On a stroll with the FDLR

19 Oct



The FDLR,  or the ‘Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda’ , is a rebel movement that was founded around the year 2000 in the DRC in an attempt to unify all that was left of the former Rwandan Interahamwe militia’s and the former Rwandan army (FAR).  They had a very bad reputation for killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and they were trying to give their movement an new and a more moderate élan.  Several well stuffed papers and articles have been written and published about this organization so I’ll cut the history of the movement very short. But in most of the these I could not find back some of the impressions and personal experiences I had with these people over all those years when I was covering the wars in Rwanda and in the DRC.  This is the reason why I wanted to go back to the DRC and talk to them. I wanted to know their side of the story, check out how strong they still are and how they look at the future. I soon found out that the region in which they are hiding had changed a lot since the last time that I visited it and that a special preparation of this trip would be necessary to guarantee a safe passage. The FDLR is not the only militia that is active in this region and to unravel the puzzle which of these militias are collaborating with each other or fight with each other I first had to plunge myself in the small circle of people who are following up the events in the field.  Nobody seems to have a real clear and objective look on the ongoing situation in both of the Congolese Kivu provinces.  Or even in Burundi where some of the FDLR are also still active. And this certainly is the case  for most of the protagonists and the people involved.  Others have to justify their own presence and the local population is just busy surviving from day to day and they passively undergo the events.  Many things have changed since the war in Rwanda in  1994 and the outbreak of the AFDL war in the DRC. And a lot of outsiders, especially in Europe and in the US, have a hard time admitting that their former analyses do not correspondent any longer with the reality in the field.  When I send my footage to Europe it sometimes frustrates me that the journalists in the newsrooms of the television stations that will broadcast it fall back on several years old cliché’s to sell the story to the bigger audience.  And sometimes I read articles in European newspapers, about the ongoing events in the African Great Lakes Region, that frustrate me a lot !  Most of the time we are already happy that our pictures get at least some play and that we are able to recuperate some of the expenses we put into these stories. The DRC and the African Great Lakes Region have become an enormous side show.   While writing this paper I based myself on facts that I discovered myself, on my  numerous encounters with the FDLR, their enemies and their past and present allies.  I might be wrong about some of the details. I have no problem to admit that. But I hope that my findings might help others to see more clear in this Rwandan-Congolese mess that is still causing the deaths of several and the misery of thousands other people every day !  I wrote this paper in English and that is not my native language. I tried to convince some of my Anglophone colleagues to re-write my findings a bit and mold it into better prose but this text is very long. I can’t blame them for not helping me and I do not have enough money for a professional copywriter. One of them told me that this article is a wall of words that will scare off potential readers.  He’s probably right but I just want to share my views with others who are truly interested in the region.So please take it as it comes !


My first encounter with extremist Rwandan Hutu’s goes back to 1990 when I was covering the first invasion of Tutsi rebels in the north of Rwanda. I had visited the country a couple of times in the 80-ies but this time we found several bodies in front of our lens.  The Tutsi’s had attacked Gabiro and at that time that village was still part of the Akagera Park.  They were pushed back by the DSP, the ‘Division Spéciale Présidentielle’ of  the former president of Congo-Zaïre, Mobutu Sese Seko,  who was on very good terms with the Rwandan government at that time (in fact both Mobutu and Habyarimana were members of Opus Dei).  They showed us the corpses of the rebels of the Patriotic Front who had come from Uganda to attack their trenches around the hotel. Some of these rebels wore no shoes, others had attacked with two barrel shotguns and the few prisoners the DSP was able to take were too afraid to talk. But it was while driving back to Kigali that the seriousness of the situation became clear to us: most of the rugo’s (traditional huts and kraals of the Tutsi’s who were living in this region) were empty, others were littered with the bodies of their inhabitants. Most of them were women, children and elders. They had their throats slit and some of them had been executed at very close range.  We were able to ship out this footage and these were probably the first ever pictures of a conflict that would soon put the whole region in flames.  While driving back to Kigali we also crossed several villages where roadblocks had been put up and most of these roadblocks were manned by people with machetes and knives. They were inoffensive towards us.  They were listening to the radio that was informing them form Kigali and telling them to watch out of ‘inyenzi’ or cockroaches, the name that was already given at that time to the Tutsi rebels. In Kigali we were allowed access  to the infamous ‘1930’ prison that was full of arrested Tutsi’s.  A couple of shots had been fired at a hotel in de city center – it was later found out that this had been done by some elements of the Rwandan army – and the responsibility for that was put in the shoes of the Tutsi rebels. This increased the paranoia and most of the foreigners were evacuated to their countries in Europe. We asked the politicians on the spot what would happen next and most of them just answered that the time had come to finish with these rebels and their supporters once and for all. The tone of the conflict had been set, for them it was out of the question to allow the minority of the population to participate in the governance of their country. The same logic seemed to pass through the minds of the Tutsi rebels in Uganda; they did not trust the Rwandan authorities either.  We were surprised to find a very dynamic and rather well disciplined rebel group in Uganda that was composed of Tutsi fighters who had previously fought for Yoweri Museveni, others had come from Congo, Burundi and even from Europe.  The international community tried to respond with several peace meetings in Arusha and in other places to bring the two parties together but that did not work. The tone had been set in 1990 and this would not change. When I visited the country again in 1991, in 1992 and in the beginning of 1994 the unwillingness to talk to each  on both sides only grew. In the Congolese Kivu provinces pogroms had taken place against Congolese Tutsi’s  and in Burundi the future of the Tutsi community became also very uncertain.  Many Congolese and Burundian Tutsi youngsters, whose parents had fled to these countries in the 50-ies and the 60-ies joined know the ranks of Paul Kagame, the man that had taken over the leadership of the Patriotic Front. Other Congolese Tutsi, who’s families and clans had been living for centuries in Congo joined the ranks of Kagame to revenge the slaughter of their families by the Magrevi, a movement of Congolese Hutu’s that was sponsored by the Rwandan government. What struck me often in those days was the sheer unbelieve of the Rwandan Hutu that their kingdom might come to an end and that they soon would have to talk to the ethnic minority of the country: the  Tutsi’s.  Kigali in those days still looked like a very peaceful village with a couple of crowded suburbs. But underneath this peaceful blanket the kettle was already boiling at full speed, young Hutu’s were lured into the Interahamwe militia and several hatred radio’s such as the RTLM (Radio et Télevison des Milles Colines) were spitting out hatred messages.  The simple translation of the word ‘interahmwe’ should explain everything: ‘those who have to work together’. I leave it up to You what they were meaning with that. These hatred machines were nourished by the fact that Kagame’s rebels were – bit by bit – taking control over the north of the country.  As most of the villages they occupied were mainly Hutu most of these people fled to camps in the government controlled area. But even at that time nobody could suspect that very soon the general killings would start; killings that were well prepared with lists of Tutsi civilians and moderate Hutu’s, with thousands of machetes that were being imported from overseas (even some of them were being produced locally) and the Interahamwe who were getting more aggressive and verbal by the day.  A totally other atmosphere reigned in the ranks of the Patriotic Front; the rebels were listening as well to the Hutu powered hatred radio’s but they were taking a much less radical stand.  Their idea was to take power of the country and to force the Hutu power parties into negotiations.  The majority in power wanted to exterminate the rebel minority like cockroaches, the minority wanted to take over power in a less radical way. While having beers with these Interahamwe leaders we were sometimes told in detail how the rebels and their families would be dealt with but we thought that all this was bluff and we did not pay enough attention to this. They also told us that killings were taking place in the area that was already controlled by the Patriotic Front but these allegations were mostly false and exaggerated.  RPF members who were caught killing civilians without the consent of their superiors were severely punished.  The so called crimes of the RPF – before and after de genocide – against Hutu civilians became a real hot potato during the past couple of years. Some of Kagame’s officers were accused in Spain of crimes against humanity but so far no real evidence has been produced to back up these allegations. Most of the accusations come from former Kagame allies who lost their privileges in Rwanda and others where formulated by conservative lobby groups that might have had their own reason to discredit the RPF.  All wars are dirty business and it cannot be excluded that some revenge acts took place but we never witnessed or got news from mass killings that were being perpetrated by the RPF in this period. We also checked these allegations afterwards and we found no evidence to back up these theories. Some guy even send me some hatred messages on FB telling me that we were undergoing the whole genocide adventures with our eyes closed but my they were wide open.  The same allegations against the RPF were made in the BBC feature ‘Rwanda, the untold story’. But this film was also very one sighted. But this is my opinion. They failed to put things into their perspective and they were only listening to several bells in the anti-Kagame side. Another hot potato nowadays is the answer on the question who actually shot down the plane of president Habyarimana. To me this question is less important: the genocide was already in the making, the machetes had been sharpened. In the whole discussion about WW I the killing of crown prince Ferdinand has also become an anecdote. It was just a pretext to trigger of a war- and a killing machine that at that time could not be stopped any longer.  The machine of the Interahamwe had been boiling for several years at full speed and this kettle simply had to explode.

