Supporting Dialogue and Demobilisation in the DR Congo
Supporting Dialogue and Demobilisation in the DR Congo
Op-Ed / Africa

No Man's Army

In a dark mud hut perched on a steep hillside in eastern Congo, I met Major Anicet. Though only in his mid-30s, he is frail and can barely speak; he is wracked by the final stages of AIDS. If I didn't know better, I'd find it hard to believe that I was looking at someone who shares responsibility for one of the worst crimes in living memory.

As an officer in the dreaded Rwandan presidential guard that orchestrated the genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis in 1994, Anicet has a long, bloody record. Chewing half a dozen aspirin to dull the pain, he tells me that however ill he becomes, he refuses to return to Rwanda for medical care. "They would kill me," he wheezes, his jaundiced eyes barely open. He makes it clear he doesn't regret the genocide and is determined to die before surrendering.

Eleven years on, the genocidaire who fled with him to the eastern Congo form part of the Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), a ragtag group of 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers who are a central cause of one of today's deadliest conflicts. A thousand civilians die every day here, mostly due to the hunger and disease brought on by the conflict.

The majority of the FDLR troops don't share Anicet's determination to die in eastern Congo, however. Many of the soldiers who gather around him in tattered clothes and with rusty AK-47s are too young to have participated in the genocide. They have wives and children and are tired of living in the squalid camps without health centers or schools. An estimated 30% of them are HIV-positive. They ask me if there is electricity in Rwanda, and whether there are cell phones.

Ever since their supply line from the Congolese government was cut off in 2002, the FDLR have been dramatically weakened and are no longer a serious threat to Rwanda. In the meantime, they prey on the Congolese population around them, extorting taxes and pillaging villages. Not far from Anicet's camp, locals told us how the FDLR had burned 10 women and men alive for being witches.

But even though these forces have been a menace here for more than a decade, some recent events give reasons for hope. In late March, the political leadership of the FDLR announced in Rome that they would cease military action and return home. The declaration represented, at least on its surface, a historic opportunity to close a chapter in the tragedy of Central Africa.

The stakes could hardly be higher right now. In its effort to dismantle the FDLR, Rwanda has invaded the Congo twice in recent years, and last month, they threatened to do so again. The transition in the Congo has also reached a crucial point, as parties scramble for power before elections are held sometime in the coming year. A further Rwandan invasion or an attack by the FDLR could unravel Congo's extremely fragile peace process, returning the volatile region to a war that already cost a staggering 3.8 million lives over the past six years.

But neither Rwanda nor the Congo seems eager to see the militia return home. The Congolese army has done nothing to chase them off its territory or to protect its citizens from these predators. Indeed, the government of Joseph Kabila employed the FDLR as mercenaries for many years and bears a large responsibility for their presence. However, the Congolese army, which was only recently created out of the various former rebel groups, is deeply factious and has balked at taking action. The international community, which is already training the new units and funds over half the budget of the transitional government, needs to make them act and support them in an operation against the FDLR should they refuse to return to Rwanda.

If Congo has failed to provide a stick, Rwanda's carrot is just as absent. The Rwandan government of Paul Kagame has refused to meet with FDLR commanders. While it is clear that the FDLR have no political legitimacy, technical discussions with some of the commanders could marginalize the extremists and bring the bulk of the troops home. For now, all Rwanda offers the troops is roughly $200 before returning to civilian life. This is hardly enough to sway the thinking of high-ranking FDLR commanders who have satellite phones and thousands of dollars in gold and diamonds.

Other governments in the region, including Burundi and Uganda, have dealt pragmatically with their own rebels and have successfully sat down to discuss the terms of their return. Rwanda needs to follow suit. No one would argue with Rwanda's right to prosecute those guilty of the 1994 genocide (by most estimates only 10% of the current FDLR), but it can present a list of those who are wanted while hashing out a realistic deal with the others.

Major Anicet will very likely die in his hillside hut before he sees trial in Rwanda. The efforts by the government in Kigali to bring other FDLR commanders to justice, before they too pass on, should not condemn millions of innocent Congolese in the eastern Congo to continued suffering under the unwanted militia living among them.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.