“Ooh dear brother!You have grown so old! You even now have a bald head! I want to first of all thank God for keeping you alive all this long,” said Esperance Nyirabaritonda on meeting her brother Major Jean-Marie Vianney Bizimana.
Nyirabaritonda and her brother Bizimana met on Sunday for the first time in 24 years.
Bizimana, who has been an FDLR combatant for over two decades, repatriated with other former militiamen two weeks back.
He is among the over 1,500 Rwandans who have recently returned home from the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission.
The latest repatriation exercise started on November 16.
“I still cannot believe my eyes. I didn’t quite think my brother would survive that long in the harsh Congolese jungles,” she murmured, saying she thought he was long dead.
Nyirabaritonda, a resident of Nyabihu District, was among family members who on Sunday turned up at Mutobo Demobilisation and Reintegration Centre in Musanze District, to pay first visit to their relatives, friends and spouses from the repatriated ex-combatants.
FDLR is a terrorist group that has been active in the Congo on a mission to destabilise Rwanda. Most of its founders are perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
The returnees, who were repatriated with their dependants, came from the impenetrable forests of Equateur, Kanyabayonga, Walungu and Kisangani regions of DR Congo, where most of them lived since 1994.
They are all gathered at the Mutobo centre where they will undergo civic training before they can be reintegrated back into their communities of origin.
Some of the ex-militiamen who spoke to The New Times said that they were previously worried of their safety in Rwanda because they were being fed on misinformation be it from their commanders or from other individuals who profiteered from the continued existence of the rebel group.
“One may wonder why it took us 24 years to return back home and why we had to be forcefully repatriated by the Congolese army. This is because we only relied on some international radios which I may say are there to tarnish the image of our country basing to what I have witnessed so far,” said Lt Col. Joseph Kabarindwi who lived in Kisangani.
He added: “We couldn’t return as we didn’t have the real image of our country.”
Captain Bizimana echoed Kabarindwi’s reasoning before adding: “I don’t know how best to thank our government for the hospitality afforded to us from the time we repatriated.”
He said that the collective view was that they would be killed the moment they crossed into Rwanda.
“But officials on the Rwandan side warmly welcomed us…we have been given shelter and food among other support, we are now safe and I personally regret the time I wasted in jungles,” said Bizimana, who thanked the commission for reconnecting them with their families.
Francis Musoni, the secretary general of the RDRC, told The New Times that, upon arrival, the former combatants were afforded all the support they required, including medical screening, immunisation for the children while pregnant women were given antenatal care.
“They are getting all the support, as you can see now they look healthy. Two weeks back, they were in a sorry state,” he said.
Musoni said that the Mutobo centre has taken in 500 male former combatants while women and children have been transferred to other transit centres in the districts of Nyanza and Rusizi.
He said that they have been given time to familiarise themselves in the new environment and reconnect with their families before civic education sessions begin.
“Their schedule is actually very tight, they start very early in the morning with recreation activity, they do housekeeping, they clean the environment around them and then eat before they start discussions which go on throughout the day,” explained Musoni.
He said that they also have time to do extracurricular activities, including sports, mainly football and volleyball.
Over the years, Rwanda has reintegrated more than 10,000 ex-combatants and the RDRC provides to each discharged ex-combatant start-up capital of Rwf60,000 and each is equipped with life skills to help them start a new life.