The three young boys and the older man are standing around, looking awkward but fierce at the same time–their eyes tough as nails. “Who are those men,” I ask as we head into the main building at the Mutobo Demobilization Center. “They have just been brought in today from the jungle,” said the head of the center, which is located near Rwanda’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a strange surreal thing to come face to face with men–and a few women–who have been living in the jungle for 15 years, eeking out a living as members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and fighting against the Congolese army, the UN peacekeepers and theCongolese Tutsi rebels.
Yet here they are–with no security and no fences–milling around and answering their mobile phones (yes, they too can get signals, even in the jungle). They are at the center because they have either voluntarily turned themselves into the UN peacekeepers (who serve under the United Nations Mission for the Congo aka MONUC) or they have been captured during fighting and sent back across the border. The Rwandan government has set up a program to reintegrate these rebel soldiers who escaped into the jungle after the genocide ended in Rwanda in 1994. The Hutu extremists, who killed over 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates in 100 days, were largely driven into the Congolese jungle but from there they continued to launch cross-border attacks into Rwanda for several years. During the middle of the 1990s President Paul Kagame–the former Tutsi commander–sent troops into the Congo to pursue the FDLR soldiers who have been accused of mass rape, massacres, looting and wrecking havoc across a wide swathe of the Eastern Congo. The situation escalated to an all-out rebel war across the Great Lakes region of Africa, partially over who would control mineral resources of copper, gold and coltan, which is found in mobile phone chips the world over. Since 1998 an estimated 5.5 million people have died from violence, disease and malnutrition making it by far Africa’s worst modern day war.
But there are signals that peace could be coming to the region after almost 16 years of violence; last year the Tutsi leader Laurent Nkunda was arrested (he is under house arrest in nearby Gisenyi) and in December the foreign ministers of Rwanda and the Congo met for the first time in years to discuss everything from trade to peace. Congolese, Rwandan and UN forces have been working together to flush out these rebels (estimated at over 8,000) and send them to be repatriated in their homeland. They are sent to the center–from two to three months– to be reintroduced to Rwandan society and learn what they have missed while fighting all those years in the jungle. “Life in the bush is very miserable,” says the head of the center. “There are no schools, no food, even sleeping is a problem. They lack a general knowledge of what is happening in the world. 15 years out of the country is a long time–it is a new country now.”
When we enter the building, the men and women are singing of how they are happy to be back in Rwanda. It reminds me of something like a southern Baptist revival tent–lots of gospel singing and clapping. One man comes forward to tell us about his life in the jungle–he was a former commander in the Rwandan army before 1994–and says that he had to flee but he denies any involvement in the genocide. Just as we start pressing him about his involvement his phone rings–and he answers it –and begins talking to his friend who is still holed up in the jungle serving in the FDLR. It seems that many of these ex-combatants are still in touch with their former FDLR colleagues –one woman, who is a former commander and has a toddler daughter who is dressed in a dirty cheap chiffon peach dress, is married to a man who is still living in the jungle and refuses to leave because of his lucrative dealings in mineral exploitation. They all speak against the violence but only a few–when pressed by one of my fellow journalists–actually admit to taking part in the genocide. They all claim they were fighting against their will and that they were told by their commanders that they would be killed if they came back to Rwanda; they all blame fear and a culture of violence within the FDLR that kept them in the jungle. Since December 2001 there have been 7,207 former combatants who have gone through the center (there is a seperate center in eastern Rwanda for child soldiers–715 so far have been repatriated and reunited with their parents/relatives). They have to sign forms that renounce their combatant status, they are taught what has happened in Rwanda since 1994 (classes include everything from the role of women in national development to the consequences of genocide and to human rights) and given a medical screening. They are educated about HIV/AIDS prevention and once they have completed their time in the center, they are given $200, a small stipend to start a new life where they are free to re-establish their lives in a modern democratic Rwanda.
So do they really all believe that being back in Rwanda is better than being out in the jungle still? And how , after 15 years of lawlessness where you must survive by instinct alone, can these people ever be integrated back into society? When I walked among these former FDLR soldiers–my colleagues were all still up front–it was a much different scenario from the happy smiles and singing that I witnessed up front. I was not scared–I knew that protection was close at hand–but the looks, sniggers and under the surface hostility flushed ice through my veins. There is only so much indoctrination that can be done en masse. I asked the head of the center as we left whether he thought they really all believed that things they were being taught and had been singing about–that the new Rwanda had a place for everyone. He told us that, no, of course they were only doing what they had to do in order to be let back into society—they had no choice and they were required to be here. Some, of course, could face having to go in front of the gacaca courts to face up to the crimes they committed here in 1994. “But once they head back home, see what life is like, well that is what will really get them to change. To live among their families and neighbors again–that is better than a life of killing and of violence, ” he says. Ask any Rwandan, they will tell you the same.