Katya Cengel

In Rwanda, female ex-combatants face reintegration challenge

At Mutobo camp, former fighters spend three months being rehabiliated after returning from the DRC

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, where they spend three months at Mutobo Demobilization Camp. After decades spent fighting, the transition is not easy, especially for women. This is the second 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.

MUTOBO, Rwanda — Mutuyimana Jeanine clicks her heels and stands at attention. Then she waits in the doorway of Ephrem Kanamugire’s office, entering only when the manager of Mutobo Demobilization Camp invites her in.

Jeanine is 34, but looks younger. She has four children and wears flip-flops with a butterfly design. When Hutu armed combatants from Rwanda fled to Zaire (now DR Congo) in 1994, Jeanine was 12 years old.

She also fled to Zaire in 1994, but for a different reason. Her parents were killed in the genocide during which the government’s Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and civilian militias known as Interahamwe killed 800,000 people, most belonging to Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, as well as moderate Hutus. Jeanine was fleeing those who killed her parents. The Hutu armed combatants who took part in the genocide, and Hutu refugees fearing reprisal killings, were fleeing the Rwanda Patriotic Front, a

Tutsi movement that had captured the Rwandan capital. Most of them ended up at the same place, Mugunga refugee camp in eastern Zaire.

But Jeanine returned to Rwanda in 1995 after surviving family members located her. She lived in Musanze with her two younger siblings and an older cousin in the home where her parents were murdered. But Rwanda wasn’t as peaceful as Jeanine had been led to believe, especially where she was in the north of the country, not far from the border with DR Congo. In 1997 a Hutu rebel group came to her school and kidnapped seven students and a teacher. Jeanine was taken to the rebels' camp at Karasimbimbi volcano.

Because she was not actively fighting the government soldiers, the rebels accused Jeanine of being a traitor. She denied the charges. Jeanine knew their accusations were serious — she had seen them kill others who were friendly with government soldiers. After holding her hostage for seven months, they gave her a choice.

Teacher Alphonse Senyoni leads a class on history, politics and the 1994 genocide for former FDLR)combatants at the Mutobo Demobilisation Centre on April 10, 2014.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

“They said ‘choose between two things: You are going to be killed or you are going to join us and become a soldier.’“

So Jeanine, then 16, became a child soldier.

Not long after, facing increasing attacks from the Rwandan armed forces, her group crossed into Zaire. They were not the only foreign combatants in the area. In the First Congo War, a rebel group supported by Rwanda, and led by Laurent-Desire Kabila, invaded Zaire, scattering Hutu rebels and refugees. As president of Zaire, Kabila renamed the country DR Congo. In the Second Congo War, Kabila supported Hutu rebels against rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda. The Hutu groups, including Jeanine's, later consolidated into the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The majority of the 30,600 foreign ex-combatants operating in DR Congo who have been repatriated to their homeland since 2002 belong to FDLR, according to United Nations Organisation Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).

Jeanine is one of the 25,623 who returned, a number that includes former combatants and their dependents.

Since Rwanda began repatriating foreign ex-combatants in 2001, around 10,000 or 11,000 have been repatriated from DR Congo, said Francis Musoni, coordinator of the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Programme. The demobilization of foreign ex-combatants is part of a larger demobilization program run by the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission that has demobilized 69,000 Rwandans, around 500 of them women. Until several years ago, the demobilization efforts also included current Rwandan government forces, but today the only people being demobilized are foreign ex-combatants.

The first place they go when they enter Rwanda is Mutobo. (There is a separate camp for child combatants.) At one point, 600 people passed through Mutobo every three months, the length of time they spend at the camp. Today, there are 53, three of whom are women. In the afternoon, after lectures are finished, children play soccer by the maize fields and cows graze near the administrative buildings. It could be mistaken for a peaceful mountain retreat — if it weren't for the Rwanda Genocide most wanted poster. Most of those returning now are too young to have participated in the genocide — between 23 and 37 years-old — said Mutobo manager Kanamugire. But that does not mean they are blameless.

Former FDLR combatants, including Peter Ngaboyamahina , center, attend a class on history, politics and the 1994 genocide at the Mutobo Demobilisation Centre April 10, 2014.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

“Some of them, they will tell you frankly, that the only way of living (in DR Congo) was going to take somebody’s food in the field" at gunpoint, said Kanamugire.

It falls on him and his staff of eight to reform them. The ex-combatants are given all they need, but no money. Some report their soap finished just a few days after receiving it, he said, far too soon for it to have been actually used up. Either they are stockpiling it, said Kanamugire, “or they have sold it around the corner to get some money.”

The phenomenon may stem from a sense of insecurity about their future, something the center is meant to remedy. Many of the younger ex-combatants lack basic literacy, having not attended school after leaving Rwanda in 1994, said Kanamugire. At Mutobo, they spend an hour each morning learning to read and write. Their spouses and children go through a similar three-week program. They are taught that there are no longer Hutus or Tutsis, just Rwandans. Even so, they are warned there may be some who do not welcome them back, and advised on ways to handle this.