The Hutu power period, genocide

The true nature of the Hutu power movement and their followers became clear during the genocide. The killings started minutes after the plane was shot down. Those who were killing innocent Hutu moderates and Tutsi were convinced that they were doing the right thing.  They had been molded into that belief by their leaders and some of them still stick to that opinion today. One can ask himself or herself the question how this can be possible but for me history was just repeating itself in Rwanda: I had encounters – before Rwanda – with ex-Nazi’s who were still convinced that Hitler was widely misunderstood, Khmer Rouge officials who kept on believing in Pol Pot until he was killed, Palestinian terrorists who told me that blowing up Jewish diamond shops in Antwerp was the only way to proceed, etc.  I had witnessed the horrors of wars in other countries but nothing and nobody had been prepared for this disaster.  We were journalists and nobody had asked us or forced us to be present in Rwanda when the shit hit the fan ! We shook hands with the devil more than once and that didn’t change after the genocide when we continued to be in contact with these radicals in the refugee camps in Congo-Zaïre.  I was often invited in the camps of the Hutu extremist leaders, I had more beers with them and I talked again with them. I wanted to understand what made them do all this, what their plans were for the future, etc…  They tried to downgrade what happened during the genocide, they were talking openly about a possible political solution in which they would go back to Rwanda and share power. For them it was a normal thing that some many people were killed in Rwanda, they did not even blink an eye when they were saying that.  They were bolstered in their convictions by the fact that they received openly support from the international community who was pampering them in their refugee camps at the border.  And had the French army not protected them during the genocide in the Turqouise area ? Some of their most known hatred singers were even giving concerts in Goma for foreign NGO staffers who did not understand what they were singing but who were applauding them loudly. In the meanwhile Rwanda had become a ghost country: we often drove up to Goma from Kigali without even meeting one car and nearly all the villages were empty.  I stopped meeting these radicals after they discovered that my wife was a Tutsi and after receiving death threats by phone in Kigali.  The attack on Iwawa island in which more than 300 Interahamwe were killed showed the outside world that their treat was still real.  This incident showed clearly that they wanted to return to Rwanda in a violent way. I could not visit the hardliners any longer in their camps but I still kept seeing a couple of them in Goma.  In 1995 the UN developed a plan with the Congolese government to send most of the Rwandan refugees back to their home country.  My contacts within the Interahamwe community were fiercely against this and they told me that the necessary steps would be taken to  prevent this. It is in this period that I first heard the rumors of a possible ‘Green March’. President Mobutu had announced that all the refugees would have to go back to Rwanda, he dispatched his DSP ( ‘Division Special Presidentielle’) to Goma to push the refugees back to Rwanda. One of my Interahamwe contacts, a guy who had worked for a radical newspaper before the genocide and who had a bar in Remera-Kigali, had revealed  the principle of the Green March to me: all the refugees would go back together and ‘en masse’, the Interahamwe and the ex-army would mingle with them fully armed and fully equipped (most of their weapons were still hidden in and around the camps) and they would attack the Rwandan Patriotic Front once they entered Rwanda. I told him that this would possibly provoke a lot of casualties since the Rwandan army of Kagame would have to  retaliate.  I also told him that this would put their civilians in big danger and that using them as a shield would not be considered very clean. But he laughed and he told me that this would be the only way to deal with the Patriotic Front, it would provoke them into killing a lot of civilians and discredit the cause of the Kagame government. Furthermore the Interahamwe and the ex-Far would then be able to create a bridge head inside the country and provoke a new intervention from the French or the UN to protect them. The French had already done that at the end of the genocide in the southern part of Rwanda with the Turquoise operation.  Again the Interahamwe were willing to sacrifice a lot of their own civilians to obtain their goal.  Two days later I was able to meet general  Bizimungo, the commander in chief of the ex-FAR,  in a hotel in Goma. We had a beer together and when I asked him whether the strategy of the Green March would be applicated in case of a forced return he started laughing. But he did not deny it.  I also talked about it with the UNHCR but they told me that this was bluff. I did not believe them: I had heard these guys talking in bars in Kigali before the genocide and I knew they would be capable  to set up a devilish plan like this.  When the day arrived that the refugees would have to go back nothing happened: the DSP abandoned its positions around the camps and the UNHCR dropped the whole plan. Did Mobutu change his opinion because he was afraid for a new massacre in Rwanda ? Possibly ! But what strikes me about this story is the fact that nobody ever relates to it in articles and research reports. The true nature of the Interahamwe spirit had shown itself once again but instead of dealing with it most of the refugees were still living peacefully in their camps. They were fed, sheltered and pampered  by the international community They were capable now to extend their influence in Congo and they started to loot and to attack the Tutsi community in the hills of Masisi. The Tutsi’s that tried to flee from this violence had to cross the camps to reach the Rwandan border and a lot of them were killed on the spot.  The big international aid agencies stood by and watched all this happen but again nothing happened. To me it was clear that this situation would degenerate in a much bigger conflict very soon.  In Bukavu we also received news that some of the FDLR had joined Burundian rebels groups such as the CNDD-FDD. The leaders of this organization were openly fraternizing with the Rwandan Hutu extremist leaders in Bukavu. In the hills of northern Burundi a lot of Interahamwe gained their first real combat experience.  The Burundian army was much less organized than the Patriotic Front in Rwanda.  This was another signal that very soon something much bigger and violent would erupt.  In Masisi most of the Congolese Tutsi’s, mainly Bagogwe, had already fled to Rwanda. Their cows were rounded up by the Interahamwe and slaughtered in the refugee camps outside Goma (with equipment that was provided to them by NGO’s such as ‘Veterinaries without Borders’). In discussions with Interahamwe leaders in Bukavu  it also became clear to me that the presence of the Banyamulenge, a Tutsi clan that was living in the plains of Uvira and on the Minembwe plateau, became a nuisance to them. So they would probably become their next target.  This was the last sign that strengthened my conviction that very soon something was going to happen. The Banyamulenge and the Bagogwe had send their sons and their daughters to fight for Kagame and to liberate Rwanda.  It would be very unlikely  that the Tutsi community would let their brothers in Congo unprotected.  I posted myself in Uvira and when they attacked.  I was in pole position to cover these events. The new born rebels called themselves AFDL (Alliance of Democratic Forces to Liberate Congo) .  I withdrew with Mobutu’s army to Bukavu and I witnessed the chaos. It was now the Interahamwe and not the Congolese army who were going to defend the city. Most of the Rwandan refugees were already on the move to Walikale and to Kisangani.  The AFDL had planned to move them back into Rwanda but the Interahamwe had told them that they would be eaten alive there by the Tutsi’s. So they moved out to Kisangani. And the Interahamwe and the ex-Far were, once again, using them as a shield to protect themselves. Returning to Rwanda was not an option for these refugees; those who wanted to do that were executed on the spot by the radicals.  The ease with which the AFDL pushed forward – to their big surprise the Congolese army was so weak that they did not put up any resistance – made it possible for them to take Goma a couple of weeks later.  In Goma the chaos was total and a big number of Hutu refugees were taken in by the rebels and the Rwandan troops.  Most of them returned to Rwanda. But others were on the march to the dark interior of Congo. It had never been the plan of the Rwandans to push further than the Kivu’s. They only wanted to stabilize the border and solve the refugee problem.  But Mobutu had proven so weak that the possibility of getting rid of him once and for all was now becoming a serious option that was even cherished by the Americans who were now organizing troop transports and logistics for the rebels. Most of the Hutu refugees – who were pushed forward by their own Interahamwe – had now reached the outskirts of Kisangani were they ended up in new refugee camps such as Tingi Tingi.  I visited that camp twice  and I met several Interahamwe there that I knew from Goma and Bukavu.  It was their plan to  set up their last stand in and around Tingi Tingi.  The dark shadow of the ‘Green March’ principle was hanging over the camp. Some of the refugees knew this and wanted to flee but most of them were killed by the Interahamwe. Others who did flee soon ran into the AFDL rebels. Some of these were killed and other were being brought back to Rwanda. The advancing rebels send several ultimatums to the Intarahamwe leadership to surrender but they refused.  What happened next is one of the darkest moments of the AFDL war. I was not there when this happened but thousands of refugees died.  The discussion of who is to blame for all this remains an open question. The big thing in this that the passivity of the international community had allowed the extremists to push their own population into the Congolese interior and use them as a shield.  The international community had not done anything either to protect the Congolese Tutsi’s against the violence of the Interahamwe.  And this had triggered off the invasion of the Rwandan army.  What happened in Tingi Tingi and after that in other places like Lubutu broke the Hutu power spirit completely. I saw some of them arrive in Kinshasa; rag tag as they were and totally disorientated.  Their last hopes of recapturing Rwanda had left them and they were now nearly finished.  A lot of their civilians had died under enemy fire but most of them had perished during the grueling march through the Congolese heart of darkness.  Others ended up in Congo-Brazzaville and in the Central African Republic.  And those who survived had learned that their own leaders had been using them as human sand bags. The Interahamwe would have to change their strategy. After the AFDL war finished it became fairly easy for the UNHCR to convince the Hutu refugees to return to Rwanda. Thousands of them were picked up in several spots in the country that was now called DRC,  or the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Most of them were very weak and staying behind in the jungle was not an option for them.  And most of them had lost confidence in their own leadership. Their return to Rwanda was well documented and covered. Those who committed crimes during the genocide were put on trial , others returned safely to their villages and picked up their lives again. There were no reports of big abuses although some of them were killed because of unsettled bills. But the Rwandan authorities always tried to prevent this.  Even most of my contacts within the structure of the UN told me that they were surprised that this operation went so smoothly. In the meanwhile most of the hard core Interahamwe leadership had fled to countries such as Cameroun, to Europe but also to Congo-Brazzaville and to Angola.  In order to survive they’ll needed to forge new alliances and render services to people most of them never heard of before all this happened.  They were now on the run and they often had to rent themselves out as mercenaries in  order to survive.  This part of their history is not well documented and needs our extra attention. But I’ll try to reconstitute it based on discussions I had with these people over the years.  It is important to know what happened to them in this period because it will influence their thinking and acts in the coming years.

