Mutobo is a half-way house between war and peace, where about 9,000 ex-combatants have been processed since 2001 as part of the reintegration of armed militia members from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) into Rwandan society.
For the thousands who have returned, most of whom had not been home since the 1994 genocide, the journey by truck from the demobilization facility in the eastern DRC city of Goma to Mutobo, about 10km west of Ruhrengeri, is a novelty.
Colonel Abraham Bisengimana, 42, a former officer in the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) and a combatant in the eastern DRC with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) since 1997, told IRIN: “We had to walk everywhere, there are no roads there. And if there are, it is too dangerous because of MONUSCO [UN Stabilization Mission in DRC]. We just had to walk to wherever we were going.”
Since his arrival with the 40th intake of the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (RDRC) earlier this year, his greatest luxury is to allow his mind to wander.
“During war, the only thing you can think about is war. But not here. Here you can think of anything. I can get a passport. I can travel, because I am back in my own country now. Before, I was confined,” Bisengimana said.
More than 17 years after the 100-day genocide that resulted in the deaths of about 800,000 Tutsis (85 percent of the Tutsi population according to the genocide museum in the capital Kigali) and moderate Hutus, the RDRC is a stepping stone home for those who fled to the DRC militias.
Mutobo comprises corrugated iron dormitories with double-bunk beds – with a capacity to house several hundred people - a large lecture hall, kitchen facilities and an administration block, all below a cliff from which people were hurled to their deaths during the genocide.
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Situated close to the road to Kigali, the property is unfenced and the nearby community tend to their fields and livestock a few metres away from where the ex-combatants go about their daily routines. They rise at 5am and lights-out is at 10pm and on Sundays they are allowed to visit relatives, distance permitting.
Every ex-combatant, including from the FDLR, DRC army, defunct FAR and Mai-Mai militias, is required to go through the facility’s three-month reintegration process that provides classes in history, national security, nation-building and reconciliation, geography, the electoral system, HIV/AIDS prevention, malaria and entrepreneurial skills.
The 790 child soldiers who have returned to Rwanda since 2001 are sent to Muhazi, near Kigali.
Bisengimana, who joined FAR in 1989, fought against the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the kernel of the country’s post-genocide government, in the early 1990s and in the late 1990s returned to the country in covert FDLR raids, said: “History taught by the former government [pre-1994] education system was about the bad history of kings before independence [from Belgium in 1962]. Now we are taught [by the RDRC] the bad history of the former [pre-1994] government.
“But what we see is the good intentions of this government. The good things being done compared to what was done by others [governments]. That is important… This Hutu, Tutsi thing is useless. When I left, there were not many roads or houses being built. From what existed before, the country is developing very fast,” Bisengimana said.
Sorting soldiers from civilians
A former member of the Gendarmerie in pre-1994 Rwanda, Clemence Benemariya, 48, ended up in the Republic of Congo, married a national, had three children, practised subsistence farming and “lived a normal life”, she said. When her husband died recently, she had a yearning to return to Rwanda and she and her children were repatriated by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Unaware of the demobilization process, she and her children went to live with relatives in south-west Rwanda. But after a few weeks in the country, a member of the local authority told her she had to attend the Mutobo course, because of her military background.
Becoming a civilian is a compulsory rite of passage in post-genocide Rwanda, but there are some civilians trying to disguise themselves as ex-combatants to be eligible for Mutobo.
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Although nearly all arriving at Mutobo have been screened by the demobilization facility in Goma, Jean-Marie Turabumukra, the RDRC deputy manager, told IRIN each new arrival was subjected to “fine screening” to separate out the civilians who hoped to sneak into the programme under false pretences.
The process identifies about three out of every 10 “potential clients” as civilians attempting to take advantage of the programme’s opportunities and the US$100 that forms part of the reintegration package, Turabumukra said.
Those identified as civilians are given transport home.
Turabumukra readily admits part of the function of the RDRC is the “psychological demobilization” of ex-combatants, while critics have called it an “indoctrination process”.
“People have been in the bush for 17 years and are provided a certain view of Rwanda. They are told they will be killed if they come here. We take a friendly approach. People must know what happened and why they went into the bush. This is about a new image of the country, for a new society,” he said.
Most people who have land return to it, but by the time they leave, must have “elaborated a small business project”, Turabumukra said. “If they have problems with paying medical fees or other things, they can get assistance.”
Rule by fear
The ex-combatants return to a society lauded and lambasted in equal measure.
On the one hand, access to health and education and a growing economy - rural internet access in Rwanda is reputedly better than in rural Britain – has given it a reputation as a model developmental state.
But human rights organizations consistently highlight heavy-handed state repression, alleged extra-judicial killings - domestically and internationally - by state security operatives, the effective banning of independent opposition parties and widespread press censorship.
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Kagame’s RPF won 93 percent of the vote in the August 2010 election, the second poll since the controversial 2002 “Divisionism” legislation, which provides for hefty prison terms and fines for sowing discord between Hutus and Tutsis, but detractors cite it as vague and used by Kagame’s government to suppress political dissent and opposition.
In a Human Rights Watch report: Time for a Review of UK Policy on Rwanda, published in July 2011, the author Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher in the Africa Division, notes: “Despite an outward appearance of calm, Rwanda is a fragile country ruled by fear.”
One Kigali resident, who was six at the time of the mass killings and declined to be identified, told IRIN conversations between Hutus and Tutsis remained guarded, more than 17 years later.
Life as a civilian
Safari Martin, 44, a former Lt-Colonel in the FDLR, uses his military alias when meeting IRIN in Kigali. He graduated from Mutobo a year ago. The former FDLR battalion commander of 400 troops said the pain of the two-year separation from his wife and two children – whom he had sent to live in Uganda - was one of the prime motivations to leave, as were divisions within the armed militia group.
“I have had telephone calls [from the FDLR in the DRC] calling me a deserter. If the FDLR see me, they will kill me. To them I am a traitor,” he said.
Martin has been looking for work since leaving Mutobo and even if he were offered a job in the Rwandan army would not accept it, he said. “I do business, petty commerce,” but declined to elaborate.
His 32-year-old wife is studying for a diploma and Martin scrapes together his family’s monthly expenses for accommodation, school fees for his seven year-old daughter and crèche payments for his four-year-old son, mostly through the generosity of his friends.
“If I have food for the month, that is good,” he said. “I regret nothing. I am in Rwanda, with my family and friends. My ambition is to study and educate my children. And if I have work, I will be happy. Life is difficult, but it is passable.”