African business, politics and lifestyle
Rwanda: legacy of a genocide 15 years on
This April marks 15 years since the Rwandan genocide, an event that still casts a dark shadow over the region. It was a killing spree that lasted just three months, but that left 800,000 people dead, most ethnic Tutsis, killed by soldiers and civilians from the majority Hutu ethnic community.
It took an army of exiled Tutsi Rwandans, led by Rwanda’s current president Paul Kagame, to stop the killings. That government, still in power 15 years later, has vowed that a Rwandan genocide can never happen again. It’s a policy that has had a deep impact on the whole region, especially on Rwanda’s bigger neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is where the defeated Hutu army fled in 1994. In the sprawling refugee camps, a new Hutu militia was formed – the FDLR or Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.
Rwanda didn’t take the threat across the border lying down and invaded Congo three times, sparking a civil war in 1998 that sucked in six African countries and killed 5.4 million people, according to aid agencies.
But their most recent incursion took place with the full complicity of the Congolese government. This February, thousands of Rwandan troops descended on the country’s East, to try and hunt down the FDLR once and for all.
Suspected FDLR fighters and their families were rounded up, to be taken back to Rwanda. FDLR corporal Jean Baptiste Iradukunda explained that he had given himself up voluntarily so that he could go home to Rwanda safely. “Now the FDLR is disorganised,” he said. “We can’t communicate anymore. Many FDLR groups still have some heavy guns but they are defeated, there is no organisation.”
Near the village of Matembe, the army found an FDLR camp and burnt it to the ground. We saw no fighting, no resistance. The smoke drifted peacefully over the surrounding forests: an good hiding place for any militia.
A group of women and children sat around on the outskirts of the village. Marie Celine Uwamariya is married to an FDLR fighter who was still in the bush. The term she used to describe the ethnic Tutsi soldiers in Rwanda’s army – “cockroach” – was used by the killers for their victims during the genocide.
“When my husband heard that the cockroaches were coming from Rwanda we decided to run into the forest,” she told Reuters Africa Journal. “When we got there, life got too hard for us so we decided to go back to our village. When we got there, these
soldiers took us and brought us here.”
When they get back to Rwanda, the former fighters spend time in a rehabilitation camp, where they learn their country’s history – from the government’s perspective – and how to be good citizens in a system that they fought against for 15 years.
Back in eastern Congo, we were there when the Rwandan army packed up to go home, after a month on the ground. The last time they left Congo in 2002, most of the locals were delighted to see them go. Not this time. Matembe resident Shinyongo Ramadhan
had this message for the Rwandan troops:
“When you leave, the rebels will come back and we will be beaten,” he said. “Some of us will be hurt very badly.”
Since then, the FDLR have returned to local villages and launched reprisal killings and rapes, according to human rights groups. The UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA estimates that this year alone, 150,000 people have been displaced in eastern Congo, most by the FDLR.
Was Rwanda right to fight the FDLR all these years, waging war in a country not their own? Who should be responsible for disarming this militia born out of the 1994 genocide?