The FDLR in North and South Kivu: A State within a State

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By Onesphore Sematumba

1. Who are the FDLR?

A shapeless entity, a “state within a state,” a phenomenon – there are a lot of descriptions in the Congo for the “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda” (FDLR). At the core of the FDLR is the former Rwandan army (ex-Forces Armées Rwandaises = ex-FAR), defeated in 1994 along with the Interahamwe militia, the ‘vanguard’ of the genocide in Rwanda that year. Since 1996 they have been joined by young recruits from the Rwandan refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who after 1997 withdrew to the forests and mountains of eastern Congo.

The main goal of the FDLR is a return to power in Rwanda, and their entire political and military structure is oriented towards this. Two divisions are stationed in the east of the Congo, in areas bordering Rwanda, and up tol 2001 the regime in Kigali had to deal with a lot of infiltration. Politically, the FDLR has given itself a ‘blameless’ leadership, with the economist Ignace Murwanashyaka at the head. He was not present in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994. This representation for the purpose of international diplomacy is based in western countries and carries out important lobbying. However, everyday command and control of the fighters and their civilian supporters lies with the military commanders.

At their head stands General Mudacumura, who with his general staff is in Kalonge, in Masisi district. The FDLR are thus well organised in South and North Kivu and have a broad network in Africa, Europe and North America. The FDLR secure their survival mainly at the cost of the people in the Congo, who must pay them taxes, give over part of their harvests and are exposed to all kinds of arbitrary violence. This doesn’t bother either the authorities in the rest of the Congo, who either look away helpless or are accomplices, nor the international community, which prefers an international solution to the problem.

The helplessness of the Congolese authorities becomes ever clearer when Congo’s army, the FARDC, takes military action against the FDLR in South or North Kivu, often with the support of the MONUC (UN Mission in the Congo). Each time, the attacks have only resulted in spreading the FDLR further into the bush, thus giving them more protected territory to operate from.

Whether from lack of will or exhaustion, the FARDC took an approach of ‘friendly cohabitation’ with the troops of the FDLR, up to the point that some statements by the international community reveal both ignorance about the local power relations and inability to find reasonable solutions. The decisive language of the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1804 dated 13 March 2008, which called on “all members of the FDLR, Ex-FAR/Interahamwe and other armed

Rwandan groups operating in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo” to “immediately lay down their weapons and make themselves available without delay and unconditionally to the Congolese authorities and the MONUC for their disarmament, demobilisation, repatriation and reintegration,” corresponds well to this combination of ignorance and superficiality.

Let us close this synthesis with Sébastien Matenda, who tries to get a hearing for thevoices from South Kivu:

“In these forests, the refuge of the FDLR, who calmly set the rules, the people have no possibility to defend themselves against their guests: They are resigned, and arrange themselves with them, despite the stigma of occupation. As nothing is heard from either the political administration or the military, local people keep asking themselves if the national and international community really knows what is going on and if the violence against them will ever end. They are the victims in these wars and don’t know anymore who they can turn to, to finally find peace and freedom. Sometimes they consider arming themselves, taking the fight for their security into their own hands, as the state is incapable of doing so.”

2. The Congolese population in the FDLR areas: the hard realities of occupation in North and South Kivu (June 2008)

The FDLR rebels are a real danger to the Congolese population living under foreign occupation. The occupiers profit from the weaknesses of Congolese institutions and rule over a conquered land in important border regions of the national territory.

Their units are everywhere in the east of the DRC. In Bwisha in Rutshuru territory, the rebels are represented in all groups and have a number of sub-groupings,” According to Mwami Paul Ndeze, the traditional king. They have occupied several zones in SouthLubero, and investigations should expand to cover the northern part of the province of North Kivu, adds Reverend Mauka from the Protestant church CBK. Patrick Nyamatomwa, independent researcher in South Kivu, counts the regions under the control of the FDLR as one would beads on a rosary: Burhinyi, Lwindi, Basile, Wamuzimu, Itombwe, Lulenge, etc.

Submission or flight

When talking about the forced cohabitation of the Congolese with the FDLR, one should not use the term “integration.” For “integration” is a noble term. One should rather speak of a “dictatorship”, a term used in connection with “violence, contempt, sabotage”, as one respected resident from Walikale put it. Congolese living in the FDLR zones are de facto subjected to the rebels’ dictates. They must accept the laws of the strongest and all kinds of harassment, and often they must also pay the pricefor some pursuit of their “guests” by the FARDC or a similar initiative. Over and over again they are caught between the frontlines and accused of collaboration with the enemy as soon as they move from their ghetto to other areas, which may be just a stone’s throw away!

