A former rebel in the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Theogene Ntamukunzi, has for the last 22 years used music to persuade Rwandans in exile to return home.
The 54 year-old started singing in 1986 and continued singing even after joining Ex-FAR, the then government army before fleeing into exile in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1994 where he lived for 18 months before returning in 1996.
Sunday Times visited Ntamukunzi at Level 9 record Music Studio in Gisozi from where he narrated his story of being an artiste and soldier. Ntamukunzi lives with his family of six children in Musanze District, Northern Province.
At the age 10, Ntamukunzi learned how to play traditional music instruments imitating talented musicians and sung his first song, Ingorane z’Ifaranga, which received a lot airplay on Radio Rwanda in 1986.
“I became popular and was invited to perform at both public and private ceremonies. This helped my career and was often hosted by journalists who would invite me to their studios,” he said.
In 1987, he won a singing competition that had been organised to celebrate Labour Day. Ntamukunzi walked away with a cash prize of Rwf 40,000 which was a lot of money at the time.
Joining the army
In 1991, Ntamukunzi joined the army when the youth were mobilized to join but his time in the army did not last long because the government forces were defeated and fled to the forests of Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ntamukunzi, who was a corporal at the time fled to DRC and left his young family in Rwanda.
“Being in exile, I would think of my family and asked myself whether I would see them again. I was in contact with them and they told me how the country was peaceful but it was difficult for me to understand because we received negative information that once we returned we would be arrested,” he explained.
Later on, Ntamukunzi decided to return secretly, but after coming back he was both excited and nervous. Although he was excited to finally see his family, he worried that he would be arrested for having been in the previous government army.
After a few days with his family, he told her wife that he wanted to go back to DRC and convince his former colleagues to also return.
“I tried to convince other rebels that the country was peaceful but it seemed difficult for them to believe what I was saying. I kept convincing them to return but they refused.
In July 1996, after failing to convince his former colleagues to return, Ntamukunzi and some refugees decided to come back with the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
“On reaching Rubavu border, we were welcomed and accommodated at Mutobo Reintegration Camp in Musanze District before we were allowed to join our families a few days later,” he said.
“Friends and local leaders were happy to see me back. At the time, I continued my music journey until I was requested to train the district’s traditional dance troupe.”
His return did not go well with his former colleagues in the FDLR who planned to kill him and his family but luckily they were not successful.
“The FDLR would listen to my songs and classified me as a traitor. One day an anonymous group of killers attacked my home and injured my wife. Fortunately, no one was killed. I was not around because I was attending lectures in civic education at Nkumba training camp,” he added.
Ntamukunzi has so far composed about 80 songs related to different government programmes such as Gacaca, elections, unity and reconciliation.
After attending civic education at Nkumba Training Center in Burera District in 1998, he was integrated in Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) and he served the country until 2007 before retiring.
Ntamukunzi was part of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission which traveled to different camps in Tanzania and DRC to encourage Rwandan refugees to return home and many were convinced and decided to return.
He also says that he has received many testimonies of people who were inspired by his songs and decided to return home.