It was a joyful moment for Sergeant Major Jean-Bosco Banzirabose, 55, when he was discharged from a reintergration course alongside 74 other former combatants at the Mutobo Demobilisation and Rehabilitation Centre in Musanze District on Tuesday.
Banzirabose had lived in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly 20 years before he was repatriated early this year.
The former Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) soldier joined the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in 1994.
The grey-haired man sung with delight at the discharge ceremony, after completing a three-month reintegration course.
“I am weak because of the difficult conditions I endured in the jungles,” Banzirabose said.
He said he was forcefully conscripted in the militia.
“We were forcefully conscripted and taken for training in the former Ruhengeri prefecture (now Musanze District). We were then taken to the frontline to fight the Rwanda Patriotic Army but were defeated and fled to the Congo,” he said.
But Banzirabose managed to repatriate in 1997 after the Mugunga camp they were staying in was destroyed by the Congolese army.
Rejoining the militia group
Yet after one year in Rwanda, Banzirabose rejoined the FDLR militia in 1998. He says while in the Congo, FDLR started fighting with other militia groups like Mai mai, Nyatura among others which made the situation worse.
Struggle to desert
Banzirabose says that despite the difficult conditions, desertion was difficult. He says there were dreaded punishments, including death for whoever attempted to desert.
“There are people in militia groups and civilian camps who know that they cannot repatriate voluntarily because of their role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi,” Banzirabose says.
The final escape
In 2010, Banzirabose was shot in the left leg, leaving him disabled. After receiving treatment, he went for training on the use of traditional medicine to heal injured militiamen.
“After becoming their ‘doctor’, I was allowed to move from one camp to another. I used this opportunity to establish contacts with the outside world,” Banzirabose says.
He adds that luck struck when he suffered a severe injury on his leg and he was transferred to Berewusa Hospital.
“I was treated there and thought it was the right time to escape. I informed the doctor about my need to repatriate and he connected me to someone from the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Congo (Monusco) who also happened to be my friend. They both helped me repatriate,” he says, adding that he was then airlifted to Goma.
“I am grateful for the skills I have acquired here. I am ready to work hard to help develop my country,” he says
Call for help in repatriation
The former FDLR fighters who were discharged on Tuesday said there are no efforts put in place to disarm FDLR so that Rwandans who are in captivity repatriate.
“Monusco’s role has remained insignificant. They are only staying in towns yet FDLR are in rural areas preventing people from repatriating. We are appealing to the international community to disarm the militia so that many Rwandans who are holed up in DR Congo forests return home,” said sergeant Berthe Havugimana, another former combatant.
Jean Sayinzoga, the chairperson of the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission (RDRC) also called for disarmament of FDLR militia.
He urged those repatriated to join their families and work towards development. He also urged them to champion unity and reconciliation and encourage their colleagues to repatriate voluntarily.