The FDLR carry out official duties in the localities they control. According to Léon Bariyanga, president of the provincial parliament of North Kivu: “In Rutshuru, members of the FDLR look after security (Katwiguru, Buramba, …). They distribute land to the population. They exploit charcoal. They even demand that the roadblock from Kibati that is supposed to prevent exploitation of charcoal in the national park of Virunga be lifted, and threaten to take revenge on the population if their access to this important resource continues to be refused!”

In Walikale, as in other parts of the country, all those resisting the FDLR’s laws are abused and must flee from their villages. Armed Congolese groups can control some localities in this district if they are ready to work with the FDLR. Not even the police and the FARDC can move on roads controlled by the FDLR without their permission.

In South Kivu the FDLR have created military and civilian authorities as well as new administrative units, named after Rwandan cities.

The Lifeline of War

To secure their survival and logistics, the FDLR exploit diverse natural and human resources in the areas they occupy. These include: exploitation of gold mines in South Kivu; of tin ore (cassiterite) in Walikale in North Kivu and trade with these minerals; transport of people and goods; slaughter and sale of animals stolen in Masisi in markets in Walikale and elsewhere; trade with finished products – especially beer – and transportation of these between Hombo and Walikale. “You have to ask yourself if their profits from these economic activities in Congo haven’t overshadowed their military and political struggle,” says Pole Institute manager Aloys Tegera.

Since 2004 every Congolese over 17 years of age in the district of Mwenga must pay a tax of $10., a so-called “fee for the liberation of Rwanda”. In addition, the FDLR controls local markets, sometimes together with the FARDC and the Congolese police. “Instead of cutting funds for the FDLR, the state even pays them taxes, as it gives them 35% of the market income!” a parliamentarian says indignantly.

The FDLR works closely together with the 85th brigade of the Congolese Colonel Samy in the mining and sale of cassiterite. For whoever controls the cassiterite has the heart of the economy of the southern part of North Kivu in their hands.

3. The FDLR, a Rwandan or a Congolese problem? (June 2008)

The FDLR justify their armed presence in the two Kivu provinces as a stage on the way towards returning to power in Rwanda, by force of arms, if the administration of Paul Kagame does not enter into a political dialogue with them.

Their main demand, which is a condition for any peaceful return to Rwanda, can be summarized in the demand for an inter-Rwandan dialogue, similar to the one which led to a division of power during the peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And they call for a true democracy in Rwanda. But what is such a demand worth, coming as it does from outside?

Given the intransigence of Rwanda, which demands that the FDLR surrender unconditionally, we appear rather to be witnessing a dialogue of the deaf, says Aloys Tegera.

At the same time, according to a MONUC expert, the very use of the term “Inter- Rwandan Dialogue” is designed to win the sympathy of Congolese. For that is what happened in the Congo. There, after five years of a war that involved the armies of various central African states as well as the FDLR, and whose outcome was unclear, the international community initiated an Inter-Congolese Dialogue in South Africa.

Its main result in the year 2002 was the division of power among the warring parties. Some people from the Congo and the FDLR think that the same thing should happen with Rwanda, to give the FDLR a share in power. But this support from the Congolese for an inter-Rwandan dialogue is counterproductive and unrealistic. For it would hand the FDLR new reasons to remain on Congolese soil, and the suffering of the captive people of the Congo will increase.

For Dominique Ekofo, district administrator from Rutshuru, “the problem of the FDLR is a Congolese problem only. The victims (women, youth and children) aren’t Belgian, French or German – they are Congolese. Thus the solution must also be Congolese.”

The Congolese dimension of the FDLR problem is often neglected at the diplomatic level: the only questions considered concern border crossings and the relations between the states. The Congolese rulers themselves, often victims of a loss of control of large areas to the Rwandan fighters from the FDLR do not seem to stress the negative consequences of the FDLR in their region and on the Congolese people.

Finally, it is only the NGOs and defenders of human rights who condemn the martyrdom of the Congolese people under the FDLR, perpetrators and cause of many crimes, including rape and other acts of violence against women.

