Hundreds of thousands of people were massacred during the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda. Now, in the crucible of the ensuing war in neighbouring Congo, the fugitive killers are training their children to carry on the Hutu mission of extermination, and awaiting their opportunity to return to the mother country.
The article below, about child soldiers being trained by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group run by Hutu extremists in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that Callixte Nzabonimana, one of the FDLR’s leaders and a former Rwandan minister of youth and sport, is wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in connection with the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In fact Nzabonimana was arrested in February 2008 in Tanzania.
The boy with the shaved head and Kalashnikov slung across his legs is uncertain about a lot of things, even his age. He pulls at the long, dry grass around him and in a quiet voice says he thinks that he might be 13 years old because he was a baby when his mother wrapped him with the last of her possessions and made her escape across the border. Asked where he is from, he gestures toward the lush hills rippling to the east. Somewhere among them is an unmarked frontier with a country the boy calls home, although he has no memory of the last time he was there.
What’s over the hills? Rwanda, he says. Where are his parents? He doesn’t know. Dead, he thinks. He doesn’t remember them, only what some people told him.
And what was he told? He was very small when everyone ran away from those they called the inyenzi – the cockroaches. His mother carried him across the border, out of Rwanda. But then something happened to her. Perhaps she was among the multitudes who died then or in the ensuing years; he was left alone and the other people in the refugee camp looked after him. His father was a soldier. He just disappeared. No one said anything about him.
That was in 1994 and the boy has been on the move ever since, tramping from one part of the Democratic Republic of Congo to another, growing up as part of a caravan of killers and their families who, for a long time, dared not stay still if they wanted to survive, until he came full circle to the place where he was separated from his mother.
He falls silent again for a while, watching Congolese villagers who live in fear of children such as him. Then he begins to speak about what he does know. It is the Tutsis, those inyenzi, who are to blame for his predicament, he says, and he must kill them. He hates them all. They stole his country, Rwanda – a Hutu country, he calls it – and he wants them dead.
There is an innocence to the boy’s face for all the hardships he has endured, but there is something in his voice with that word, inyenzi. A sharpness, perhaps out of contempt or perhaps knowing its power to conjure up the horror of the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 by men who branded them “cockroaches”. Soon afterwards, when Tutsi rebels defeated the killers and took over Rwanda’s government, the Hutu exodus began and the boy’s life changed irrevocably.
Child soldiers can be found across Africa. Sometimes they are responsible for appalling atrocities; sometimes it is because their minds have been twisted by powerful drugs. But nowhere on the continent are they as driven by hate and ideology as among the Rwandan Hutu refugees in eastern Congo. Here, after more than a decade of invasion, civil war and slaughter – rooted in the genocide – a second generation of killers is being imbued with the mind-altering ideology of extermination and reared to hate and murder Tutsis.
Some of the children learn it from fathers who were responsible for the mass killings the first time around, back in Rwanda. Others, like the boy, are raised by the extremist Hutu rebels who control large areas of eastern Congo and are among the most important causes of the conflict there that has claimed an estimated five million lives or more over the past decade and continues to kill about 45,000 people each month in Congo through the effects of war – principally starvation and disease.
These children are led by men with multimillion-dollar rewards on their heads offered by the United States for their capture to stand trial accused of the murder of thousands in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. America has listed their armed group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), as a terrorist organisation, but some of its political leaders have found safe haven in Europe. And while their army is fighting, the leadership is raking in millions through the smuggling of gold and diamonds, and extortion.
The boy is sitting alone, guarding the perimeter of an FDLR camp that is a bone-shaking six-hour drive into the mountains south of the Congolese city of Bukavu on unmade roads that wind along the border with Rwanda and then veer in country. The Congolese government has almost no influence in these parts. Its forces rarely venture into the surrounding hills and the FDLR lives off the local people – plundering and sometimes raping and killing.
The camp is little more than a dozen or so mud brick and wood huts with grass roofs.
A handful of soldiers sit around. Some wear the same uniforms as government troops – plain olive green, with black boots or wellingtons. Others sport brightly coloured T-shirts with slogans promoting various beers. They carry Kalashnikovs and a couple of larger-calibre weapons with belts of bullets slung across shoulders. There is a weak attempt at camouflage with grass stuck into baseball caps, but the camp is isolated on the side of a hill, not visible from the approach road and easy to protect. No one comes after the FDLR here, but there is a rusting rim of an old car wheel dangling from a nearby tree as an alarm. The boy is supposed to beat it as hard as he can if the enemy approaches.
He looks to be the youngest fighter here – most of the others are in their late teens or 20s although one man with a large paunch seems out of place. A couple have weak moustaches, others shaved heads.
They are all members of the FDLR’s armed wing, known within the organisation as the “Army of Jesus”. The religious undertones run deep. One of the group’s operations against Rwanda was codenamed “Oracle of the Lord”.
