One of Congo's most brutal militias sprouted from the Rwandan genocide. But will sending troops to fight it cause yet another humanitarian catastrophe?
- By Lauren WolfeLauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York.
KIGALI, Rwanda — A woman sat in the strong sun outside Rwanda’s genocide memorial at the end of February and told me what happened to her when she was eight years old. "Three men came to my house and killed my father and two brothers and shot my mother," she said. "My mother survived, bleeding alone in the house for days."
At the time of the attack, the woman was away from home, visiting her godmother nearby. They both managed to escape the swift and terrifying slaughter of Rwanda’s 100-day genocide, which began in the first week of April 1994 and killed more than half a million people, mainly ethnic Tutsis. The woman I spoke to walked for more than two weeks, sleeping at night wherever she could: in the bush, in the streets. She eventually reached the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) and crossed over with her godmother to find refuge at a camp set up in the city of Bukavu.
She was just one of an estimated 2 million people who fled their country because of the genocide. Many of them ended up in Congo. While some were Tutsi civilians, like this woman, many were ethnic Hutus who left their homes, fearing reprisals from the government, led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which took control at the end of the genocide.
Not all of the refugees, however, were innocent civilians.
Among the Hutus who left Rwanda were many of the thousands of men who had helped carry out the mass killings — men known as genocidaires. These men, and others sympathetic to them, settled into refugee camps in eastern Congo. From these ad hoc bases, they regrouped and staged attacks back into Rwanda.
It was the beginning of what has now become a nearly two-decade-long, deadly series of conflicts within Congo that are inextricably tied up with the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide. As the Hutu forces trained their sights on Rwanda (as well as Tutsis living in eastern Congo), the RPF government responded by invading Congo in 1996 and hunting down and massacring tens of thousands of Hutu refugees. Violence has continued since.
Today, the Hutu forces have morphed into what is known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) — one of multiple rebel groups causing chaos and destruction in Congo’s east. Although seemingly few of the group’s estimated 2,000 or so members are original genocidaires, the FDLR still helps to sustain dangerous tensions between Congo and Rwanda. "Its covert purpose," according to the United Nations, "appears to be to overthrow the Rwandan government." More broadly, the FDLR is a crucial and sizable thorn preventing peace in the Great Lakes region — a thorn that has proven anything but easy to remove.
Since the defeat of the M23 — the Tutsi-led, covertly Rwanda-backed militia — in eastern Congo late last year and the arrest of its leader by the International Criminal Court several months prior (or, as a Western diplomat in Kigali described it, "Rwanda finally stopped taking his calls so he turned himself in"), it’s been understood in diplomatic circles that the FDLR is the next target of the U.N. stabilization mission in Congo (MONUSCO). "The deal has always been that Rwanda cooperates or at least doesn’t frustrate efforts on taking down the M23," the diplomat said, "and MONUSCO promised that after that, the FDLR is next."
Former Irish President Mary Robinson, who is the U.N.’s Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, said in an interview, "Rwanda feels they [the FDLR] pose a threat to them. They want to see a determined action." And by determined action, she means Rwanda wants the FDLR gone — using any means possible, peaceful or otherwise.
There isn’t a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the Rwandan government for a non-military option, according to some experts. "The RPF would sooner exile itself to the North Pole," said Jason Stearns, author of a book on Congo and former head of the U.N. Group of Experts on the country, "than engage in talks with people who are considered to be the torchbearers of genocide in the region."
Problem being, evidence to date shows that while military offensives against the FDLR might weaken the group, civilians trapped in Congo’s perpetual conflict zone pay a steep cost: they are attacked, slaughtered, raped, abducted. "Going in and killing [the FDLR] is eventually going to work," Stearns said, pointing out how the group’s numbers have declined in recent years, "but at what price?"
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Among the many militias operating in Congo, the FDLR is well known for its brutality. Take, for instance, an attack on the eastern Congolese town of Busurungi in May 2009. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, a witness to the massacre said:
[T]hey grabbed my 18-year-old son, pulled him out of the house and killed him. After that, they hacked to death by machete a 42-year-old woman and a 3-month-old baby girl who were also hiding in my house.
Given the terror that the FDLR is perpetrating, as well as the threat that Rwandan authorities feel the group poses to their country, things have been done to try to stop it — things like running secret ops to kill militia leaders in the jungle while they sleep, according to the Western diplomat I spoke to in Kigali; dropping leaflets that explain how FDLR members can peacefully put down arms and repatriate to Rwanda (if they don’t get killed by their own militia for trying to do so); or running military missions, led by Congolese government forces with U.N. support. More recently, a new U.N.-run Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) with a "robust mandate" — it is sanctioned by the Security Council to shoot to kill — has begun staging offensives against the FDLR. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, U.N. and Congolese forces endeavored to take on whole swaths of the militia in Virunga National Park.
