KIGALI – Ten years after the 1994 genocide Rwanda faces the challenge of demobilizing, repatriating and reintegrating thousands of former government soldiers and militia men who fled into the Democratic Republic of Congo at the end of the genocide.
From the DRC, the former soldiers and militiamen have been involved in attacks against Rwanda and some of them joined the various rebel forces fighting each other in the Congo. As part of the process of stabilizing Rwanda and its neighbors, such groups were outlawed in the Lusaka Peace Accords and were to be demobilized and reintegrated into their communities.
The Rwandan government and the UN’s repatriation unit are presently working together to encourage some of the willing ex-combatants and civilians to return home to Rwanda.
More than 3500 people have returned from eastern Congo since repatriation began, five years ago.
The process of rehabilitation and reintegration begins with medical treatment at a camp situated in Ruhengeri province just across the border from the DRC. The second step is usually civic education which prepares them for life after the camp.
Ezra Byiringiro was a priest in one of the rebel groups before he decided to leave and return to Rwanda. He went to Nkamira reintegration camp where he attended some educational courses. He says this training changed his life and helped him to start a carpentry project.
“Now we are living a good life because we are able to work and earn a living. We manage to feed our children so we don’t have any problems,” Byiringiro says.
Mary Uwimbabazi is the wife of a former combatant. She returned from Congo in 2001 and found a job at a building site in Gitarama. She still works there and says earning money makes a big difference.
“My life is better here than in Congo. I wish I could bring all the people I left behind back to Rwanda,” she says.
Joram Sibomana is another combatant who returned to Rwanda three years ago. He learned how to make iron boxes from scrap. He says he has made over 300 boxes. He sells them to women who are preparing for marriage.
“I’m better off now than I was in Congo. I started to work as soon as learnt my new job. It’s now 2 years since I started. When I came I was single. Now I am married. I think this is a great achievement. The whole process requires money. I got it from what I am doing.
Life here is good. As for those people who stayed behind in Congo, I’d advise them to come back home and help us rebuild our country,” Sibomana urges.
It is not easy to reintegrate into a community and many find they need to acquire new skills to survive. Emile Ruvebana is a community development officer. He has experience in teaching Rwandan returnees how to start and develop small projects.
“It’s hard for them at first. But that’s not unusual; most people we teach have no previous experience in starting projects. After some instruction, we give them a test and to see how much they’ve learned. They are interested, because they know the training is useful,” Rubevana explains.
People like Ezra Byiringiro who make good progress become focal points for more who are returning.
“I know what kind of life they live. We just wish they’d leave the bush and come here so we could teach them what we do. The door is always open. I’ve taught several people. We welcome anybody who’d like to learn new skills to find a place in today’s changing world,” he notes.
Another problem that could occur is that people are often suspicious and sometimes wonder if the returnee was involved in attacks launched from the Congo to Rwanda after the genocide. But as time passes, it seems most stop worrying too much about the past and look to the future. Odace Muhinda is a resident of Gahogo sector in Gitarama she says that for the most part there are no tensions.
“We live in harmony with each other. Most of the people work together in commercial activities or construction. There is no problem between people. In fact, most of those who returned decide go back to Congo to try to convince friends to come and join them here,” she says.
Not far away is Gifumba sector where Longine Habimana lives. “There is no problem, people live in harmony now. Those who returned are very happy because they thought it was impossible. Back in the bush, they were told they’d face all kinds of danger if they returned. But that’s not what they found. They’re glad to be back in their own country.”
Captain Macika Mugarukira says that although life in Rwanda is easier that in the combat areas in Congo most people fail to return because of propaganda.
“They are afraid to return because they have wrong information. They read false newspaper reports about deaths, disappearances and insecurity in Rwanda, especially in the north. They hear that Tutsis have all the power. This kind of thing makes them too scared to return, they are afraid of what might happen. I used to feel that way until I found out that such stories are simply not true,” Mugarukira says.
Lieutenant Jean Bosco Hategekimana has similar views.
“I think these people in exile should be informed about what is really taking place in Rwanda. They are told there is insecurity in Rwanda. They believe that anyone who returns cannot find peace. But if they knew the real story, about how safe it is for them in Rwanda, they would decide to come back home,” he notes.
To combat some of these misconceptions, Radio Okapi, which is managed by MONUC and broadcasts to some parts of eastern Congo, tries to help spread the repatriation message. People who have entered the education camps often use Radio Okapi to send greetings to former colleagues still living in the bush. According to journalist Jean Luc Mutokambali, this sometimes brings positive results.
“These radio greetings are important, because most of the people returned home after they heard such messages on Okapi or other radio stations,” he says.
Despite such efforts it is still hard to convince people to return. Timothy Reid, a political affairs officer in MONUC says the real reason is the pressure put by those who have the most to lose if the soldiers return.
“It’s mostly the leaders, particularly those who aren’t even living in the bush. They now live in Europe or elsewhere in Africa and don’t want the rank and file to go back to Rwanda, because then they’d have no bargaining chip to use when negotiating their own return,” he argues.
The other concern that such leaders have is that they might have to face the Rwandan justice system for crimes they might have committed before fleeing to the DRC. On this matter Rwanda is not compromising as Jean Sayinzoga, the national chairman for the demobilization and reintegration program notes.
“If they committed crimes, investigations will be carried out and legal institutions will decide whether they should go to jail or be given other punishments. It will depend on the weight of their crimes,” he says
Repatriation and reintegration continues at an uncertain pace, depending on when people decide to return home.
However, since the Congolese government recently announced that it will no longer tolerate members of ex-FAR and Rwandan Hutu former militias on its territory, this process may soon speed up. Congolese President, Joseph Kabila says these forces must be disarmed and returned to Rwanda. How quickly will this happen? Only time will tell.
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