The UN aims to disarm Rwandan rebels in DRC. The rebels ignored an ultimatum and now face a military offensive. How can refugees, including rebels' civilian dependents, be protected?
In a transit camp run by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR in eastern DRC, some 40 women and children are being registered. Their names are noted, fingerprints and photos are taken. 31-year-old Godanze Nyasafari sits with her two small children waiting until it is her turn.
She tells DW that she has lived as a refugee in eastern DRC for more than 20 years. Originally she came from Rwanda and is a member of the Hutu ethnic group. Her husband is fighting for the Rwandan Hutu militia FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) which was formed in eastern DRC to fight against the Tutsi government in Rwanda. An ultimatum set by the UN for the rebels to surrender and hand over their weapons passed in early January. UN troops are now preparing to launch a military assault.
Nyasafari heard about the planned offensive from the radio. "We were very scared and my husband said I should take the children and seek refuge with the UN," she says.
Her baby cries softly from hunger. Nyasafari rocks it to and fro as she breastfeeds it. Her five-year-old son crouches next to them. The trek has left him exhausted and dirty.
Before fleeing to the UN camp, the family lived in Binza, a settlement some 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of provincial capital Goma. There, the FDLR rebels had taken up positions on several hills in order to monitor the trade route to Uganda and extort 'customs payments' from passing trucks.
When the UN announced its imminent offensive, Nyasafari says her husband followed his commanders' orders, left the high ground and retreated into the jungle. "I took the children and went in a different direction. We walked for a long time before we found a UN camp," Nyasafari said, adding that she was happy to return to Rwanda, where she hoped to find her mother.
Need to protect civilians
The FDLR is one of the most brutal rebel groups in DRC. It is made up of soldiers and officers of the former Rwandan army which took part in the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi minority. More than 800,000 people were brutally murdered in just 100 days. Then the Tutsi liberation army, led by the man who is now president, Paul Kagame, took control. Almost all Hutus fled to eastern Congo, fearing acts of revenge. Among them were Nyasafari and the man who was to become her husband. Since then she has lived as a refugee in Congo and her husband joined the FDLR. The Rwandan Hutu militia is today the strongest rebel group in DRC. It once boasted 20,000 fighters – today there are just 1,300.
Despite its smaller size, the FDLR is still the main cause of many conflicts in the region. For this reason the UN decided that action had to be taken, said Martin Kobler, head of the UN Peace Mission for the Stabilization of DRC (MONUSCO). "We have a mandate from the Security Council to carry out offensive operations in order to put the rebel groups out of action," Kobler said. "We are speaking here mainly about the FDLR."
"Yes, these will be offensive military operations," he added "but there are rules and it is clear that we must keep the effect on the civilian population to a minimum." The UN troops have used drones to see whether there were refugees in the vicinity of the rebels.
Opportunity to leave
The FDLR has a reputation for using family members as human shields when attacks threaten. This was one reason why several attempts to put them out of action in the past were unsuccessful. In 2009, the Congolese and Rwandan armies launched an offensive against the FDLR. Countless Rwandan refugees were killed and the FDLR took revenge by massacring Congolese civilians.
To prevent attacks against civilians this time, the UN agencies are taking steps to warn the refugees and the Congolese civilians in good time, so they can leave the area. The UN estimates that half a million people could be displaced during the next three months.
Boniface Kinyanjui of the UNHCR told DW that the aid agencies had met regularly to draw up plans to protect civilians. "The UN and the Congolese army are aware that there are refugees in FDLR areas," he said. Refugees wishing to leave can report to special collection points.
An estimated 200,000 Rwandan refugees are currently in Congo, some 20,000 are relatives of FDLR fighters and live with the rebels, like Nyasafari and her children did until recently.
In order to save these civilians, the UNHCR has financed radio spots, Kinyanjui said. "We also work with civil society and the churches to get the message across that we are here to help the refugees. We are ready to take them home, where they will be safe and can live a good life."
A good life is what Nyasafari is also hoping for after 20 years in DRC. She would like to send her two children to school. But first she must find her mother and other relatives in her home village in Rwanda.
When the UNHCR staff have completed the registration formalities, the women climb on to a truck which takes them to the border. Every woman and child who leaves the FDLR rebels before the first bomb falls reduces the likelihood of civilian casualties. But they cannot be ruled out completely.