On the run, hired guns for warlords and presidents

That the alliance between Joseph Kabila and the Rwandan government would be very short lived became already clear to me on the day that Kabila declared himself president in Lubumbashi, in the days before the final assault on Kinshasa.  Kabila had not been their first choice to lead the AFDL, the sweep through the Congo and the push on Kinshasa had gone too fast for all the parties involved and they all knew that they would still need each other to consolidate their positions in Kinshasa.  The biggest and most important contender for Kabila’s take over was a very popular general in Kinshasa,  General Marc Mahélé.  Mahélé was Mobutu’s last chief of staff and he had always remained loyal to his boss. The Rwandans had approached him to lead the rebellion but he had always refused. But they still planned  to ask him after the fall of Kinshasa to reconsider his earlier decision. The Rwandans knew Mahélé well and they trusted him more than Kabila and most of the other leaders of the AFDL, a bunch of Mobutu deserters and fortune seekers that had chosen Kabila’s side to avoid losing everything. Other Kabila collaborators had been chosen in the ranks of the Congolese Tutsi community but the Rwandans understood well that a Tutsi would never be accepted by the Congolese population to lead the country.  But Kabila got lucky: Mahélé was gunned down by Mobutu’s son on the doorsteps of the Ministry of Defense in Kinshasa.  I filmed the short ceremony in which Kabila proclaimed  himself  as the new president of the DRC and I asked one of the Rwandan advisors who was sitting in the back of the room what he was thinking about this. The guy sighted and told me bluntly that this whole mascaraed would turn out to be very ugly.  I think the Rwandans already understood at that moment that the Congolese guys they put in charge of the AFDL were already dancing on their heads. The whole project had grown out of its proportions and things were going too fast for everybody.  But again: they would still need each other for a while and for the time being this dispute would be kept safely under the carpet.  It was a Rwandan who was in command of the new Congolese army and that was already a good guarantee for the Rwandans to set things straight once they would arrive in Kinshasa.  But Mahélé died and other candidates to replace Kabila never reached their destination.  For most of the Rwandans who had never experienced the luxury and the grandeur of the capital Kinshasa the city soon became a death trap. They were overwhelmed by Congolese wannabees who tried to buy their ways into the new system and they did not understand all this.  In the meanwhile a new war had broken out in Congo-Brazzaville between de Ninja’s and the Cobra’s, two militia’s that where heavily sponsored by two big oil companies.  A big part of the Interahamwe who had been able to reach Kinshasa and/or the border with Congo-Brazzaville fled to Brazzaville when Kabila’s troops arrived.  In exchange for hospitality they would soon be fighting for their new sponsor: the leader of the Cobra militia, the president of the country Sassou Nguesso.  The war in Congo-Brazzaville was extremely violent and the fact that a lot of the militia men were of Rwandan origin is only known by a small minority of Congo watchers. One of these militia’s even tried to lure the new DRC into the conflict by lopping shells on Kinshasa’s suburbs.  A lot of Interahamwe and ex-Far elements had now become mercenaries.  Some of them did not like that but they had to accept their faith to  survive.  It is also known that another part of the remaining Interahamwe joined other rebel groups in other neighboring countries such as the Angolan rebel group of Jonas Savimbi, a good friend of the former Congolese president Mobutu.  Later on the FDLR would also be involved in the war in the Central African Republic. The Rwandan generals knew this but as far as they were concerned the Interahamwe had been brushed out of the DRC and their jobs were done. But they were wrong again.  As the tensions rose in the ranks of the new Congolese army between the former Mayi Mayi elements who were loyal to Kabila and the Banyarwanda soldiers and the Rwandan troops president Kabila started looking for new allies to counter the Rwandans.  The Mayi Mayi, mainly ex militia men from the region between Fizi and Baraka,  were Kabila’s old comrades but they were no match for the better equipped and more disciplined Rwandan soldiers or the Congolese Tutsi’s that were now all part of the new Congolese rebel army.  So Kabila reached out again to the ex-Interahamwe who were living just at the other side of the river in Congo-Brazzaville. The rupture between the Rwandans and Kabila’s group became total when a group of Banyamulenge soldiers mutinied in Bukavu. The Rwandan generals retreated from Kinshasa and went back to Rwanda. Kabila understood that a new war with Rwanda would not be far off and therefore he reached out immediately to all the Interahamwe and the ex-Far who were living in the neighboring countries. He needed good and motivated soldiers who were not afraid to fight the Tutsi’s. He promised them to fly them (and their families) back to the Kivu’s where they would be able to pick up their old dream to recapture Rwanda. They were brought back to the Kivu region on a red carpet.  This is where the remnants of the old Hutu power movement found their second breath.  If Kabila would not have done this the issue of the Rwandan Hutu extremists in the DRC would have been solved already years ago. And this also triggered of the second Congo war.  As soon as the Interahamwe were flown back to the east of the country (others were integrated in the army of Kabila) they started infiltrating Rwanda. These insurgents were very soon called ‘muchengesi’ or infiltrators. Their idea was to infiltrate the northern part of Rwanda, to convince their former brothers in arms who had already returned to the country previously to pick up  their weapons again and to create a new bridge head  in the heartland of the old Hutu government. But they failed; their actions were extremely brutal, they forced Hutu civilians to set up road blocks for them to kill passengers of busses and cars, they butchered thousands of Tutsi’s in refugee camps near Gisenyi. I witnessed and covered a lot of these attacks and I even drove through a muchengesi road block outside Ruhengeri. I had to do this, otherwise I could have been killed on the spot. The cars behind me fell into the ambush and most of the drivers and the passengers in these cars died.  Some of them were burned alive. But the muchengesi  failed to convince the local Hutu population to collaborate.   One should not forget that the Rwandan army on the spot had a firm grip on most of the villages. Villagers who helped the rebels were severely punished.  For most of the Hutu’s in this region a new war was not an option: they had found their villages practically untouched upon their return from Congo, they were cultivating their fields again and their kids were going back to school.