The problem of the FDLR is a Congolese one because of their many local alliances. It is hard to follow trading and other economic activities of this group and make them visible. The discernible part of their business is carried out by their Congolese allies: they are the ones who escort their ore to the point of sale in the city, or who run the taxis in Rutshuru! And let us also remember the alliance between the FDLR and high political leaders in the Congo during the war. As long as these alliances continue, as long as the Congolese dimension of the problem is played down or ignored, there can be no satisfactory solution.

We have already talked about the FDLR strategy to win Congolese sympathy by calling for an inter-Rwandan dialogue. Beyond this sympathy, Congolese, including some of their parliamentary representatives in North and South Kivu, support this strategy and this demand,

also in the national assembly, in the press and in other fora. During the Kivu peace conference in Goma in January 2008, Senator Mulaila Thenga, who had led a mission of the Upper House in eastern Congo, called on the international community to apply “diplomatic pressure in (sic!) Rwanda, so that it opens itself to democracy and offers Hutu and Tutsi refugees space to live and freedom in their region; that a Rwandan dialogue be organized to solve the burning and hate-filled problems between ethnic groups and questions about hegemony”.[1]

The question here is which capability and legitimacy the Congolese have to demand such a dialogue. Our parliamentarians must use all their energy and powers of persuasion to move the FDLR towards a return to their homeland, so that they can spell out their demands there.

Pact with the devil?

Since the international community recognized that genocide took place in Rwanda in 1994, and since pressure was put on its suspected perpetrators, the FDLR has tried to distance itself from the ideology of genocide in two ways. On the one hand, they claim to condemn the genocide. On the other hand, since 2000 they have had a leadership “beyond reproach,” of men not implicated in the genocide. At their head since the year 2000 stands Ignace Murwanashyaka. While in the mountains of Rwanda indescribable acts took place, this economist was living in Germany, and it is from there that he controls the FDLR. But this ‘clean’ façade can hardly conceal the role that these hardliners play locally, in the Congolese forests.

The influence of the ideology of genocide even causes young soldiers, who were not necessarily involved in the genocide, to think that it is absolutely necessary to kill Tutsis in order to have a good life in Rwanda.[2] These two faces exist side by side within the FDLR, and all those looking for a solution, including the Congolese government, should be aware of this unconfirmed rumours tell of young Hutus from Rutshuru who are rejoining the FDLR as active fighters in this area. What can our representatives at the national and provincial levels do to end this adventure? Our young Congolese men are involved without knowing the consequences that such an alliance can have at the national and sub-regional levels.

4. Sanctions or negotiations? The DRC’s options after the 2008 Goma Peace Conference (June 2008)

“When it comes to the phenomenon of the FDLR, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has always painted nightmare scenarios,” says Senator Masumbuko Ngwasi.“ In 1996 the AFDL began their war, among other things, to close down the Rwandan refugee camps. Twelve years later, the FDLR has still not disappeared. It was a failure. The RCD war (the east Congolese rebellion against Kabila’s AFDL government 1998-2003) broke out in 1998 – another failure!

And the Nairobi Communiqué (the joint declaration of the governments of Congo and Rwanda from November 2007, in which they commit themselves to take joint action against the FDLR), is a double catastrophe. It glorified the use of force and talked about FDLR fighters becoming official Congolese citizens! Are the Congolese really ready for the FDLR to become Congolese? Can’t we think clearly anymore? Can we only create more catastrophes?”

The original ultimatum given to the FDLR for a voluntary return from the Congo to Rwanda by 15 March 2008, was extended to 15 June 2008. But that does not mean that the DRC has developed a clear plan for future action in this difficult area. The recent meeting of the Kinshasa government’s emissary with the FDLR in Kisangani on 26 May 2008, showed the extent of disagreement on this subject. While the Congolese media congratulated the fact that the meeting was taking place, “the FDLR informed the public, the media and the international community that this meeting in Kisangani was organized by the Congolese government with dissidents who had been expelled for high treason. For this reason the FDLR declared that they would not in any case feel bound to the results of this meeting.”