The FDLR boasts about 7,000 fighters, hundreds of them children or youths, and is the largest of the militias in eastern Congo.
It controls about one-fifth of the two vast provinces that border Rwanda – North and South Kivu – but its influence ranges considerably further as it hunts down Tutsis who live in Congo, and continues to threaten nearby Rwanda.
The boy, with his straightforward beliefs, sees no reason not to say aloud that the path to a better life lies over the graves of Tutsis. It is a philosophy based on the “Hutu 10 Commandments” that underpinned the genocide. The commandments call any Hutu who marries a Tutsi a traitor, and say that the Tutsis’ “only goal is ethnic superiority”.
“Hutu must stop taking pity on the Tutsi,” says the eighth commandment.
“Hutu must stand firm and vigilant against their common enemy: the Tutsi,” says the ninth.
Jerubaal Kayiranga fought with the FDLR. One of his responsibilities was to recruit children to its ranks, many of them forcibly, before he fled back to Rwanda last year. In a demobilisation camp there he describes how the philosophy of the Hutu 10 Commandments lives on in the hills of eastern Congo and how some of its most enthusiastic adherents are the FDLR’s youngest fighters. In the Congo fighting, “many FDLR soldiers died, so that’s why these boys are recruited at 10 years old to fight,” he says. “They’re worse than the older ones because they don’t even know how Rwanda is. They don’t know any Tutsis. They just hate them as the enemy. It’s the same as they [extreme Hutu leaders] were telling us during the genocide. They told us what we should do is kill all the Tutsis in the country.”
That is exactly how the boy sees things.
“The Tutsis stole our country and they are killing the Hutus or making them slaves. We have to kill them wherever they are. It is the only way to get our country back. When they are defeated I can go home,” he says. “It’s not hard to kill. You shoot.”
A Hutu rebel commander wants to meet in the market of a Congolese village called Sange near the border with Rwanda. Arriving with a handful of his troops, Colonel Edmond Ngarambe sits on a wooden bench in the shade of a tree. His soldiers scatter to guard his back. I remark on how some look to be in their teens.
“Most of our new recruits came from Rwanda as children,” he says. “They are fighting to take their country back.”
Ngarambe is in Sange to persuade me that the FDLR is not what it seems. It’s true that its website describes the present Tutsi-led government in Rwanda as fascist, bloodthirsty, arrogant and barbaric. It also, in an interesting about-face from reality, says the Tutsis are seeking to exterminate the Hutus.
But Ngarambe, who served as a lieutenant in the army of Rwanda’s former Hutu government, which led the genocide, says that is not the full picture. The FDLR is much misunderstood, he argues, and is merely seeking democracy and justice. That, it turns out, means a return to the Hutu domination that underpinned the 1994 genocide and an end to the trials of those indicted for mass murder.
But then, Ngarambe sees himself as a victim in his self-imposed exile.
Countless extremist militiamen and soldiers joined the million Hutu refugees – the boy and his mother among them – who, in July 1994, struggled from Rwanda into what was then Zaire (the country changed its name to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997) fleeing the consequences of genocide. Their arrival set in motion a cycle of civil war and invasions that engulfed eastern Congo, as foreign armies, rebel groups, warlords and militias rooted in mystical tradition carved up the region.
No one knows how many died here but the most widely accepted estimate is of more than five million, mostly from disease and starvation, although massacres were commonplace enough that mass graves are still being unearthed. The living suffered too, enduring the rape of entire towns and villages. Through it all, the broken, defeated but unrepentant murderers from Rwanda carried their ideology of hate. The old organisations that led the genocide – the notorious interahamwe militia and Hutu army – gave way to new groups that then emerged as the FDLR.
But the boys in the hills are mostly too young to remember all that. They are sullen and avoid eye contact. There are no smiles and few hints of a child under the skin. It is hard to say what kind of killing these children have seen or are responsible for, but for many it is probably their most formative experience.
They are like the boys with guns coerced into fighting in other parts of Africa, battle-hardened by acting as porters, carrying weapons and food to get them used to the sound of gunfire and death. In time they are drawn into the killing, perhaps made to perform some atrocity not only to harden them but to implicate them so that there is no turning back.
With it they learn a terrible lesson: that a gun will get them what they want – food, money, sex. They also believe it will get them back to Rwanda. But if they ever do get there, they will discover, like the former child soldiers of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Uganda, that it is not easy to return to what passes for a normal life.
Ngarambe sees none of that. He says children are drawn into the FDLR’s ranks because of a burning sense of injustice. “Schoolboys are coming to us. They are fighting to be free. We do not have to indoctrinate them. They come to us because they know who the enemy is. They do not want to be slaves,” he says.
But they are so young.
“It doesn’t matter how young they are if they don’t have their freedom. They will not be free so long as the Tutsis control Rwanda.”