Second Congolese war, FDLR

The pro-Rwandans in the Kivu’s had organized themselves in an new movement, the ‘Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie’ , or RCD.  The organization soon was able to brush out Kabila’s troops of the region but was never able to recapture the capital Kinshasa or Lubumbashi. At one moment they were very close: they managed to airlift some of their crack troops to Kitona, at the Congolese coast. Kabila was still holding a lot of former Mobutu soldiers there – a lot of them had died of hunger there in the previous year – and when the big planes arrived nobody put up any resistance.  Kagame had received the green light to launch this operation from the Angolan president Dos Santos.  The army base of Kitona, just outside of Muanda,  was taken in a couple of minutes and more and more RCD troops were flown in. They took Boma, Matadi ( and also the Inga dam who is producing the electricity for Kinshasa) and they finally made it to Kinshasa where they regrouped for the final assault on the city center near the Ndjili airport.  But Dos Santos suddenly turned his back on the rebels and he ordered his air force to attack them with Migs and helicopter gunships. Very few of the rebels were able to make it back to the border with Rwanda.

As the second Congo war raged on a lot of the Interahamwe and the ex-Far were gradually integrated in the FARDC, the Congolese army.  Many of them were trained by foreign instructors; Chinese, North-Koreans, Zimbabweans,   etc.  Those foreigners often had big problems distinguishing Rwandan Hutu’s from Congolese and or other militia members of other ethnical groups. The FARDC had become a garbage bag in which several ex militia members were ‘reprogrammed’ into regular troops. The French and the Belgians also started training FARDC soldiers later on. They would tell me that it was very difficult to reprogram these ill-disciplined and bandit like rebels into real soldiers.  Those Rwandan Hutu fighters who were not integrated in the army  were left behind in the eastern parts of the country.  And they stayed there when the RCD rebel movement merged with the Kabila lobby in 2002. It is also in this period that the Hutu power fighters and their civilians created a new organization: the FDLR.

‘The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda’ , or the FDLR,  was formed in September 2000 for several reasons and the group has been fighting in the DRC ever since.  It was composed mainly of Rwandan Hutu’s to fight the Tutsi influence in the region. But that was not all: the group wanted to create a new image for itself.  In 2003 the FDLR created its new military wing the so called ‘Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi’ or FOCA.  According to several sources  the FDLR-FOCA consisted of three brigades: one in the southern part of South-Kivu, one around the Kahuzi Biega Park and another one in North-Kivu.  They wanted to put pressure on the Rwandan government and force them into a dialogue but Kigali always refused and told them that they should comply with the UN to bring them back home through the official channels. They were also told that those FDLR members and cadres who committed crimes during the genocide would be judged accordingly upon their return. The FDLR also appointed a new leader: a Rwandan Hutu living in Germany was given that job. But the guy was quickly jailed. Germany did not want to have anything to do with him.

Since 2000 a lot of very good and documented papers have been written about this organization. But most of these papers are only referring in a couple of phrases where these people come from.  I do not want to copy this information. Researchers such as Jason Stearns,  the people of the Small Arms Survey-group and some others did a great job while mapping their activities and the areas where they were  active. A German colleague who, is living in Kampala even wrote a very good and very detailed book about the FDLR.  The US put the FDLR on her ‘terrorist list’. In the meanwhile the FDLR was fighting, in FARDC uniforms,  in places like Pwetu and Moba, Kole and Dekese and other hot spots in the DRC where the FARDC could not stop the troops of RCD-Goma.  After the RCD-Goma rebellion merged with the government  in Kinshasa the FDLR lost several hundreds of their men who returned to Rwanda. Most of them were quite well received there.  But in 2004 the total number of FDLR fighters was still estimated at 5000 to 8000.  In this year the Rwandan and the Congolese government also talked to each other to bring the FDLR back to Rwanda. But this merely provoked several very violent reactions of the FDLR who started killing Congolese civilians at random. Later on the FARDC and the Rwandan army would even organize joint military actions against the FDLR but these all failed. Probably due to the fact that they were rather small scale and that there was little or no trust between de Congolese and the Rwandan troops. Some foreign international lobby groups even organized joint talks between the FDLR and the Rwandan government in Italy but nothing came out of that. The FDLR was ready to abandon its armed struggle and to return to Rwanda. But that also did not work.

