Peter Nhimiyimana, 17, knew the risks of deserting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). During his more than two years with the militia group in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), his commanding officer had forced him and other members of his unit to watch the decapitation of two of his friends for their failed escape bid.
“A colonel cut their heads off and then told us: ‘This is an example for anyone who tries to leave [the FDLR]. If you protest [at the punishment], you will also be executed.’ I was frightened. But... I knew I had to leave,” he told IRIN at the Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement (DDRRR) camp in the eastern city of Goma. “If I had been caught I would have had my throat cut.”
Nhimiyimana, a Rwandan national, arrived as a baby with his mother as part of the mass migration to the DRC after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and was forcibly recruited into the FDLR at 15. “I carried an AK-47, but I did household work - washing and cleaning - for my commander in Mutonga. I was never involved in fighting, but life is hard [in the bush].”
The child soldier planned his escape meticulously. He first went on “family leave” to visit his father in the North Kivu town of Masisi and the two then arranged a rendezvous in the forest. He made his escape at night and after a five-hour walk met his father, left his weapon with a civilian, and then surrendered at a nearby base of the UN Stabilization Mission in DRC (MONUSCO).
Nhimiyimana’s father, a civilian, was repatriated to Rwanda by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
“I heard about it [DDRRR] on the radio. I heard other people saying how they had left [armed militias] and returned to Rwanda and they had had no problem,” he said. “I don’t have any fear of persecution. I am not responsible for that [the 1994 genocide]. I was a baby then. I don’t worry. Things will be very good in Rwanda.”
|The good ones went back to Rwanda, the bad ones stayed. They were very angry and told us not to think they will go|
The radio programme that convinced Nhimiyimana to leave the FDLR for the country of his birth - despite his commanders telling him he would be killed or imprisoned if he returned - is just one part of a multi-pronged strategy adopted by MONUSCO to undermine the fighting capacities of armed groups in the eastern DRC.
The Security Council’s DDRRR mandate provides for a "voluntary” demobilization, after which foreign combatants in the DRC are returned to their countries of origin.
Mobile radio stations have been deployed “right on the doorstep” of armed militias at MONUSCO field bases. About a dozen or so are in operation, each with a range of about 60km.
Two daily five-hourly bulletins are broadcast, the lingua franca depending on which armed group is being targeted. For the FDLR it is Kiswahili and Kinyarwanda, while broadcasts to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which originates from Uganda, use English and Kiswahili, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) combatants, also mainly from Uganda, are targeted in Acholi, Lingala and English.
A DDRRR spokesman in Goma, Sam Howard, told IRIN the radio programmes featured testimonies of those who had turned their back on war and returned home, as well as details of demobilization packages and the reintegration process, and all the shows were interspersed with popular music – both past and present – to “create nostalgia and a longing for home”.
Defections of combatants from armed groups are not without consequences for the local population, a gang-rape victim from Masisi territory, seeking medical assistance in Goma, told IRIN.
After a leaflet drop by a MONUSCO helicopter on an FDLR base in 2009 and the subsequent defection of FDLR soldiers, her grandfather, uncle and eldest brother, along with several other men, were herded into the forest and killed.
“The good ones went back to Rwanda, the bad ones stayed. They were very angry and told us not to think they will go. They told us, ‘We will kill all the Congolese so the whole area can be our property’,” she said.
Deconstructing an army
The FDLR is estimated at 2,500-strong by MONUSCO, down from 6,500 in 2008. Although regarded as an armed militia, it is structured as a regular army and many of its officers and rank and file were career soldiers in the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR), the military of former president Juvénal Habyarimana, whose assassination sparked Rwanda’s 100-day genocide.
The combination of a rigid hierarchy, mobile-phone communications and a comprehensive picture of the FDLR derived from debriefings and screenings of ex-combatants at Goma’s DDRRR camp in the past decade has enabled the targeted dismantling of its officer corps.
