The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) has long been one of the most significant armed groups active in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where it has been based ever since its founders fled neighbouring Rwanda after playing a key role in the 1994 genocide.
Over the years, thousands of FDLR members and their dependants have surrendered to the UN mission in DRC (MONUSCO), and returned to Rwanda.
And MONUSCO is continuing to help in the demobilization process, even as its Force Intervention Brigade prepares to mount a major offensive against the FDLR - now thought to number between 1,000 and 1,500 fighters - in conjunction with the DRC army.
Among those who gave up the fight recently is Henri* who spoke to IRIN at a MONUSCO base in Goma, capital of North Kivu Province.
“I was born in Bigogwe, in western Rwanda. We left the country at the time of the genocide, the war between the Hutu and Tutsi.** I arrived in DRC in 1994, at the age of two, on my mother’s back. My parents installed themselves in Katoye, in Masisi Territory (in North Kivu Province). That’s where they were killed by Mai-Mai militia.
“A Congolese grandmother who had taken in me and my parents kept me and put me through school. But the FDLR wanted me. The old woman refused and hid me. But one day, tired with their threats, she told them, [as a Rwandan Hutu] ‘he’s your child after all. Take him!’ A commander took me with him in the forest. I was seven years old.
“The first year, I had to find water and food. Then they gave me a Kalashnikov. I couldn’t refuse, or they would have killed me.
“They told me the FDLR wanted to return Hutus to power in Rwanda and that if we dared go back there, we would all be killed, that [President Paul] Kagame would kill us, that everyone who returned was killed. I listened to them but told myself one day I would go back to see if I would really be killed.
“In my group, there were a lot of genocidaires, old guys who told us they couldn’t go back without being arrested. They said the genocide was a war between the Hutu and the Tutsi, that they had killed Tutsi, but after that, the Tutsi had killed them [Hutus] and that that was why they had fled to Congo.
“Before, the genocidaires said they wanted to overthrow Kagame. Now, they tell us, `let those who want to return to Rwanda return to Rwanda; let those who want to lay down their weapons lay down their weapons; let those who want to join the Congolese army join the army’. A Rwandan FDLR commander left to surrender with his men in Nyanzale and [I heard] they joined the [DRC] army.
“I was promoted to sergeant at the age of 18. There were women fighters with us and many Congolese.
“We would protect Rwandan refugees from armed groups. No one could attack them because we were with them. Every Monday, the refugees brought food. It was willing compensation for our protection against other armed groups.
“During operations I looted, but I did not rape. I killed our enemies, not the population. Sometimes, when I think about this, I tell myself I couldn’t do that again.
[The FDLR has been widely accused of gross violations of human rights in eastern DRC, including widespread rape].
“After several years, life became very hard. We had to march far in the forest, for two days, to find a village or find food. I told myself it was time to go back to Rwanda.
“I tried to escape twice, in December and January. The first time, I left with my belongings and money, but I came across some Mai-Mai who mugged me. I had to go back to the FDLR. They locked me up. I failed the second time too and they whipped me. Then I told myself, this has to stop.
“I surrendered to MONUSCO on Thursday 6 March at Mpati. I was treated well and given something to eat. Four days later I was transferred to Goma.
“I have two family members in Rwanda. I am going to see how to find them and what I can do there. But I can’t join the military services in Rwanda. That’s not good. I would rather work in a field.”
Julien* was enrolled in the Rally for Unity and Democracy (RUD), a small radical branch of the FDLR, until he too surrendered to MONUSCO.
“During the war [in Rwanda] between Hutu and Tutsi, things were not good. Many people died. The RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-led rebellion led by now-President Paul Kagame] were killing Hutus at the time. I was at school when the authorities killed my father: he was shot in the abdomen.
“Soon after, I came to Masisi [territory, in North Kivu Province] alone in 1999, passing through Virunga Province. We refugees were fed by the local civilian population, under the coordination of the village chief.
“I joined the FDLR in 1999 to save my life. [The second Congo war was in full swing at the time]. I stayed with Foca [FDLR’s armed wing] until 2005 when I joined RUD: Foca no longer wanted to attack Kigali, but RUD was ready to do so.
“I never looted, only during operations. I never raped because our military authorities said it was strictly forbidden to rape. If they found out somebody had raped, they would kill them. I never killed, only during the war.
“I left RUD because my family called me and asked me to come back and live with them. And also, in Congo, there was no peace, something I hope to have when I get back [to Rwanda]. I don’t want to join the army. I am tired of the army. I want to return to civilian life.
“I cannot identify anyone in particular as my father’s killer. But I have no problem going back. On the other hand, I cannot forgive someone I have never seen.
“We, the FDLR, want to lay down our guns to stop military activities. If Kigali agrees, we will take the guns to the government, under the aegis of the international community, of course.
“We want to show our good faith in participating in political life in our country. If Kigali refuses, the FDLR will show up their bad faith [in professing to be seeking an end to regional stability] . We are all Rwandese and we all want to return to Rwanda to take part in politics.
[The Rwandan government has long refused to countenance any negotiations with the FDLR because of their association with the genocide].
Christine*, 30, sought refuge with hundreds of other Rwandan Hutu families in North Kivu Province, where several armed groups operate, among them some that are hostile to people from Rwanda.
“I was 10 when I left Rwanda. I was still young but I remember that we fled because the RPF were arriving. It was being said that the RPF were coming to kill our people, that they were killing everybody they met.
“[In the DRC] we went to Mugunga camp [west of Goma]. We stayed there for more than a year with my Mum and my two brothers. We then went to Lumbisi in Kalehe Territory [in South Kivu Province] because we had relatives there.
“And then the problem of armed groups started, especially the Raia Mutomboki who were pursuing all Kinyarwanda speakers. But I did not lose any member of my family.” [According to the Usalama project, Raia Mutomboki, (“outraged citizens”) is the largest armed body in South Kivu, and was established in 2005 in response to FDLR massacres see: Armed groups in eastern DRC.
“The FDLR warned us when there would be Raia Mutomboki attacks and we alerted the others and fled. They were not asking for money because they just wanted to protect us; but when they came to our home, we had to give them some food. We welcomed them.
“In 2009, the DRC-Rwanda army operation Umoja Wetu [“our unity”, in Swahili] against the FDLR caused us problems because they [the FDLR militias] fled into the mountains and we were left defenceless.
“To survive I became a farmer. My husband and two of my children died due to sickness. I found myself in a difficult situation. Without peace or a husband I longed to return to my motherland. I had close family members there. They told me that there was peace there.
“People had been informed that MONUSCO will launch an operation against the FDLR. Some have returned [to Rwanda] as they are afraid. They know that the security operation is coming and they are afraid that the FDLR will be hunted down. It is one of the reasons that made them go back [home], me too.
“My dream is to continue with farming to make a living.”
*not a real name
** International jurisprudence has established that there was a systematic campaign to “destroy, in whole or in part”, Rwanda’s Tutsis in 1994. Some Hutu groups continue to frame the genocide in the context of the Tutsi insurgency of the time, as a way to minimize the severity of the events.