Third Congolese war

In the meanwhile another factor started influencing the future of the movement: a renegade RCD officer had pulled himself back in the Masisi region. His name was Laurent Nkunda and he was a native Tutsi. He fell in disarray with the RCD-leadership and his former friends in Rwanda for having badly managed his tour of duty in Bukavu where he and his men were accused of looting and other crimes. After that he withdrew with a couple of hundred of his men to Masisi where he started recuperating lots of former local defense soldiers who had been trained previously by Rwandan forces. Other Tutsi soldiers deserted the ranks of the RCD and the Congolese army to join Nkunda. At first the Rwandans did not back him but they quickly changed their minds. The new organization of Nkunda and his new army were the only ones who could counter the growing pressure of the FDLR. For the Rwandan government the CNDP was used as a buffer to prevent the FDLR to enter Rwanda.  But indirectly this triggered off another revival of the latter: the Congolese army was in no position to  counter Nkunda’s rebels who rapidly overtook a big part of the region.  Once again the FDLR was saved by the bell.  In 1998 Nkunda was forced to abandon Masisi. Most of his men where re-integrated of integrated in the FARDC, others fled to Rwanda and Uganda. In exchange for dropping their aid to Nkunda the Rwandans agreed again to join forces with the Congolese government to chase out the remaining FDLR. But this initiative failed again. Probably for the same reasons as the previous one. The presence of Rwandan troops was not appreciated at all by the local population, behind their backs the FDLR was still receiving aid of the Congolese government (most of the time this was done via the ANR, the ‘Agence National de Renseignements’, Kabila’s secret service).  And the Congolese soldiers who were involved in the new offensive where not motivated at all.  This resulted in the fact that the FDLR radicalized once again: in 2009 the hard liner Mudacumura took over the command of the group. The fighting force of the group had dwindled to 3000 to 4000 men. They resorted to taking money from people on road blocks, in the Walikale region they controlled a couple of coltan mines, they controlled the charcoal or ‘makala’ production in the Virunga Park and they were still receiving aid from the Congolese government. During those years another, rather strange, and much better hidden coalition was taking form: as the FDLR saw it’s fighters and its civilians returning to Rwanda and as it became more and more difficult to recruit youngsters in their own ranks they started forging alliances with other local militia’s such as the Mayi Mayi and local Congolese Hutu groups. Some of these groups had been collaborating with Nkunda before and some of them where affiliated to former leaders of the RCD who were now having big jobs in Kinshasa.  Masisi and other parts of the province North-Kivu had now become a kind of a soccer pit in which politicians in Kinshasa could manipulate the groups they were sponsoring. These groups could be activated by them  at random to put pressure on the political scene or, if necessary, to create unrest and violence to divert the attention of the public.  This became clear when general Sultan Makenga and his followers started up the M23 movement. To my understanding – but I can be wrong in this – the creation of the M23 was the direct result of all this.  Several sources told me that some of these lobbies wanted to kill Makenga. He fled to the Masisi plateau with a couple of his loyalists and in the weeks that followed he was joined by several hundreds of other fighters who had been integrated before in the FARDC but who were starting to feel very unsecure there. Once again the FDLR was used by the local authorities to counter this rebellion. The government had no confidence in the UN soldiers on the spot and the UN did not trust the government. In fact the MONUSCO (this is the name of the UN operation in the DRC) did not have a mandate to react without the consent of the Congolese government. Too many Congolese Monusco was and is a money slandering elephant without tusks. The Tutsi population was in danger. There was no government or army worthy that name to protect them and a lot of Makenga’s men joined him to protect their families.  They also felt betrayed by the Rwandan government who had left their former commander Laurent Nkunda in the cold.  With the actions of Makenga the FDLR was once again saved by the bell. Mudacumura received new weapons and he was now protected for nearly 100 percent by Kabila’s ANR.  The UN was useless and indecisive in the field but they sure put up a fierce PR battle to discredit the M23 movement and its Rwandan backing on the international scene.  Reports were being published on the Rwandan involvement in the DRC and their links to several rebel groups such as the CNDP and it was first and for all the Rwandan government that had to cash in on harsh criticism.  Some of the facts the UN brought out were true: the M23 movement and the CNDP of Laurent Nkunda had made big mistakes and committed crimes. But some of the crimes they were accused off had been committed by the FARDC or by other militia’s. One example was very flagrant: in one of the reports Rwanda was accused of having delivered artillery pieces to the M23. But in fact these were guns that the Tutsi rebels had found in the harbor of Goma and put to their own use. In these reports a lot of attention was also put on the Rwandan refugee debacle in the 90-ties. It created and bolstered the perception that most of the Hutu refugees that had fled into the Congolese interior were killed by Rwandan or Rwandan backed troops. The analysis of the UN was very one sighted and had failed to put things into their real perspective. The international public opinion had now turned itself against the Rwandans. So Rwanda had no other choice than to stop helping Makenga.  The Monusco was given the permission to attack the rebels with gunships and heavy artillery. The rebels did not put up a fight and just left. Leaving behind large stocks of arms caches and leaving their own population unprotected.  Makenga’s M23 rebels passed into Uganda nearly unscratched. The Congolese army and the Kabila government saw this as a big victory and Kabila’s reputation inside the DRC got a real boost.  But the popularity he received with this was only short lived, very short.  I had followed these events for years and I knew most of the key players and the way they were thinking.  When the M23 was chased out of their strongholds I happened to be in Goma on a completely different assignment. I stayed in the hotel where most of the Monusco generals and journalists were staying and I overheard the discussion they had in the restaurant.  For Martin Kobler it was clear: they were chasing out the M23 and the FDLR would be next.  The hotel was so full that we even had breakfast together at the same table. I told him that Kabila would never allow Monusco to finish off the FDLR completely because this group had served him so well in the past and was his last line of defense given the fact that his own troops were useless.  But he laughed that argument off. For most of the journalists who were present it was clear that the M23 was not a Congolese rebel group but a kind of a satellite organization of the Rwandan army. I  told them that this might be true for a small part but that the bigger picture showed a complete different story. Some of them did not even seem to understand or to know the difference between a Munyamulenge (a member of the Bagogwe clan) and a Mugogwe (a member of the Bagogwe clan).  Both clans are truly Congolese and their ancestors lived in Congo for centuries. But the Banyamulenge always lived in South-Kivu and the Bagowe always lived in North-Kivu. The Monusco operation against the M23 had solved nothing and had left another unsettled bill on the table. It had also sharpened the distrust between the Banyamulenge – a lot of them fought on the FARDC side against Makenga – and the Bagogwe. And it sharpened the distrust between the Banyamulenge and the Congolese army. Some of the Bayamulenge soldiers and officers had been executed at random on the battle field by the FARDC without any reason. The Congolese troops – mainly ex-Mayi Mayi fighters and former members of Hutu militias – distrusted them because they were also Tutsi’s.  It is very sad to say but the actions of the UN only worsened the situation in the Kivu’s.  But where did all that leave the FDLR ?

The end of a myth, when elephants fight ……  

As many of us already had forecasted the UN and the FARDC did not use the momentum after the victory against the M23 group to attack the FDLR.  Mudacumura and his men now felt relatively safe in the Masisi hills: they had participated in the war against the M23, their good relationship with the ANR, the fact that a big part of the local Monusco troops were Tanzanians  and South-Africa (the relationship between Rwanda and Tanzania and South-Africa was very bad at that moment and the Tanzanian  government had a positive attitude towards the FDLR).  In 2012 the total number of FDLR fighters had dropped to a couple of thousand but the group had managed to forge close relationships with other militias on the spot. But it became  obvious that the true nature and the character of the organization had changed: their goal to return to Rwanda and to re-in store their presence there via a political party that was still proclaiming the old values of the Hutu power movement had proven to be a hoax. More and more FDLR civilians and also combatants had already returned to Rwanda and they were in close contact with those who remained and telling them that it was OK now to return. Most of the FDLR civilians and fighters were now already second generation and for them the Rwandan genocide was a very far off event. They were told by their former comrades in arms that who  returned to Rwanda they were first hosted for a couple of weeks in a transit camp where they enjoyed complete freedom of movement and that they could return after that to the villages where they came from.  They told them that their kids could go to school and that they were able to start up small businesses.  The UNHCR confirmed all this. As did several researchers. Some of the returnees had end up in jail because they had been involved in killings during the genocide of ’94 and it is also possible that some innocent returnees were punished for crimes they did not commit. But overall the initiative that had been put up by the UNHCR  and the Rwandan government started to produce its first results. Especially in South-Kivu a lot of FDLR wanted to return to Rwanda; the pressure of local Mayi Mayi groups who were still considering them as a Rwandan treat was growing. A lot of FDLR families had settled down previously on land in the southern part of the province that had not been exploited by the local Congolese groups and their farms started to produce crops now.  This provoked a lot of jealousy.  It is a fact that the FDLR was far better organized (and still is) than most of the other groups and militias in this region. They build schools small hospitals, they became traders in minerals and agricultural products.  A lot of the other locals had never seen this before.  I talked to many returnees in Rwanda in this period. Most of them talked without fear. Last year I spend many months in Gisenyi and in Kigali to set up my small press agency. One of my neighbors was and FDLR returnee who had fought in the FDLR ranks in South-Kivu for many years. He was shot in his leg and he was crippled and decided to start up a farm in the plains between Fizi and Baraka.  He was also teaching in a small school that the FDLR had set up in this region and even a lot of Congolese kids attended his classes. But the pressure of local Mayi Mayi groups on the FDLR grew stronger and stronger. This resulted in more killings.  He told me that he was fed up with it and that he decided to return to Rwanda.  He also told me that the internal anti-Rwanda propaganda of the FDLR was still strong and that they were often told that they would be killed or put in jail when they would go back but his friends who already returned had told him that this was not the case. So he gave himself up, his family followed, they returned and they went through the reintegration program.  This man is now a teacher in a secondary school in Gisenyi, his daughter finished high school last year and was the first of her class. She received a grant from the Rwandan government to study in the States.  This case might be too positive to talk or write about and in other cases the reintegration failed. But rarely because of unsettled scores: in a lot of cases these returnees have big problems to readapt in a country that has completely changed, they have been living in camps and they were on the move through the DRC for years and they are not used to take control over their own lives. Some of them never touched money before they came back, others miss the DRC, others become alcoholics.  And some of them even want to return to the DRC because they simply had a better life there.  The development of Rwanda struck them so hard that they had problems to readapt themselves.

