters of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Located in Musanze district, northern Rwanda, the camp has received thousands of former combatants since 2002. The goal is to rehabilitate them and reintegrate them into society. The idyllic terrain and chilly weather of this volcanic region makes it ideal for the former combatants to live, in contrast to the vast jungles of the DRC where life was harsh and unforgiving.

On the day I visited the camp, which is a two-hour drive from the capital, Kigali, I was welcomed by the camp manager, Ephraim Kanamugire. He had been informed of my arrival by his superiors in Kigali. After a few pleasantries he gave me unfettered access to the whole camp and allowed me to interact freely with the residents. With my camera strapped around my neck and recorder in hand, I trod off wearily, not knowing what to expect from the battle hardened fighters.

After a few minutes of walking around, but with no clear idea where I was heading to, I met the first group of ex-combatants. They were busy cutting down eucalyptus trees to build a new pig sty. Their tools were axes and machetes, making me think of how these same tools were used to butcher innocent Tutsis during the 1994 genocide.

The intense stares they directed at the intruder made me feel a little bit scared and a thought crossed my mind that I should retreat from my mission, which was to find out how the ex-fighters are coping and whether they are ready to integrate into their communities. But strengthened by earlier assurances from the camp manager I braved on and started taking snapshots of my surroundings.

Mutobo camp hosts dozens of former FDLR fighters, including their families, who have chosen to lay down their arms and voluntarily return home. The majority of the residents are in their early twenties, presumably having left the country as toddlers in the wake of the 1994 genocide. Certainly they were recruited into the rebel ranks by their parents or guardians. The older ones might have played a role in the genocide, But that is something that will be determined once they return to their communities. During their three months at the camp, they are rehabilitated and provided with skills that will allow them to fully integrate and make a living in civilian life. 

Wives of former FDLR fighters singing
Spouses of the former fighters have been traumatized by what they went through while in the jungle Image: DW/I. Mugabi

No conjugal rights

The majority of the women at the camp are wives of the former fighters. But due to the strict rules at the camp, they are obliged to live in separate dormitories. They also receive private counselling sessions. This means that conjugal relations are out of the question and will only happen once the families leave the camp.

At the camp both women and men are taught civic education and receive counseling on a daily basis. This helps them to deal with post-traumatic disorders and adapt to the new environment. Away from the classroom routine, they engage in farming activities like cattle rearing and pig farming. Music is played every evening among a host of other activities that include sports.

From my close and personal interactions with the former fighters I learned about the personal goals they want to achieve once they leave the camp. The common denominator is that they want to go into business and get rich.

This is the case of 19-year-old Damascene Ndagije, whose work is to feed the pigs. He would like to pursue a career as a musician and be a successful artist in the region. "I have a few compositions that I have been working on, that I hope to release once I go back home." he said.

"My music focuses much on peace building, conflict and love." From his looks it is clear to me that Ndagije was born around 1998 in neighboring DRC, and does not know the exact location of his ancestral home in Rwanda. Perhaps, and with the help of his relatives, he will hopefully be able to start a new life as a musician.

Meeting a 'wanted general'

After a short tour of the farm, I sat down with Brigadier General Semugeshi Comes. He is the most senior of the fighters currently at the camp and was a battalion commander with the FDLR. Before surrendering toMONUSCO, the general was a wanted man by the Congolese government for war crimes committed in the Congo.

Ruanda - Mutombo Camp
Brigadier General Semugeshi is the most senior of former FDLR fightersImage: DW/I. Mugabi

With a calm demeanor Semugeshi tells me that before he fled Rwanda in 1994 he was a second lieutenant fighting alongside government troops against the advancing rebels led by Paul Kagame (now president). And once Kagame took power, Semugeshi fled to the Congo for fear of retaliation. In later years he fought with different armed groups in the DRC, and once he was enlisted as a Congolese soldier during President Laurent Desire Kabila's rule. This meant that he got a monthly salary and other perks just like any other government soldier. After Kabila was assassinated, and then replaced by his son, President Joseph Kabila, Semugeshi's stay in the Conoglese army was not guaranteed. He once again joined the FDLR. His decision  to return home vountarily came about as recently as in February 2017. Now he feels proud of his decision.

"Before my return, I often communicated to former colleagues who had earlier returned home. They gave me assurances that all was well in Rwanda and that nothing would happen to me," he said. "The advent of smart phones also made it easy for us to exchange information and share pictures that showed the real situation on the ground."