DDRRR political affairs officer Mathew Brubacher, a former investigator for the International Criminal Court, told IRIN: “We are in contact with many of the officers in the field by cell or satellite phone… You have to really understand the group in order to exploit its weaknesses."
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Jean-Marie Turabumukra, deputy manager of the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (RDRC) in Mutobo, which works hand-in-hand with DDRRR in Goma, told IRIN he would contact FDLR officers in the field from Rwanda and the tone of the conversation was “friendly”.
“I will tell them, ‘I am waiting to receive you. Those telling you that you will be arrested are speaking lies’,” he said of his conversations.
In 2008, DDRRR processed an average of 50 FDLR combatants a month but “things really kicked off after the launch of joint operations [of Rwandan forces with the DRC army, FARDC] in 2009”, resulting in a nearly three-fold increase in defections. "Now we are extracting nearly 150 FDLR combatants a month, plus a lot more officers,” Brubacher said.
The joint operations against traditional strongholds of the FDLR forced them out of their “comfort zones,” putting the armed group on the move and making an already hard life in the bush harder.
Colonel Sam Abraham Bisengimana, 42, the former head of the political education, ideological and civil affairs unit at FDLR headquarters in eastern DRC, defected earlier this year and told IRIN morale had slumped with the onset of the joint operations. The arrest in Germany of the FDLR president Ignace Murwanashyaka on 17 November 2009 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity further undermined the organization’s fighting spirit.
Bisengimana joined FAR in 1990 and after fleeing to the DRC after 1994, joined the FDLR in 1997. He said his flight from the armed group was precipitated both by the sense “of an endless war fighting for nothing”, and the regional discrimination between those from north and south Rwanda within the FDLR.
Brubacher believes if the joint operations continue, the FDLR could be effectively neutralized in about two years if the alliance between the governments of the DRC and Rwanda remained strong.
The lull in operations was a consequence of the restructuring of FARDC and had resulted “in a slight dip in the defection rate but this is likely to be only temporary as the FARDC are already redeploying to begin operations again.
"Just this week we received three FDLR officers, including two Lt Colonels,” he said.
Critics of the joint operations say they have exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population through displacement as well as arbitrary killings, and according to a 2010 report by the Pole Institute: Guerrillas in the Mist, The Congolese Experience of the FDLR war in the Eastern Congo, “Each time, the attacks [of joint operations] have only resulted in spreading the FDLR further into the bush, thus giving them more protected territory to operate from.”
Between 2002 and July 2011, nearly 15,000 foreign ex-combatants, including hundreds of child soldiers, were repatriated to Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, as well more than 10,000 dependents of former combatants, according to DDRRR records.
A dangerous game
The extraction of high-ranking officers is both a patient and dangerous process for all concerned. It took two years of negotiations to convince an FDLR HQ commander Lt-Colonel Amri Bizimana, known by his alias Dimitri, to leave the FDLR, Brubacher said.
|One of our officers had to use a friendly Mai-Mai group [local Congolese militia] to provide security when they extracted a FDLR colonel earlier this year|
“People have different reasons for leaving. There might be internal problems, or they are just tired of the bush. They might have sent their families away or their wives are complaining that the children are not getting an education, so they put pressure on them. It’s a multitude of different reasons,” Brubacher said. “Dimitri was feeling marginalized and he knew the FDLR was not going anywhere.”
After building a rapport, face-to-face contact in the bush is often a prerequisite to convince and plan for an officer to take the final step. Like the rank and file, they face execution should their intentions become known, or if they are apprehended during their escape.
“Most of the time we have MONUSCO escorts [when meeting prospective FDLR deserters] but not all the time. A meeting may be arranged in a hurry. One of our officers had to use a friendly Mai-Mai group [local Congolese militia] to provide security when they extracted a FDLR colonel earlier this year,” Brubacher said. "If we don't meet them at the rendezvous point on time, our client could be killed and our reputation and the trust we are building with other clients is undermined."