So instead of solving the FDLR issue the Congolese government turned its attention on the problems in and around Beni and the ADF-Nalu issue. According to a lot of Congo watchers – including myself – the ADF-Nalu issue is another hot potato on the Congolese plate that is widely misunderstood. Just like Masisi that region has become another soccer pit in which disputes between high- and lower ranking politicians can be fought out and another conflict area that can be put on fire whenever the need arises in Kinshasa to distract the attention of the international and the international communities from other disturbing facts that might harm the reputation of the people involved.  Unlike the last war against M23 Monusco did not get involved directly in the fighting and the whole initiative turned into complete chaos after one of Kabila’s top commanders – the guy who took credit for the victory against the M23 – was killed in an ambush. There are serious indications that he was killed by his own colleagues. We’re not writing an article about this war now but it is important to mention it to understand the internal dynamics of what’s currently happening in the DRC.  And it is very difficult to understand well what is going on, even for us. Beware of people who claim to know everything about the African Great Lakes , to have the best contacts, to have access to everybody and who are boosting that their research is rock solid.  Most of the people we talk to have their own agendas, simple people in the field are often manipulated and cannot put the misery they go through in a bigger perspective One of my friends calls the war in the DRC a chicken shit war. I call it an elephant shit war: elephants operate deep in the bush, often in bigger groups but they are difficult to approach. These elephants come in to the villages at night, destroy houses and kill people and leave big piles of smelling shit behind. They leave before people like us can catch their actions  on camera. The war in Congo is invisible and that’s another reason why many journalists do not like to work here.  And the situation is changing so quickly that You have to be able change Your opinion all the time. The Africans have a proverb for this: when elephants fight the grass gets trampled. It has become very difficult not to become too cynical about this, especially not in the DRC.   It is only the local population that is paying a very high price for all this.

The FDLR today

When I visited the region last month I had to change my opinion about the situation on the spot again. Travelling through these badlands is very expensive and trips should be well prepared for security reasons.  Most of the international NGO’s do not allow their foreign staff to venture in this region and the Monusco soldiers (UN) are sticking to their bases.  The information of what is going on inside Masisi is filtering through to Goma but this info is rarely correct. That’s why we decided to organize  a couple of field trips. My goal was to reach an FDLR camp in Bweru, just outside Mweso, to talk to the commanders and the people in charge. I had applied for a grant to organize this shoot (I mainly work for television) but the money came in late and I had to postpone my trip a couple of times because I had other jobs. I wanted to find out how strong the FDLR still was, who was still supporting them and how they were looking at the future. I also wanted to find out if they had changed. I knew some of them from the past and I wanted to hear their stories. I spend more than two weeks in Masisi. For security reasons we split up this visit in several parts, never telling anyone how long we would stay and which roads we would use to move around.  We also had to organize extra security and we asked the FDLR to pick us up near Mwesu. Before reaching Bweru we had to cross an area in which nowadays a lot of kidnappings and killings take place. The FDLR is often accused of being behind all that. I’ll get into all that later on.

At the end of August the FARDC launched another offensive against one of the radical wings of the FDLR, the small group of fighters of Mudacumura.  Mudachumura is a hardliner and he is wanted for several war crimes in the DRC.  I do not want to get into all the names of the splinter groups and all the militias in the region. But on the 31st of May of this year a lot of FDLR members rebelled against him and formed their own group, the FDLR-CNRD (Conseil National  pour le Rénové et la Democratie) .  They were asking for a biometrical survey and to register the FDLR fighters and their families as refugees in the DRC. And they also wanted to relaunch the dialogue with Kigali. They had also asked Mudacumura to surrender and to face trial because they did not want to be associated with his crimes any longer.  In the small vacuum that was created by this quarrel another of Mudacumura’s officers who was commanding their so called CRAP, small commando units that where mainly operating in the Virunga area and in the plains of Rutshuru, wanted to take over control of the FDLR. But according to many of my sources this guy, he calls himself ‘Omega’,  was also considered to be a hardliner. So the organization was split up in three groups: the FDLR-CNRD who stationed its headquarters in Bweru, the FDLR-Mudacumura who was based in and around Luve, Birambiso and Kibirizi and the FDLR-Omega who was mainly active around the Virunga Park (where they controlled until recently most of the charcoal trade).  Mudacumura also had a lot of fighters in the Walikale area.  The total amount of FDLR fighters still under arms was estimated at approx.. 500 to 600 six months ago. The CNRD took most of them (approx. 350 elements) with them when they split ,  Mudacumura stayed behind with 100 to 150 fighters and the CRAP units (commando units of 6 to 8 rebels) were being judged at 100 elements.  I checked these numbers with different sources. In 2014 several NGO’s and also the UN had written that the total amount of FDLR rebels and civilians was still estimated at 250.000.  But according to my sources and the people we talked to on the spot (including the FDLR-CNRD) this number had dwindled to 50.000 or 60.000.  Nobody knows the exact number of Rwandan Hutu’s still present in the region; a lot of them still live in far off pockets in South-Kivu. And they lost contact with their fellow countrymen in North-Kivu. Mudacumura and Omega had refused the biometrical survey. Giving up their potential stock of young and potential fighters and losing their protective sheet of civilians was not an option for them. But the others were tired of being manipulated and to fight for other warlords and governments. Mudacumura reacted as devil in a box and killed several people. In August president Kabila was touring the country in an effort to gain support for staying  longer in power. Kabila is reaching the end of his second tour as president of the DRC and the Congolese constitution forbids him to run for a third term. His reign has been a disaster and his own population wants him to go. But in August het met the Rwandan president Paul Kagame in Gisenyi. It is not well known what the two men were discussing but a couple of days later the announcement was made in Goma that the FARDC would try to dislodge Mudacumura from his stronghold in Luve.  We decided to follow the troops and we reached Luve and Nyanzale on the 7th of September. The FARDC had managed to dislodge Mudacumura from his base in Luve but the FDLR commander had withdrawn his fighters to Kibiriso and had managed to inflict serious losses to the FARDC. Before talking to the officers we talked to many soldiers and they told us that they were not motivated to fight: they were lacking ammunition, food and supplies and they were all tired. The FARDC press officer was not on the spot and we were told that we could not film the ongoing operation. Instead they directed us back to Goma where the FARDC had set up a press conference to show captured FDLR soldiers. We talked to these people and found out that they were not real rebels but just simple peasants who had been plucked off their fields by the FDLR to join them, others had fled the fighting and were arrested on the road.  The whole offensive against the FDLR turned out to be a hoax.  But we had learned a lot during this trip.  In Luve we had briefly visited Mudacumura’s old stronghold and it struck me how well build and structured this camp was.  It had been built with the support of NGO’s such as Caritas, Oxfam GB, some German NGO’s, etc.  Even the toilets and the sanitation system had been built by these NGO’s.  The people who guided us through the camp were joking when I told them that I was surprised to see all these NGO signs in the camp and they told me that Mudacumura had well been pampered by them and that the only thing that was not delivered to him and his men was the toilet paper to clean his ass.  How could a rebel group that did not even represent a recognized group of civilians benefit from this kind of support ?  Some of us had always thought that the FDLR was financing itself via mercenary jobs, road blocks,  the trade in minerals and/or the production of charcoal.  I talked about this with many people who are knowing the region well and they all agreed on the fact that all this might have been the case ten years ago – although these factors might have been exaggerated a bit by several national and international organizations to raise the stakes of the conflict – but that nowadays the FDLR was mainly surviving on the support they were receiving from the bigger NGO’s. They could not apply for this support themselves but they were using in between Congolese groups and militia’s instead with which they mingled and which they were using as a kind as a protective screen of even as fighters to fill up their emptying ranks. Most of these in between groups in the Masisi region are Hutu, others such as the ACPLS are Hunde. And most of these groups are controlled behind the screens by politicians and/or business men in Goma and in Kinshasa who can use them at will to raise their stakes. Or even worse: by terrorizing the local population and by making the Masisi region quasi inaccessible  for those who want to want to inform themselves about the ongoing events – nowadays kidnappings, killings and rape have become very common in this region – this criminal show can go on without any problem.  With the growing terror come thousands of extra IDP’s (internal displaced people) who are resettling in camps elsewhere and who need support. The international NGO’s jump on all those occasions to find sponsoring in Europe and in the States,  extra money is coming in and jobs are being created. Many of the local Congolese NGO-workers are in contact with these militias and their middle men in Goma and a lot of the aid that is flowing in to Masisi is being sold again on the markets of places like Goma, Bukavu; Mweso, Kitchanga and Walikale.  And another big part of this aid is being used to shelter and feed the FDLR.  I do not make myself very popular by stating this and I do not want to question the good intentions of many NGO workers but some of the cliché’s that are being used in the European media – many of these media do not rely on their own reporting but rely on the research and the reports of well-paid NGO-consultants – are out of date now. Stating today that the war in the eastern Congo is a result of conflict for minerals and the feud between countries like Uganda, Rwanda and Congo is very naïve.  That might still have been the case two to three years   ago but since then Uganda and Rwanda have practically not been involved anymore in the east of the country. But they are still very well informed and they have eyes and ears all over the place. When I visited Bweru, a couple of weeks later and when I talked there with the FDLR-CNRD leadership,  this theory was confirmed by some of their cadres. They also told me that this was the biggest reason why they wanted to break the never ending circle of manipulations or ‘magouilles’ (monkey business deals) that were offering them no better future. They told me that all this also had convinced them that their return to Rwanda could and should not depend  on those same international constitutions that were using them as a marionette to sustain their own presence and their own activities in the area.  I might be accused of being cynical again but one of the engines of the conflict that is ravaging the region is the presence of these big international aid agencies and the way they handle the ongoing events.