While some experts have hailed recent U.N. efforts in particular as the vanguard of international intervention, the fact remains that previous offensives against the FDLR have proven catastrophic in a humanitarian sense. The FDLR is known for its no-holds-barred use of violence against civilians when backed into a corner. In 2009, for example, military operations against the FDLR displaced millions of Congolese, and a group of NGOs called the Congo Advocacy Coalition estimated that for every FDLR soldier that laid down arms, one civilian was killed and seven women were raped.
"It’s not a cost that bears repeating," Stearns said.
Rwanda, however, seems to feel differently. It has insisted that more should be done to eradicate the FDLR, and it has expressed particular concern that the Congolese government might be colluding with the militia. (HRW reported in 2010 that the Congolese government has "repeatedly turned to the FDLR … for support in its fight against Congolese rebel groups backed by Rwanda and against the Rwandan army.")
In remarks on March 14, Rwanda’s permanent representative to the U.N., Eugene-Richard Gasana, accused MONUSCO of "hoodwinking" the Security Council about its recent operations in Virunga. He said that "reliable information" also showed that a Congolese army commander "leaked information of the impending FIB attack on FDLR, hence undermining this operation."
Stearns acknowledges that the Congolese government could be doing more "to tackle their [the FDLR’s] local support base," but he also says Rwanda doesn’t seem interested in more peaceful approaches to the militia, such as mitigation and repatriation, that might cause less devastation. "Their No. 1 goal is getting rid of their enemies," he said of Rwandan authorities, "and they don’t care if Congolese get hurt in the process."
Stearns insists that there must be an alternative. "Making sure they [militia members] have an exit path is a hell of a lot better than thousands of people being killed," he said. "We need to rack our brains to think of any peaceful options possible." One option could be finding a country other than Rwanda where FDLR fighters could go (Malawi, for instance). If Mary Robinson and other international envoys negotiated such a deal, Stearns believes some of the FDLR’s members would take it.
There’s also the possibility of stymieing some of the FDLR’s financial support — although the issue of whether there is a powerful network of FDLR backers around the world is hotly debated. Some, like Stearns, say that supporters abroad are not giving much money to feed the fight on the ground; most of the money comes instead from extortion, smuggling, and mineral mining. But the Western diplomat in Kigali, like some other Congo-watchers, argues that "the FDLR is so much bigger than a bunch of guys with rubber boots in the jungle. They are funding this stuff. They get rich from it."
HRW wrote in its 2009 report that the U.N. Group of Experts had said "the FDLR’s international supporters have continued to facilitate money transfers and be involved in the coordination of arms deliveries to FDLR troops on the ground." Also, HRW tracked "frequent telephone communications between FDLR military commanders based in eastern Congo to at least 25 different countries in Europe, North America, and Africa."
The U.N. placed the FDLR on its sanctions list in December 2012. A U.S. State Department official told me that "the FDLR as a group is subject to an asset freeze and the individual members under sanctions are subject to personal asset freezes" as well as a travel ban. ("We have no evidence that high-level individuals subject to sanctions live in the U.S.," the official added.) But the diplomat in Kigali — who said he doesn’t believe negotiating with the FDLR would work — thinks the world "could do more to squeeze" the FDLR’s supporters, "freeze assets, create travel bans, arrest them. We have to try to close the net around them."
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On March 30, the Security Council voted to extend MONUSCO’s mission in Congo for another year — including the mandate of the FIB. When the vote went through, the representative from Congo announced that operations against the FDLR are "imminent" and that "decisive operations" will take place "very soon."
But there’s no guarantee that the exercise of military might can fix what has become one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world. It won’t necessarily protect civilians; in fact, if history is any guide, it will likely harm them. And it won’t erase the tension between Congo and Rwanda that the FDLR and other militias have both fed and been fed by for years. "It’s time for them to look in the mirror," the Western diplomat said of the need for both governments to recognize their role in perpetuating conflict.
By contrast, peaceful demobilization of the FDLR — and, one by one, other militias in Congo — would provide something of a symbolic bookend to the genocide that took place 20 years ago. It would also likely go a long way toward bringing sustained peace to the Great Lakes region, and to the lives of its battered people.