Katya Cengel

A long road to reintegration for Rwandan ex-combatants

Despite programs aimed at helping former fighters recover and rebuild, many struggle to find their place in society

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. After spending three months at a demobilization camp, they are reintegrated back into the community. The government follows them every step of the way, mentoring them in a variety of programs, including agriculture. But years later, some still struggle to adapt. This is the third in a three part series looking at ex-combatants, the environment and the complexities of repatriation and reintegration. The first looked at how combatants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are convinced to lay down their arms. The second examined the challenges female ex-combatants face.

MUSANZE, Rwanda — It has been a decade since Nduhira Mathieu returned to Rwanda. In many ways, his life is a success. He is 46 and president of a brick making and agriculture cooperative that received five acres from the government when it was formed in 2011. More recently, the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission (RDRC) awarded the co-op $1,200, recognizing it for its economic and social integration success. The cooperative has 45 members, 15 of them ex-combatants like Mathieu. But Mathieu admits it was only three years ago that he felt accepted by the community. That was when Betty Tuyisenge invited him to her wedding.

"Before, I was thinking that I could not be invited to that wedding," he said. "Then, surprisingly, I was invited."

Tuyisenge is a genocide survivor. Mathieu was a member of the former government’s Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) which, along with civilian militias known as Interahamwe, killed 800,000 people, most belonging to Rwanda’s Tutsi minority during the 1994 genocide. After the Rwanda Patriotic Front took the capital from FAR, Mathieu fled to Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), where he later joined the Hutu armed group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). In 2006 he returned to Musanze, the mountainous district in northern Rwanda where he grew up.

The Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission has demobilized 69,000 Rwandans, around 10,000 or 11,000 of them from DR Congo. (Until recently the demobilization efforts also included current Rwandan government forces.) Almost 15 years after Mutobo Demobilization Camp began demobilizing foreign ex-combatants, their reintegration is far from complete, with ex-combatants still struggling to adjust and the commission still heavily involved in their welfare. 

Serugendo Deo, 45, is vice chairman of a brick making and agriculture cooperative in Rwanda's Musanze district.
Katya Cengel

Serugendo Deo, who returned in 2001 and is vice chairman of Mathieu's cooperative, was one of the first to pass through Mutobo. After completing the three-month program at Mutobo, which familiarizes foreign ex-combatants with the current situation in Rwanda, Deo began his reintegration into the community.

There is a name and acronym for almost every step of the demobilization and reintegration process overseen by the commission. There is BNK, Basic Needs Kit, which is basically 60,000 Rwandan francs ($80) meant to pay for travel back to the community and initial resettlement. When they receive their BNK, ex-combatants are also provided with basic documents, including national identification papers, said Jeanette Kabanda, the commission's social and economic reintegration officer. Later, they receive reintegration grants of 120,000 francs ($120) to start an IGP, Income Generating Project, or to pay for vocational training. Next, if they need it, comes VSW, or Vulnerability Support Window, which includes three options: 400,000 francs ($534) for an income generating project, six months of vocational training, or two years of free education.

Each of Rwanda's five provinces has a provincial reintegration officer working under the commission. Robert Murenzi is the officer for the northern province. Part of his job is to follow up with ex-combatants to see how they are spending their money — it often isn't in the most productive way.

"The problem is their mentality," Murenzi said.

They have spent decades living as part of an armed group not having to worry about paying for food or anything else. Back in the community, he said, they suddenly have to pay for things like electricity and food and have trouble managing.

Ex-combatants like Deo counter that the money is not enough when you are starting from zero. Deo used his money to launch a business buying and reselling sourgum. The business did not do well. That is when he decided to form the cooperative with Mathieu and another ex-combatant. Like Mathieu, Deo is in his mid-40s and says while he was a member of FAR during the genocide, he did not kill civilians. If he had, he said: “I couldn't come back.” It is a common refrain used among both the ex-combatants and members of the Rwandan government — and one that is difficult to prove. More clear are Deo's battle scars from years fighting in DR Congo. He points out the places where he was shot as he counts them off: one on his back, one on his forearm and so on, until he has shown all five.