Aside from organized trips into the community to meet with ex-combatants who have successfully integrated into society, residents are required to stay at the camp, unless they obtain a pass, something Kanamugire tries to limit. When they are outside, he explained, they can buy gin. And when they drink, they fight. At the camp he maintains strict order. Although the center's mission is to turn soldiers into civilians, Kanamugire maintains the system of military rank from their combat days, otherwise, he said, “it will be chaos.” Men and women are usually housed separately, but there are exceptions. Jeanine is able to share a room with her husband and youngest child. Jeanine may have been a simple FDLR soldier, but her husband was not.

Habamungu Desire was a colonel in FDLR in charge of external intelligence. Like many of his comrades, he had a number of aliases including Baba Adam, Kaduruvayo and Adolphe Habamungu. He is 49, which means he is old enough to have participated in the Rwandan genocide. But if he played an active role in the genocide, said Jeanine, his community in Rwanda would not have accepted him back, and that has not been the case. The couple and their children were able to visit Desire's old community over the winter holidays. Kanamugire and Musoni confirmed her statement. The real perpetrators of the genocide do not return to Rwanda, they said, because they know they will be turned in by the community.

There is no such accounting in DR Congo.

The first thing Jeanine was taught after she became a solder was how to shoot a Kalishnikov. She was also taught that once you become a soldier, you are a soldier forever. For Jeanine, being a soldier meant cooking and fetching water, and then, when there was war, fighting. Although she said she did not hurt civilians other than to steal their crops, she admitted civilians ran away in fear whenever they saw her. She did not kill anyone when she wasn't fighting, she said. But “in the war, we were just fighting, so I could also fight and shoot other soldiers, so it's possible.”

Kanamugire said it is not uncommon for FDLR soldiers to have been forced to kill comrades who tried to escape. A young man who passed through the camp just before the current group was so haunted by the image of the man he killed that he had to be sent to the hospital for psychological treatment. Kanamugire estimated that in each group there are one or two who have severe enough psychological trauma to require hospitalization, the rest are treated by the camp psychologist. Almost all are haunted to some degree. When talking with them about what they have been through, sometimes Kanamugire notices a far away look in their eyes, as if they are somewhere else.

“You have to say ‘hey come back, come back.’”

For the first few nights Jeanine was at Mutobo she had nightmares. They were always the same. She was caught while trying to leave FDLR. If you are caught, you are killed. Which is why more don't return to Rwanda, said Kanamugire. That and the rhetoric they are fed by FDLR telling them they will be killed if they return. Jeanine believed it for a while. But in time she became tired of the constant fighting, the waking at 3 a.m. and having to run, the lack of education for her children. One day in November 2015 she and her children pretended to be headed to the fields to work. Her husband secretly followed. Only once they were out of FDLR territory did they ask to be taken to MONUSCO, which handles voluntary repatriation of foreign armed groups through a process called DDRRR: Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement. 

Nyirahabimana Clementine with her baby, Merci Sifa, at Mutobo Demobilization Camp.
Katya Cengel

It was after her husband was killed during an attack by the Congolese army that Nyirahabimana Clementine decided to return to Rwanda. She was nine months pregnant and suffering from malaria. Clementine, now 27, was six years old when she left Rwanda and has never been to school. Her father was a member of the former Rwandan armed forces that took part in the genocide. During fighting in what was then Zaire, he was killed along with five of her siblings. When she was 17, her mother returned to Rwanda. Clementine chose to stay behind, fearful of the rumors she had grown up hearing about all the “killers” in Rwanda. By then she had already joined FDLR.

“I was living a miserable, horrible life and I decided to join the army,” she said.

There wasn't really any other option. Her marriage, she said, was not one of choice.

Cases of forced marriage and rape among female combatants are not unusual, said Clemence Niyonteze, head of gender issues at the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission. Female combatants may be pressured by their superiors to perform sexual acts or marry in exchange for staying further from the fighting, she said.

“Being a female on the front, it’s a big challenge.”

Even after they stop fighting, female combatants face additional challenges. Women with multiple children have trouble finding childcare in order to attend the vocational training the commission offers. Family responsibilities are one reason female ex-combatants often end up working in agriculture, because it allows them to stay close to home. The commission offers a number of work reintegration programs. Because agriculture plays such an important role in Rwandan society, there is a strong emphasis on agriculture, with plans to further expand the Mutobo introductory element in September. At present, there is a cabbage patch where ex-combatants practice using fertilizer and manure, things they didn't need in the fertile forests.

Both Jeanine and Clementine plan to work in agriculture when they leave Mutobo. But there is a problem — neither has land. Clementine's half brother sold all of her father's land while she was away in DR Congo. Jeanine's husband was married before he left Rwanda and in his absence his wife married his brother and took over his property.

Jeanine's three oldest children are currently living with her mother-in-law. The separation is hard on her. “But still, I'm OK,” she said. “Because I am a soldier, of course I can handle it.“

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

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