The land issue 

The other big reason is the fact that there is no control or whatsoever over the distribution and the use of land.  It has become clear to a couple of critical and independent researchers that during the last couple of years a lot of land in this region has changed ownership. Most of the farms in Masisi and in the Rutshuru plains were sold to a couple of Congolese politicians, very rich and well connected Tutsi investors, lobby groups from Katanga who are using middle men in Goma to obtain land and members of the presidential family. Outside Goma a big slaughterhouse is now under construction to slaughter the cows from Masisi. It’s going to be operational soon and it will have to be fed with meat.  Even some parts of the Virunga Park have been turned into ‘pasturages’  (grazing land for cows).  Those new owners turn agricultural land into ‘pasturages’, they chase off the people who have been living here for generations and who have been working for the previous owners and these people also end up in IDP camps where they are being convinced to join the one or the other militia.  The lack of an organized and structured administration, the fact that the Congolese justice system is utterly corrupt and that the communities in the villages cannot defend themselves against these rich investors who are all well protected by influential  politicians, bankers,  is the main reason why all this can happen. In these mafia practices there is not room for inter-ethnic solidarity.  Tutis’s are discriminating their own people.  Hutu’s, Hunde  and Nande are doing the same thing.  There is one case that struck me very hard: in a small place called Bwiza, just outside the Virunga Park, a couple of thousands of Tutsi returnees from Rwanda (they had fled the Hutu violence in Congo several years ago but they had returned to Congo) resettled on a stretch of land that is part of the Virunga Park. But the land was sold in a dubious way to a very rich Tutsi investor in Goma who wants to turn it into a pasturage.  One of the first things he tried to do when he received this illegal land title was chasing off the people of his own tribe. The whole issue was brought before court in Goma but nothing came out of that ! Believe it or not but the same Tutsi’s that were chased out of Congo by the FDLR more than 15 years ago and they came back because they thought they would be protected by people like Nkunda and Makenga. They are now living side by side with the FDLR.  Both groups are fed up with the system and decided to work together to defend their interests. The land issue is indeed very important and unsettled: many Congolese Tutsi’s fled to Rwanda after the M23 and the CNDP were chased out, many of them were killed and all their possessions were stolen from them. But the land they once owned is still there and in some cases it was stolen from them by their own, rich brothers. The grunge against this mafia is as big in Tutsi, Hutu as in Hunde-circles and this can trigger off a new conflict. In Tutsi circles this will lead to violence and revenge.  It is also important to know all this to understand the FDLR issue.  I’m afraid that in the coming future several of these unsettled bills will result again in killings and more violence.


When I was visiting Bweru, the so called capitol of the FDLR-CNRD of Wilson Irategeka (CNRD stands for ‘Conseil National pour la Rénové et la Democratie) we could not talk to Wilson but we were received by a small committee of the other leaders. I can site all their names but I think this is not so important.  They were very friendly and open and they told me right away that they knew that my wife is a Tutsi, that I’m passing most of my time in Rwanda and that I’m also talking to people high up in the Kagame regime.   They also told me that my presence in their midst would be known by the Rwandan intelligence services who had spies in their camp with cellphones and What’s  The FDLR-CNRD was now engaged in a small war with Mudacumura’s men in the border area between the Walikale district and Masisi.  They also told me that they wanted to return to Rwanda and talk to the Rwandan government and that they wanted peace. But some of them also told me that they would like to stay in the DRC and forge an alliance with pro Rwandan groups and see to it that the Tutsi refugees from Masisi would be able to return home.  They were fed up to deal with middle men in Goma who had turned this conflict into a money making business. They were in contact with their former rebel friends in Rwanda who told them about their own experiences and problems and they told me that they had lost their trust in the international institutions and the international NGO’s. Most of them wanted to talk directly to the Rwandan government. They had come to the conclusion that in the future they could only rely on Rwandans and/or fellow Kinyarwandan speakers to solve their problems, the problems that were devastating Masisi and the political problems in Rwanda. They also told me that they were surprised to see how Rwanda had developed itself over the years and that some of their kids already went to school in Rwanda.  For the first time in my life I felt at ease with these people: I told them what I saw in Rwanda in 1994, in Congo during and before the AFDL war. They agreed with most of it. They also told me that some of their old comrades were now fighting in the ranks of the Burundian CNDD-FDD and they all admitted that this cause was lost. We spend several days in this camp. We were always well protected because the FDLR did not trust the surrounding Nyatura militia-men (Congolese Hutu’s) with which they had forged an alliance to survive.  They also gave us inside information about the ongoing events in Masisi and the war against Mudacumura.  Mudacumura had previously also been chased out in the Walikale region by other Congolese  militia’s, the Cheka and the Mazembe (Mazembe is also the name of a very famous Congolese football team but this team in not connected to the militia). The FARDC had moved after that in to take control of the former bases of Mudacumura.  But they had not respected the deal with the Cheka and the Mazembe to pay for the ‘services rendues’ and that had resulted in the burning to the ground and the killing of several FARDC positions and their new visitors.  I admit that it is very complicated to explain this high level Asterix-Obelix story to outsiders.  But it illustrates perfectly the mess we’re dealing with in this region.  I also talked to them about possible contacts between them and other Rwandan Hutu and Tutsi opposition groups outside the DRC and outside Rwanda. Their criticism on the Kagame regime was very strong but it lacked the underlying hatred I felt in most of the discussions that I had in the past with other FDLR-cadres and members and the Interahamwe.  They said that there is no press freedom in Rwanda, that opposition parties cannot operate freely there ! I asked them if the system they had been defending for years was truly democratic and if the current policy of Kagame could not be the result of the criminal policy of the Habyaramima regime. I told them that their credibility to talk about democracy was very dubious. But none of them got angry when I told them that. One of them, an FDLR commander who had even received artillery training from North-Koreans in Lubumbashi, told me in private that he and his men would probably have killed me on the spot when I should have visited or encountered them 10 years ago.  Because they all knew that I was living in Rwanda and that my wife was a Tutsi. He had even seen pictures of my kids on Facebook. There is only one way for grunts  like me who are covering this conflict to stay professionally and physically alive: You should talk to everybody, to friend an enemy and You should never hide what You really think or what You really are.   Why ? That simply does not work here, especially not with Rwandans because they are very well informed !  They all have cellphones and they are all checking out things on the social media.   The commander admitted that he and his men had killed a lot of people over the years while they were fighting all those wars and he told me that his soldiers were still the best organized and trained lot in the region.  He added to that that the FDLR was often accused of crimes they had not committed and that the Congolese were often doing that to cover their awn wrongdoings. He was still very young when he and his parents fled from Rwanda and he had not killed anyone during the genocide. But he turned out to be a good fighter in Congo and he was selected for several training camps that were organized by foreigners.  He had also fought in Congo-Brazaville. Before they went to these training camps they were given the order never to tell them that they were in fact Rwandans.  He also told me that in fact a lot of FDLR did not want to go back to Rwanda because they didn’t know that country well and they felt more at home in the DRC.  I asked him if he knew about the events in Bwiza where Tutsi returnees had joined forces with the FDLR and he started laughing. But he knew about it. He had also heard about the ‘Green march’ and he admitted that this had caused the deaths of thousands of his fellow friends and refugees.  While we were having dinner the others  told me the  story of another Belgian that had approached them in 2012 with a Katangese middle man of Kabila. The guy was an ex officer of the Belgian army and he told them that it would be better for them to move away from the Rwandan border to the Congolese interior.  According to them  the Belgian was given 300.000 dollars in Kinshasa to motivate the FDLR leadership to move to the interior but the FDLR only received one third of that sum and they never left Masisi.  The guys I was talking to in Bweru were fed up with all those stories and it was clear to me that they were really seeking direct contact with officials in Kigali.  These opinions had not filtered down yet to most of the FDLR refugees in the camp: when we asked them if they wanted to return to Rwanda they told us that they would be killed there by the ‘inyenzi’ (and inyenzi is a cockroach and it is an insult for Tutsi’s).  One of the people I talked to in the camp even told me in private that his two sons had gone back to Rwanda where they had joined Kagame’s army and that he received every month a part of their salaries to feed his family.  He even wanted to give me their cell phone number because recently some of the cash had not passed through.