Fourteen-year-old Bahati Mugisha doesn’t put it that way. He is a young FDLR fighter who was captured by the group’s principal enemy inside Congo – a renegade Tutsi general, Laurent Nkunda, who broke from the Congolese government army to battle the Hutu rebels who were killing and ethnically cleansing Congo’s own Tutsi population of several hundred thousand.
“They gave me a gun and said we were going to fight the Tutsis,” says the teenager. “They said these were our enemy and we must kill as many as possible.” Asked who told him these things, the teenager says his commander – men such as Aloize Mbanza, a 53-year-old former Rwandan army corporal who found himself indoctrinating a new Hutu generation in Congo. Mbanza fled back to his homeland last year. “Most of the FDLR who are young came from Rwanda when they were very small, so they grew up in Congo,” he says. “Now the FDLR is also recruiting Rwandan boys who were born in Congo, in the refugee camps. They are 12 or 13 years old. They are the ones who don’t have fear. They are fighting with guns. There are many of them. The only school they know is the army.”
They are also dying.
“There were other boys fighting with me,” says Mugisha. “I know some of them died. I saw two who died, killed there in the battles. But there were others, too. Some of the other boys were younger than me.”
Others have been killed trying to escape the FDLR’s clutches. Former rebels such as Mbanza and Kayiranga are lucky to have got away. “If our chiefs thought we were going back to Rwanda, they would take you and kill you,” says Kayiranga. “I saw Colonel Haguma killed because he wanted to come back. They beat him and he died. I know a sergeant who was hanged from a tree because he had the idea to come back. They call a meeting and they point at you and say you want to go back to the Tutsi government and then they kill you. Sometimes they kill you by hitting your head with a hammer. They have many ways.”
A number of the FDLR’s leadership were heavily involved in the Rwandan genocide. They include some who are wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which was set up by the UN Security Council to try those responsible for the massacres in Rwanda, and two men who are also on the US government’s “most wanted” list of those it wants to see captured and handed over to the tribunal.
Among the wanted FDLR leaders is Callixte Nzabonimana, the Rwandan minister of youth and sport during the genocide who, according to an international tribunal indictment, “played a major role in the massacres of the Tutsis in Gitarama. He visited the bourgmestres [mayors] frequently to organise the massacres in their communes with them. Further, he personally travelled through the hills along with peasant farmers to be certain the farmers were carrying out properly their orders to kill the Tutsis”. The US has offered a $5m (£2.5m) reward for his capture to be put on trial by the tribunal.
The tribunal has named another FDLR leader, Ildephonse Nizeyimana, as among its six most wanted. He headed military intelligence operations in southern Rwanda and set up special units of soldiers that led massacres at the country’s main university. He also gave the order for soldiers to surround a school as the interahamwe murdered 1,300 children and adults. The US is also offering a reward for Nizeyimana’s capture.
The FDLR’s overall military commander, Major General Sylvestre Mudacumura, is wanted by the Rwandan government to face trial for his role as deputy commander of the presidential guard which flew across the country to begin the mass murder in April 1994. Today he is a primary mover behind the killing of Congo’s Tutsis. He is also under investigation by the international tribunal.
Among others listed as “most wanted” by the Rwandan government is an FDLR colonel, Faustin Sebuhura, who, as a captain in the Hutu army, oversaw the massacre of about 50,000 Tutsis, and Déogratias Hategekimana, who, as a mayor, coordinated the killing of 65,000 people.
The FDLR’s political leadership is less directly implicated in the genocide but is wanted in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, for atrocities against civilians by the rebel group. While their organisation is also officially listed as a terrorist group by the US government, the rebels’ political chief, Ignace Murwanashyaka, lives largely untroubled in Bonn, Germany. His deputy, Musoni Straton, is in Brussels. The FDLR also maintains some presence through representatives in other parts of Europe – France, Switzerland, Holland – and in South Africa, Canada and the US.
Talking now under the tree in Sange market, Ngarambe is evasive about his own part in the tragedy of 1994. He was a Hutu army officer at the time. He denies the genocide was planned, even though the international tribunal for Rwanda has established that there was an extensive conspiracy at the highest political and military levels of the Hutu regime to exterminate the entire Tutsi population.
“If they say the genocide was organised, it’s not true. It was civil war. It was something that happened suddenly. It wasn’t planned,” he says. “Ever since I was young, I didn’t know how to hate a Tutsi. I lived in a place with many Tutsis. My friends were Tutsis. Even in the army there was not teaching of hatred of Tutsis.”
But most of those Tutsi friends and neighbours are dead. It takes a while for Ngarambe to reveal that his own father is blamed for some of their killings. He is 75 years old and in a Rwandan prison awaiting trial for genocide.
