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Eastern DRC's endless war

Simone Schlindwein / guApril 4, 2014

20 years after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the small country in the heart of Africa is now peaceful. But across the border in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, armed conflict involving Rwandan militia continues.

Raia Mutomboki leader Kikuny
Image: Simone Schlindwein

Raia Mutomboki is the name of a militia in the eastern DRC. It means "The Angry People." Their leader (seen above) calls himself Kikuny which means "the lawyer." To explain the reason for the anger, he points to a collection of skulls.

He was from a small village, Kikuny recounts, a village which had already been burned down three times by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militia. These fighters from neighboring Rwanda had killed numerous villagers in the DRC. Since no one was protecting the local population from the marauding militia, they had formed the Raia Mutomboki to defend themselves. The militia leader is keeping the skulls of the victims as proof of the FDLR's crimes and as a justification for his rebellion.

"We are showing these remains to the international community to illustrate the truth," Kikuny says. After all, Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, showed visitors to his country the skulls and bones of the victims of the 1994 genocide in order to demonstrate what the perpetrators had done to his country. "We are now also showing the skulls of the victims on our side, because we're sick and tired of all the talking. The international community must understand that we have reason to take up arms: if we don't, we'll all be killed," Kikuny says.

FDLR - a Rwandan Hutu militia operating in eastern DRC

During the 1994 genocide millions of Rwandans fled across the border in to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Armed conflict came with them. The FDLR, a militia predominantly made up of perpetrators of the genocide, is one of the main reasons why, even 20 years later, conflict persists in eastern Congo, whereas peace returned to Rwanda itself a long time ago.

The refugee camps in eastern Congo are still overcrowded. In North Kivu province alone there are over one million displaced people. Some have been living in wretched conditions for years and are dependent on donations for their subsistence, because they cannot return to their villages to cultivate their fields. When you ask the Congolese what it is they are afraid of in their villages, they always mention the FDLR. The group was formed in 1994 and included many soldiers of the former Rwandan army, which was driven out by today's president Paul Kagame and his rebel forces.

A group of heavily armed FDLR fighters are standing in the foreground. Behind them is a mountainous landscape. Photo: DW/S. Schlindwein
Congolese villagers fear the FDLR fightersImage: DW/S. Schlindwein

"What rekindles the war in our native region of Masisi over and over again is the presence of the FDLR," says Jeremi Hangi, a spokesman for the displaced people in the Minova camp in eastern Congo. "It's high time they finally returned to their home country of Rwanda, or we Congolese will never live in peace," he adds.

The rebels' homeless children

The FDLR consists of about 1,000 fighters. But to this day they see themselves as the protectors of around 20,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees; many of them are wives and children of the fighters. To feed these refugees, FDLR fighters loot villages, confiscate harvests or drive Congolese villagers from their land.

An FDLR fighter's child. Photo: DW/S. Schlindwein
An entire generation of the FDLR fighters' children has grown up in eastern CongoImage: DW/S. Schlindwein

The Congolese have been fighting back against this reign of terror. At first, only Congolese Tutsis took up arms to defend themselves against Hutu extremists. Now, after 20 years of occupation, there is an offshoot of the Raia Mutomboki in almost all of the affected villages.

In what resembles a popular uprising, many thousands of Raia Mutomboki fighters have passed through the villages of eastern Congo in pursuit of the FDLR in the last few years. What their leader, Kikuny, does not mention is that his men also committed appalling crimes against family members of FDLR fighters, slaughtering the fighters' wives and children with machetes.

The FDLR fighters, along with their families, have since been on the run. They have long lost the capability to wage another war against their native Rwanda. Nevertheless, the Hutu militia insists on negotiations with Rwanda's Tutsi government, FDLR commander Colonel Stany says. "The regime in Rwanda accuses us of genocide and terrorism - that's pure propaganda. We want to be seen as Rwandans like everyone else, but the world has forgotten us," Stany says.

The UN is taking the gloves off

He casts his militiamen as victims: Their having been branded perpetrators of the genocide had prompted the UN, the World Food Program, the UNHCR and all the other relief organizations to withhold aid from Rwandan Hutu refugees. For more than 18 years, children of the FDLR fighters had been growing up in Congo without being able to go to school and without ever having been to their home country of Rwanda. "We are not subhuman," Stany laments. "We, too, have the right to participate in the development of our country."

The FDLR has tried to negotiate with the Rwandan government several times but has not succeeded. The UN, in turn, has given up trying to persuade the militia to disarm voluntarily in DRC. The UN troops in the country are now preparing a military offensive to defeat the FDLR once and for all. 20 years after the genocide in Rwanda, the Congolese may finally get a chance to live in peace.

UN troops riding tanks are moving along a dirt road. Photo: PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images)
MONUSCO troops are gearing up to fight militias such as the FDLRImage: Phil Moore/AFP/GettyImages