"Many of my fellow commanders have been successfully integrated into society and are doing well. That's why I'm optimistic that I will also be successful," the general added.

It's not easy for many FDLR fighters still in the Congo to voluntarily return home. Many have been brain-washed by the top commanders who are accused of genocide and other crimes against humanity, while others want to go back but are being held against their will. They are often told that they will be killed once they return to Rwanda.

Major Placide Ndayambaje, a former FDLR commander, working on a computer
Major Placide Ndayambaje, a former FDLR commander, is now an IT specialist in KigaliImage: DW/I. Mugabi

Just daring to express a wish to go home can put a fighter's life in danger. The punishment for harboring such plans is often instant execution, according to those I spoke to. And because of such dire consequences, those who chose to return did it secretly. They trekked long distances under the cover of darkness until they reached a military detachment, which then handed them over to a liaison office of the UN stabilization mission in Congo (MONUSCO).

For many years now, the Rwandan government has been conducting a sensitization campaign using former FDLR fighters as emissaries to send a message of peace to those still holed up in the DRC. The campaign has paid off to a large extent but some challenges, like the lack of reliable telecommunications networks, have hampered these efforts.

According to MONUSCO, in the last fifteen years more than 20,000 FDLR fighters have been repatriated and reintegrated into Rwandan society. Most of the FDLR fighters are Hutu refugees that fled the country in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. It is estimated that the number of remaining FDLR fighters in the DRC is no less than two thousands.

Former FDLR fighters using sewing machines at Mutombo Camp
In Rwanda former FDLR fighters learn new skills like tailoring to help them start a new lifeImage: DW/I. Mugabi

New lease of life

Many former FDLR fighters who have voluntarily returned have received support to start a new life. As most of them left the country when they were toddlers, they have to be taught professional skills like tailoring, to enable them start a new life. It is the case of Eduard Karemera, who left the country at the age of four. Eduard spent most of his youth fighting with different militia groups in the DRC. 

Owing to his traumatic experiences, he couldn't remember the location of his ancestral home. While at the camp he was diagnosed with extreme psychosis, a severe mental disorder in which thoughts and emotions are so impaired that contact with reality is lost. His wife Feza at one time contemplated returning to the Congo, because she was afraid that her husband was slowly losing his mind.

"My wife told me of how I tried to escape from the treatment center and sometimes walked naked," he said, "Thank God she didn't leave me." Her resilience paid off and they now live happily together in Eduard's ancestral village.

But perhaps one of the most success stories is that of 50-year-old retired Major Bernard Placide Ndayambaje. He was in charge of communication within the FDLR. When I visited him at his office located in one of Kigali's upscale neighborhoods of Kimihurura, his confidence and pride in his new life struck me directly. He is the senior monitoring and evaluation officer at Kigali Veterans' Cooperative Society (KVCS). He also fled Rwanda in 1994 at the rank of Lieutenant and described life in the DRC as hell on earth.

"We only survived by pillaging villages for food and terrorizing locals there. We also extorted money in order for us to be able to finance our activities," he told DW.

Francis Musoni Coordinator of reintegration program- Mutombo Camp
Francis Musoni coordinates activites of reintegrating former combatants into civilian lifeImage: DW/I. Mugabi

Upon his return to Rwanda five years ago, he was given the option of choosing between doing business and going back to school. He chose the later and since then never looked back. Placide graduated as an engineer at the University of Rwanda and recently completed a Master's program in Humanitarian Work, Reconstruction and Peacekeeping in Switzerland.

"Coming back home and returning to school is the best decision that I ever made in my life," Ndayambaje told DW. He has also played an important role in sensitizing other FDLR fighters to denounce violence and return to their home country.

The coordinator of the reintegration programme, Francis Musoni, says they've been able to successfully integrate former FDLR fighters, largely because of government support and that of other stakeholders like the German government, which contributes financially to the program. "As I speak now, we have been able to provide demobilization support as well as social-economic integration to close to 70,000 former fighters from different armed groups in the DRC including the FDLR," Musoni said.

"We designed a program to mitigate different challenges and did a lot of sensitization in the communities. Former combatants that have been reintegrated have also played a role in persuading their colleagues in the jungles to return home," he told DW.

Apart from helping former fighters successfully integrate into society, Rwanda's demobilzation commission has also built houses for ex-combatants.




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