Lindsey Catino

In DRC, armed groups dwindle but still aggravate troubled region

Repatriators working to bring Hutus back to Rwanda often find a blurry line between refugee and ex-combatant

Since 2002, more than 30,000 foreign ex-combatants operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been repatriated, the majority of them to Rwanda. But while their numbers have been reduced, their impact in the DRC is still substantial, especially on the environment. In Rwanda, reintegration efforts have faced their own challenges. This is the first in a three-part series looking at ex-combatants, the environment and the complexities of repatriation and reintegration. The second part examines the challenges female ex-combatants face.

NORD-KIVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Several dozen people wait outside the chief’s office to attend a meeting on the stealing of crops by armed combatants living in Virunga National Park. It is something that happens “nearly every day” said Eric Mashagiro, the mayor of Rugari, a rural region of about 19,000 people bordering the park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s east. The main culprits, he said, are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), living in the park’s 3,000 square miles of forest and working in collaboration with local armed groups and ex-combatants, who provide intelligence.

The troubles, he said, began in 1994, after the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, when the government’s Rwandan Armed Forces and civilian militias known as interahamwe killed 800,000 people, most belonging to Rwanda’s Tutsi minority. After the largely Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Front founded by Rwandans in exile in Uganda captured the Rwandan capital, the Hutu government and many Hutu refugees fled to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Ruboneka Issa, left, and Pastor Benoit Shombo.
Lindsey Catino

On a dirt road headed south out of the Nord-Kivu provincial capital, Goma, bikes laden with huge sacks of charcoal head in the opposite direction. Farther along the road, Emmanuel Billay, the Nord-Kivu supervisor for the Program for Peace and Reconciliation (PPR), points to barren grassland. Once, he said, “there were trees over there.” Then the Rwandan refugees came and cut all the trees to make charcoal to sell, said Billay. For a time the place was known as Mugunga refugee camp. After the camp was violently dismantled in 1996 during the First Congo War when a rebel group supported by Rwanda, and led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, invaded Zaire, Hutu rebels and refugees scattered. (As president of Zaire, Kabila renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

Billay, as part of the PPR, has been trying to help them return to Rwanda since 2006, the year the protestant Church of Christ in Congo created the program. They do this through a process called sensitization, or educating Rwandans about the benefits of returning to their country through face-to-face interaction, radio broadcasts and pamphlets — all methods also employed by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).

But the PPR has something MONUSCO and the Congolese army doesn’t, said Billay — the people’s trust. There are thousands of protestant churches in Nord- and Sud-Kivu, and the PPR relies on them to reach the Rwandans, many of who belong to the churches or live near communities in which the churches have a strong presence. In this way, he said, “We can go to places the government can’t go, where MONUSCO can’t go.” The church is seen as neutral. The same cannot be said of the Congolese army and MONUSCO, both of which are fighting the FDLR. MONUSCO’s disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, reintegration and resettlement (DDRRR) of foreign-armed groups are voluntary. But MONUSCO also has an Intervention Brigade, charged with attacking and forcibly disarming armed groups that do not follow the voluntary process.

The only force the PPR uses is the force of faith. Since 2007 they have facilitated in the repatriation of 25,000 refugees and about 1,550 combatants. Today, because of funding cuts, the organization has only two paid negotiators, known as animateurs, and 30 volunteer sensitizers who provide outreach to the community. Pastor Benoit Shombo is the more active of the animateurs. He has been working in Minova, in Sud-Kivu province, just across the border from Nord-Kivu, for four years. He travels the region’s dusty dirt roads on foot or on a motorbike. He tells the combatants, their dependents and other Rwandan refugees, that Rwanda is now at peace, that ethnicity no longer matters in Rwanda, that they will be safe in Rwanda. In the forest their children do not go to school and they go without medical care. In Rwanda life is better.

Since 2002, about 30,600 foreign ex-combatants operating in the DRC have been repatriated to their homelands, according to MONUSCO. The vast majority, 25,623, belonged to FDLR, the force that absorbed the Hutu groups. Today MONUSCO estimates the number of FDLR in the DRC to be about 2,000, while former FDLR leaders estimate the number to be more like 4,500 or 5,000.

Vestine Zamunkunda, 30, and her family are among those Shombo has been working with for years.
Lindsey Catino

Whatever the number, the mayor of Rugari hasn’t noticed much of a difference. There is still looting, there are still rapes, and there are still killings. In early February the FDLR was accused of killing 14 villagers in eastern DRC.

“So even if they are pretending they are taking the FDLR to Rwanda, the same problems remain in the population,” said Mashagiro.

Ferdinand Ntamuheza is 25, tall and fit. But he was powerless to do anything when four men armed with Kalashnikovs entered his home in the Rugari community of Ngungu 1 on Dec. 30, 2015. The men stole two large sacks of beans he had just harvested — enough to feed his family for six months — three of his four goats and the equivalent of about $109 he had just received for his potato harvest. Before they left, he said, the men beat him with wooden sticks. He reported the incident to the village chief. The chief in turn informed the Congolese armed forces, the FARDC. But Ntamuheza said nothing happened.