A more sensible way than seeking solutions by military means that lead to a dead end would be to end the isolation of internal markets under the economic control of the FDLR and open them to the general Congolese trade. Stable and solid road connections must be established between Goma and Walikale and between Bukavu and Walikale. The opening of these isolated zones, now the FDLR’s refuge, would simultaneously be a step towards their demilitarization. The incentive for trade could perhaps replace dependence on the AK 47. But haven’t the governments of the DRC since Mobutu supported the isolation of different parts of the country from each other as a political strategy to prevent real communication between potentially rebellious populations? Here too it is necessary to break down a mental barrier.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has important trump cards at its disposal to bring about a negotiated solution for the FDLR problem. First of all, the current institutions enjoy legitimacy through national and provincial elections. On that basis it should be easier, in the sense of a lasting solution to internal problems, to work boldly on political and diplomatic ways forward instead of staying stuck in a continuing (downward) spiral of periodic war which results only in misery for the civilian population. The people are angry and fed up and start to ask themselves why they even bothered to vote. The FDLR problem has an important sub-regional dimension.

The DRC should normalize its relations with its neighbour Rwanda so that a common approach to this question can be found on a reasonable basis, if necessary with support from the international community, which appears to be willing to find a solution.

Also the fatigue of the war-weary Congolese could be an advantage, if the state sees their situation as an urgent call to finally solve the problem. Doing nothing and abandoning people in their misery and anger can easily develop into a political time bomb which can have very bad results in future elections. The final agreement of the Goma peace conference, calling “to do things differently,” also gives a possibility for the DRC to find a way out of the logic of war.

These strengths should not, however, obscure the real weaknesses of the DRC as far as the FDLR problem is concerned. Some shortcomings lie in institutional areas, for example the weakness of the army and the institutions. Others lie in the complex relationships of the FDLR with the current government and even with the civilian population.

The FDLR are integrated into the army

The integration of the FDLR into the FARDC does not have to be proven any longer, discussion is merely about statistics. There have been symbolic gestures: In 2001, when the international community pressured Joseph Kabila in the framework of the peace negotations for the Congo to disarm those living in the Congo who were responsible for the genocide in Rwanda, the Congolese president asked the FDLR to send him a brigade that he could disarm and house so he could show the world the only Rwandan soldiers available. Brigade 1780 was chosen, sent to Kabila, and their weapons and munitions were burned publicly before cameras on September 12, 2001.

However, the services rendered to Kabila by his Rwandan auxiliaries make it difficult for the government to move against them in any way. When it comes to the security of territory and the administration of resources, the FARDC continues to “fraternize” with the FDLR. “The first live by all kinds of plundering, accompanied by every possible act of violence and radical destruction of our living space. The others, on the other hand, have chosen the Congo as their second homeland, are involved in positive actions and even intermarry with Congolese. They carry weapons and are the comrades of our soldiers. They support each other in military missions,” says Paul Ndeze.

The FDLR even say that they can compensate for the weaknesses of the FARDC. “It is thanks to us that Laurent Nkunda was not able to push into the area of Walikale,” say Major Karim and Captain Rwaka Vital.

They are already married to our women

Intermarriage between members of the FDLR and Congolese women has made their integration into local society possible. Today they are seen as sons-in-law by the Congolese, if not uncles. Any military attack on them causes concern and fear in the local population. They think about the future widows, nephews and nieces that would have to be supported, while their own situation after 15 years of war is already miserable enough.

No clear plan for dealing with the FDLR problem

The DRC’s diplomacy and policies avoid clarity on the question of the FDLR. The question is only posed at the highest levels, or rather laid aside without actively involving the local authorities. The local parliamentarians, local dignitaries and the population must play a more active role in the search for solutions instead of being powerless spectators to a “transfer of responsibility,” as was the case at the Goma conference in Goma in January 2008, when it was decided to dispose of the FDLR issue by relegating it to the remit of the Nairobi Communiqué.

No real Congolese army

The DRC does not really have an army capable of defying the FDLR. For the FDLR members have lots of room to move freely in the Congolese forests, and thanks to their well-developed means of self-enrichment they have an impressive military arsenal at their disposal. Meanwhile, the Congolese army is still jumbled together from former warring parties that, because of their differing past shave difficulties in forming a homogenous unity. The soldiers lack training and supervision; the pay is minimal and often embezzled by seedy officers. The regular soldier has to fight for his survival and tends to extort from the civilian population and commit other crimes.

The presence of different armed groups in the Congo does not make the challenges for this army under construction any easier, and it is also split between several not clearly defined frontlines.