The cooperative, said Deo, began with a brick building and then expanded to agriculture. Both operations are nestled in a green valley surrounded by hills. In the evening, frogs croak loudly and small children push simple wheels near the maize and cabbage fields. Crops were an obvious choice for the group because there is always a demand for food, said Deo. It is an even more obvious enterprise for the commission to support, said Francis Musoni, coordinator of the commission's Demobilization and Reintegration Programme.

“In Rwanda, agriculture goes without saying, because like 95 percent of the people have something to do with agriculture,” Musoni said.

And having spent many years living in forests where they do not have the opportunity to farm or experience farming on land where crops grow more easily than in Rwanda, they return not knowing how to farm in their own country. The Rwanda Agriculture Board provides training, sending technicians to work with groups of ex-combatants in the fields, teaching them tactics for increasing production, how to protect crops from diseases and how to maintain the soil and use manure, said Murenzi. The commission, for its part, encourages local authorities to supply the ex-combatants with land and the ex-combatants to form cooperatives that include members of the local community. According to Kabanda, the cooperatives have “helped a lot because it takes care of the social part for unity and reconciliation.” The ex-combatants are usually eager to integrate, said Murenzi — the local community less so.

“At the beginning it was hard,” Mathieu said. “There was a kind of suspicion between the different groups.”

Mukanoheri Mary Chantal, 32, outside her fruit stand in Kigali, Rwanda.
Katya Cengel

The commission works hard to overcome this with a level of interference possible in a police state like Rwanda, where many aspects of citizens' lives are managed by the government. Within this system, the commission is able to organize communal work projects where ex-combatants and community members work together. Community meetings are held to further encourage cooperation between the two groups and “sensitization” sessions are arranged to help familiarize family members, and the larger community, with the unique needs of ex-combatants.

The effort appears to have paid off in the Muku area, where Mathieu's cooperative is based. Nshimiyimana Pierre, who manages the co-op's brick workers, considers the ex-combatants no different than any other community members. Aside from social integration, the coops also more closely resemble the ex-combatants’ former system as members of armed groups, said Murenzi. But there is yet another reason the government likes coops — they make it easy for the government to keep tabs on the ex-combatants.

“We want them to be together in order to supervise them,” Murenzi said.

Musoni said there have not been any instances of violence or fighting among ex-combatants integrated back into the community. This is hard to verify, but the wife of one ex-combatant living in Kigali reported that her husband had been jailed for six months for an unknown reason.

Musoni did admit that alcohol abuse among ex-combatants is a problem. In his province, Murenzi started keeping a list of those with drinking problems. The list, he said, is growing. But both Musoni and Murenzi maintain they are on top of it, sending those who need it to a treatment center. The commission also recently launched a screening exercise to identify and treat those battling alcohol and drug addiction.

Mental health problems are more disruptive, said Musoni. While it is impossible to know the exact number, he estimates that about five percent of ex-combatants have visible mental health problems. From November 2015 to February 2016 mental health workers at the commission and in the community participated in a series of trainings conducted by Vivo International, a non-profit that focuses on mental rehabilitation of citizens in countries suffering from armed conflict. Fear of recapture, depression and delusion have been reported by those working with ex-combatants. The problems can continue long after the ex-combatants have returned to civilian life.

Mukanoheri Mary Chantal returned from fighting in DR Congo in 2002.When she talks about her time as a combatant she fidgets, twisting a small cloth in her hand, picking at a piece of wood on a counter.

“Sometimes, you meet with big problem, and you start thinking about what you have gone through, and you feel very bad,” Chantal said.

After being trained and working as a seamstress, Chantal, who is 32, managed to save enough to open a small fruit and vegetable stand in Kigali. But her success is limited. The stand is struggling and her husband, also an ex-combatant, is unemployed. It is difficult to pay school fees for her four children. Mathieu's success also seems small when compared to where he could have been had he not spent so much of his life fighting in DR Congo. When foreign ex-combatants discover how much others have achieved while they were fighting they sometimes become troubled, said Murenzi.

“When they left, their younger brother was still a kid,” he explained. “Now their younger brother has a house, a farm, a pig project. And they can even become traumatized, saying, ‘how am I going to live here? Where am I going to start from?’"

That is what Mathieu regrets most — the time he lost.

“Because when I came back, I found everybody has gone far.”

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