“The soldiers come and just follow the steps [the FDLR] took,” he said. “That’s all. They can’t pursue them. They can’t follow them.”

The Congolese army, he said, is scared of the FDLR. Mashagiro agreed, saying, “No one can arrest them. No one can follow them and stop them doing all these things.” The Congolese army engages with the FDLR, but its efforts do not necessarily aid villagers, who are often caught in the middle. The government’s relationship with the rebels is complex. During the Second Congo War, Kabila supported the Hutu rebels against rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda. After Kabila was assassinated in 2001, his son, Joseph Kabila, took over. In Ngungu 1, armed combatants steal from the community about twice a month. In July 2015, they stole beans, the equivalent of about $20 and five goats from Riberata Ayingamiye.

Agriculture production is not the only environmental disturbance combatants cause in the area. In Virunga, armed combatants aid people in three main ways in illegally exploiting land in the park, said park director Emmanuel de Merode. The first, charcoal production, which is illegal in the forest, is worth about $35 million a year. The second, fishing — 80 percent of which is illegal — is worth over $40 million a year. He didn’t provide a monetary value for the third, land invasions, involving wealthy businesspeople whose ties to armed forces allow them to hold the land illegally and rent it to farmers.

Because what they are doing is illegal, all three pay armed combatants to protect them. Together they “represent an overall turnover of illegal exploitation of natural resources of over $100 million a year,” he said. “It’s the most significant source of revenue for the armed groups.” Because the park doesn’t have the resources to stop it, it is a problem that will take many, many years to resolve, he said.

Ruboneka Issa, center.
Lindsey Catino

Shombo has been working with Vestine Zamunkunda and her husband, Ruboneka Issa, in the village of Muchibwe, outside Minova, for three years.

Zamunkunda was a small child when she went to the DRC with her family in 1994. She is 30 now and the mother of two young children; a third, Judith, died of disease. In the past, when times were tough, Zamunkunda thought about returning to Rwanda. Now, she said, they may go after the harvest. There is little for them here, a single room home with a dirt floor and a leaking roof. She believes what the pastor told her about Rwanda and isn’t scared to return.

But Issa told a different story. Although his wife said he left Rwanda in 1994, he maintained that he was not in Rwanda during the genocide and has been living in the DRC since 1980. They also differ on his age. He said he is 66; she said he is 57. He said he was never recruited by the FDLR because he is illiterate. He said he is not interested in returning to Rwanda, but if he were, he knows Shombo would help. “I know the pastor. I know his compound. I know his church,” said Issa. “If I decide, I say, ‘OK, I want to go.’ I will look for him.”

And Shombo will deliver him to a collection center, from which Issa will be transferred to those repatriating refugees to Rwanda — or those repatriating ex-combatants. The pastor believes rumors that Issa arrived from Rwanda in 1994, as his wife says, and is a former combatant.

At one of the transit centers where Shombo delivers refugees to be repatriated they have been taught to ask questions that will help determine if a refugee is a combatant. Here the distinction between refugee and combatant is often blurred. A refugee family might be the dependents of a combatant. Even MONUSCO admits that its figures for combatants usually include the combatants’ dependents. And while convincing refugees to repatriate is one thing, combatants, who can risk death if caught defecting by the FDLR and possible prosecution in Rwanda if they participated in significant crimes during the genocide, are another story.

Last month three of the 60 or so people received at the National Commission for Refugees transit center in Kalungu Village near Minova admitted to being combatants. Social agent Ferdinand Bushu handed them over to MONUSCO to be repatriated to Rwanda as ex-combatants.

Ex-combatants typically spend about three days at the DDRRR camp outside Goma or another camp before being repatriated to their country of origin or transferred to the Congolese army or an organization that deals with child soldiers, depending on their background.

MONUSCO said combatants must be cleared by Congo's national intelligence, which lets them know if they are in judicial proceedings or not, before they can be repatriated. But there does not seem to be much effort to go after individual combatants.

Shombo walks or takes his motorbike to reach the mountainous communities in Sud-Kivu.
Lindsey Catino

The Rwanda side shows even less interest.

“Unless Interpol comes looking for them, how would you know in Rwanda this person committed crimes in Congo?” said Francis Musoni, the coordinator of the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Program. “If they committed crimes in Congo, then it is up to Congo and Interpol to handle it, not Rwanda.”

Bolingo Baraka, 31, wore a bright yellow and green South African sports jacket, jeans and flip-flops. A rosary hung from his neck. He was staying in the tents where single men reside even though he has a wife and children. His family was at another camp, and he hasn’t seen them in months. He hoped they could be located and repatriated with him.

He hasn’t been in Rwanda since 1994, the year his family fled. His father died in the DRC, and he thinks his mother returned to Rwanda. He said he joined the FDLR because of the insecurity in the area. Then a radio broadcast convinced him life now might be better in Rwanda, and he turned himself in. He doesn’t know when he will return to Rwanda or what he will do once he is there.

“I spent many years in the forest, so I first need to arrive and see how they live there,” he said.

Katya Cengel was a 2016 fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Africa Great Lakes reporting initiative.

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