5. The situation after the military operations “Umoja Wetu” and “Kimia II” (November 2009)

After the military operations “Umoja Wetu” of the Congolese and Rwandan armies in January and February 2009, and “Kimia II” of the Congolese army FARDC with the support of the UN mission MONUC from May 2009, official sources in the DRC drew numerous positive conclusions. International human rights organizations and the humanitarian community on the other hand point to the large number of civilian victims and the new wave of refugees created by the attacks against the FDLR. In all, from our point of view the following conclusions can be drawn:

Security and insecurity of the population

During or around the time of the military operations against the FDLR, various groups in the civilian population were suspected of collaboration with the respective enemy. They were either mistreated by the FDLR, who assumed they supported the operations “Umoja Wetu” or “Kimia II”, or by the FADRC which suspected them of being close to their former neighbors from the FDLR. In some cases, members of the FARDC, either pretending to be FDLR or even openly, were involved in acts of violence against the Congolese.

The FDLR is in fact a kind of ‚brand name’ for all those, including young Congolese, who want to secure their survival with the help of a weapon. They present themselves as FDLR members to conceal their true identity. FDLR members who want to return to Rwanda, especially the youngest, are held back as hostages by the hardliners, most of them suspected participants in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The main result of past and current measures is that the FDLR is moving ever further away from the border of their country, Rwanda, penerating deeper into Congoleseterritory. Insecurity is thus transferred, but the victims remain Congolese. The latter have little understanding for this strategy (“If you find a snake in the living room, do you try to lead it into the bedroom, or outside?”) That means that a global and regional solution must be found in addition to military operations.

The provincial authorities (parliament and government) are not really involved in the current developments. They look on, as all the others, although they are the ones primarily responsible for the population’s security. The Congolese army FARDC in its current condition does not appear to have the necessary capacity to take effective military action against the FDLR. The latter have the advantage of being able to move with extraordinary dexterity in the Congolese forests, thus controlling them. They profit from reinforcements by local armed groups that have turned against the FARDC in their areas (for example the FPC of Sikuli Lafontaine in Lubero and the APCLS of Janvier in Masisi-Walikale, both defectors from PARECO).

In view of the lack of control and command of the terrain, shouldn’t soldiers be stationed there who come from these areas and know their way around This would at least make the communication between the FARDC and the local residents easier.

Another suggestion is that well-known Congolese personalities take up direct negotiations with locally-based FDLR, as the provincial parliament in North Kivu has already done, to work out possibilities for the FDLR’s peaceful return to Rwanda. The FDLR’s political leadership must be neutralized in all parts of Eastern Congo in which they are located. If they want to visit their troops in the DRC, they must be arrested.

Integration and resurgence of Congolese armed groups

The “accelerated process of military integration,” that began in January 2009 to integrate combatants of the former rebel movement CNDP (National Congress for the Defense of the People) under Laurent Nkunda into the Congolese army FARDC, threatens to end in catastrophe, as was already the case in the military integration in 2006, with which this process is often compared.

In discussions and analyses by international NGOs, a Manichean tendency can be observed. On the one hand, the FARDC are presumed innocent even before integration starts. On the other hand, CNDP elements are presumed criminal. This kind of reasoning is superficial given the situation in the army, where soldiers are not regularly paid and supplies as well as discipline are sporadic. It could speed up the collapse of an army that was always affected by the problem of being jumbled together from various rebel groups.

Peace in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo seems to be ever more remote as the government does not keep to the agreements with the armed groups. The risk that frustration and disappointment on all sides will lead to a convergence in new alliances is real, and this can in the end lead to a return to the starting point, namely to the situation from before January 2009. The diplomatic rapprochement between Kinshasa and Kigali, and the possibilityof a return of Tutsi refugees from the camps in Rwanda and Burundi into the DRC have provoked negative reactions in the local population, especially the revival and activation of the Mai-Mai militia to protect their own regions against eventual occupation by ‘strangers.’

This situation is reminiscent of the early 1990s, when control over land was central to the open conflict between ethnic groups in North Kivu. It is urgent that this situation be eased, to prevent the same causes leading once again to similar consequences.

*This paper was published in 2010 in a report by Pole institute under the title: Guerillas in the mist: The Congolese experience of the FDLR War in Eastern Congo and the Role of the International Community


[1] Message of the Senate delegation to the Conference on Peace, Security and Development in the Provinces of

North and South Kivu, page 6.

[2] We have to kill Tutsis wherever they are“, The Guardian, 16 May 2008

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