His mother and sister were locked up for a while, too, by Rwanda’s present Tutsi-led government. “They said they took part in the genocide. My father’s only an old guy. My sister was killed by the army when she tried to escape in 1997. The army killed my other sister when they came looking for my father to arrest him,” he says.
In Sange market, the Congolese traders eye Ngarambe and his men warily. It is only after the FDLR officer has left that one or two will talk. “We fear those men,” says a small woman in a yellow wrap selling vegetables from a basket. “They use their guns to take our food and money. They do not leave us enough food for our own families but we cannot say anything because they will kill us. There is no law here.” Others in the market decide it is wiser not to speak.
Ngarambe concedes that his men take from the local people. “When there’s a war, that’s when there’s difficulties. We are obliged to take food from the population when there’s fighting. But when we stay somewhere for six months, we try to farm,” he says. “Our relations with the local population are extremely good. They understand our problems. They understand we will one day go back to Rwanda.”
In some places, Hutu refugees have built their own villages, including schools and health centres staffed by Rwandan teachers, doctors and nurses. In others, they have moved into Congolese villages, sometimes usurping the authority of traditional chiefs and taking over administrative positions in local government. Often they plunder crops – Congolese villagers have a saying about the FDLR: “We cultivate and they harvest” – and by extorting “taxes” from just about anyone, from market stall holders and farmers to transport companies and butcheries, and “tolls” to cross rivers and bridges. The FDLR also grows and sells significant amounts of marijuana.
Much of the FDLR’S money goes to buy weapons and to run the training camps, which include infantry and artillery schools, and one for the rebels’ commando unit that goes by the acronym CRAP. But there is worse than plunder. Systematic rape of hundreds of thousands of women has been a hallmark of the conflict in eastern Congo, and the FDLR is not the only group involved. In South Kivu alone, tens of thousands of women have been treated in health clinics after being raped, and many more will have gone untreated.
Ngarambe admits that some of his men are responsible but says everyone is at it, including a group known as the Rastas, made up of deserters from the notorious Mai-Mai militia, the Congolese army and the FDLR. “This thing of rape – I can’t deny that happens. We are human beings. But it’s not just us,” he says.
While the rank and file of the FDLR survives by plundering, their leaders are involved in altogether more lucrative ventures. A 2007 World Bank-funded study estimates that the FDLR leadership makes millions of dollars a
year from taking over mines in parts of North Kivu, such as Masisi and Walikale, or from those doing the hard labour through levying “taxes” of gold, coltan, diamonds and other minerals on mine owners.
The study estimates that the FDLR controls half of the mineral trade in the Kivus outside of the main towns, and oversees the smuggling of gold and diamonds for sale in neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Burundi. It is not alone in this. The Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundi armies, as well as warlords and militias, have also carved up the mineral plunder and smuggling rackets.
The poison against Tutsis has spread beyond the Hutu exile population and infected many ordinary Congolese, largely driven by anger at the invasions of Congo by Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government and at the actions of the renegade general Nkunda, who says he is fighting to protect Congo’s Tutsis from the FDLR. Many Congolese believe that Nkunda, aged 40 and a former intelligence officer in the Rwandan army, is still secretly serving the Rwandan government. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese have been driven from their homes in Nkunda’s attacks; his forces are guilty of mass rape and he too has forcibly recruited children to fight.
From his headquarters in a colonial-era house in the hills around Masisi in North Kivu, Nkunda says he is an effect, not a cause, of Congo’s continued upheaval: “It’s as if you can kill Tutsis and no one cares,” he says. “I am here to protect them and I won’t stop until the FDLR is gone, finished. We cannot allow it to take over North and South Kivu or all the Tutsis will be finished.
“They say I’m the problem. But who is killing who? I am defending the Tutsis who live here from the people who committed genocide in Rwanda … Remove the FDLR and you remove the need for me to fight.”
Many Tutsis see Nkunda as their only means of protection. Many Congolese see the Tutsis as the problem. Anti-Tutsi vitriol can be heard from Congo’s leaders down to the residents of eastern towns such as Goma. Congolese politicians have called on people to “exterminate the vermin”, meaning Tutsis. Amid such entrenched hatred, the future for the boy in the oversize uniform is bleak. Colonel Ngarambe has three children of his own now, the eldest just eight years old, all born in exile. He would like to see them settled in Rwanda but only on the terms he has in mind – a Rwanda where politics is defined by ethnic domination and the Tutsis recognise the rule of the Hutu majority. If not, Ngarambe says his children will carry on the fight.
“The children born here are FDLR,” he says. “The children born in Rwanda will be FDLR. My children will be FDLR.
“The conflict between Hutu and Tutsi is based on power. It’s not that we have to develop an ideology of hatred against the Tutsis. It’s just that people should see what’s happening. Just because the Tutsis were victim of a genocide doesn’t give them the right to take power.”