The far west

The Masisi region has become a lawless area: just last month the Congolese government and the FARDC organized a small ceremony in Mweso where a bunch of Nyatura fighters would turn in their weapons and promise the Congolese authorities to regain their villages and to abandon the armed struggle. They arrived in Mweso, they handed over 20 very old AK-47’s and a defective rocket launcher, they all had a beer and regained the Nyatura territory.  We even met one of them in the FDLR stronghold in Bweru and we met him again when we left the area in a nearby village. He was pissed drunk, carrying a pistol and he was shouting at the Congolese police who were too scared to touch him. That little PR-show in Mweso was also a hoax: the middleman ( a politician from Goma who is well connected to several political leaders in Kishasa) from Goma who had fixed the ceremony had received thousands of dollars to set it up , he had shared it with the guys who were ‘surrendering’ and they just went back to their posts in the bush where they received new weapons.  The truth is that these same Nayatura are now responsible for most of the kidnappings and the killings in this area. A couple of weeks ago they killed several villagers near Kitchanga and most of these people were Hunde. Before that they kidnapped six Congolese aid workers who were working in this region for a Norvegian NGO. The Norvegians paid thousands of dollars or ransom and the guys were released. But the taxi motor drivers who had brought them to that part of Masisi were killed because the Norvegians did not want to  pay for them.  A foreign MSF aid worker was also kidnapped in the same region and MSF also paid thousands of dollars to release him (or her).  After that most of the Masisi area became a shiny red no-go zone for foreign aid workers who are now relying for one hundred percent on Congolese staffers who risk their lives when they tell their bosses the truth about what is exactly going on there.  Most of the NGO’s who are working in this region know that they are indirectly supporting the FDLR and most of the other militias on the spot. Most of them also know that a big part of their aid  is being sold again on local markets and that this traffic is controlled by local militia leaders.  There are no UN-soldiers present on the spot to follow up on all that. The local government is also trying to promote tourism in the Virunga park. Gorilla permits are a lot less expensive in the DRC and some of the tourists even climb the Nyragongo volcano. This part of the province is relatively safe but according to some of my sources the park rangers are in contact with some militias who are receiving cash not to harm the tourists.  This went very wrong a while ago when a Belgian group of tourists was robbed at gunpoint. The whole matter was covered under a blanket of forgiveness !  The chaos in the region is total and this will most probably not improve with the upcoming elections in sight.  A lot of the crimes such as kidnappings and rape that are currently been committed in this part of the DRC are being put on the record of the FDLR. The group committed several crimes in the past but in their current status they can’t be put responsible for most of these crimes. The FDLR is and was often accused of crimes they did not commit. The same thing happened with the CNDP of Laurent Nkunda and the M23. In Congo it has become an old habit to accuse Rwandophones of wrongdoings Congolese bandits and militia’s commit.  There are nowadays several high ranking politicians in Kinshasa who have good contacts with several militias in this region; even rebel groups that are fighting each other. By putting their eggs in several baskets they control most of the chickens.


I count several elephants on the spot who are trampling down the grass: some of them are defending the colors of the big landowners, others are defending the colors of high ranking Congolese politicians and others do not know that that they have become an elephant themselves and that they have become a tool that is fueling the conflicts in the region.  Other elephants might have left the scene for a while to regain strength but they are also determined to come back.  Most of them do not care about the locals and they are thriving in this chaos.  In some cases they are even making love to each other on the same perch and this makes things even worse.

Then FDLR has become a very small puppet in this game. Their numbers in the east of the DRC have dwindled over the years and most of the radical elements have either been killed or will be killed in the coming future.  The moderates are looking for a way out. Their supporters in Europe still have problems to admit that the Hutu power case is definitively closed now  It would be unfair to classify all the last remaining FDLR elements as ‘genocidaires’. I wanted to list up all my encounters with the FDLR to compare the brutal and  genocidal ideology of those who were responsible for the Rwandan genocide with those I met in Masisi last month.  The ones I met before , during and just after the Rwandan genocide were real devils, the ones I met during the following wars in the DRC  were also still devils. But the ones I met in Bweru last month had taken a distance from that old Hutu power ideology. Some want to stay in the DRC and to help to stabilize that region. They are convinced that they cannot trust any longer the international community and the Congolese government to do that.  They are fed up, tired and they want peace ! They want a better future for their kids ! Others want to return to Rwanda and some of the ex FDLR who already returned to Rwanda want to return to the DRC.  The events in Bwiza have proven that both the Hutu and the Tutsi communities can trust each other and the Congolese Tutsi community that was shaken up by several wars and had to flee their villages want to come back.  In the other communities in North-Kivu (especially Hunde and Congolese Hutu) the distrust against their own leaders and militia commanders is growing day by day.  When You talk to these people they will often tell You that the situation in the region was very good in the 80-ties and in the 70-ies and they want to return to that in the future. They are aware of the fact that they will never be able to do that without the return of most of the Tutsi’s.  It has become clear to everybody that the UN and most of the big aid agencies have missed their goal to stabilize the region big time.  On the contrary: they are now fueling the conflict !  It is very difficult to anticipate the future of this region but  their might be other wars in the making and there are already indications that they will start soon. Who will be to blame for those wars ? The geopolitical picture of the region is changing day by day. Rwanda and Uganda want to develop the east of Africa with other countries such as Tanzania and Kenya. A more stable and prospering Kivu region on the Congolese side and a stable Burundi can only contribute to that. And stability in the Kivu’s can only be guaranteed if all the protagonist will put their differences aside to work out a  durable solution. Today I see Tanzanian and Kenyan delegations passing through Kigali and I see Rwandan delegations leaving for Dar Es Salaam. Two years ago the attitude of Tanzania towards Rwanda was still very hostile. Does that mean that Rwanda and Uganda want to conquer the east of Congo ? I don’t think so. The polarization in the discussion about what really happened in the DRC (and in Rwanda) is becoming very obvious. But a lot of scholars and journalists do not seem to understand that.  Instead of exchanging info they are accusing each other to support this or that side.  The conscience is growing in this part of Africa that the local communities will have to take their destiny into their own hands to settle things and to develop the region. Instead of pumping millions of dollars in the sunk vessel that still calls itself the DRC and instead of paying billions of dollars to an organization such as Monusco the international community should support that initiative.


I really hope that this long  paper was interesting for You. It is based for 80 percent on my own findings. Some of these findings might be subjective but that’s normal.   The old cliches that are proclaiming that the war in the east of the DRC is a result of the greed for minerals and the expansionism  of Rwanda and Uganda are contradicted by the facts on the ground. Other factors have overtaken the importance of these misunderstandings and the international aid agencies and the countries that are sponsoring them should look into their mirrors and correct themselves.  In Kinshasa the decision has been taken to postpone the elections to 2018.  This will provide most of the protagonists in the Kivu’s extra time to consolidate their wrongdoings.  The international community is criticizing all this but is not taking action.

Marc Hoogsteyns

This research was sponsored partially by the journalismfund.eu. In the DRC I collaborated closely with the Congolese journalist Chrispin Mvano and in Rwanda I collaborated closely with the Rwandan-Burundian journalist Adeline Umutoni. Without their help and insight this project would not have been possible.






Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s