On a cool, misty morning at Mutobo Demobilization Centre in Musanze district in, a group of individuals gather under tree shade cheerfully singing jaunty songs.
All of them are former members of armed groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Metres away, some of them are seated in a quiet room carefully learning how to tailor – the skill believed to be essential in their transitional life.
But that’s just some of the many activities done by these individuals. Apart from that, they do construction and agriculture.
“We are ready to settle for life here,” Frida Mafuro Ikirenga, one former woman militia in DRC, tells The New Times. “After all, there was no hope for life in the jungle where we lived.”
Ikirenga, 26, had been living in DRC since 2018. The young lady left Rwanda to Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, to find out the whereabouts of her father whom she had never seen since her childhood.
“In 2018, someone linked me to a person who told me she knew the whereabouts of my father. I went to Goma to meet that person and indeed she took me to where my dad was,” she narrates.
However, something happened during the same time: When Ikirenga arrived there, her father who was a doctor in Kalehe territory forced her to join the terror group even when the daughter says she didn’t want.
“I had no choice because they had confiscated my travel documents, so I had to undergo a one-month military training,” she says.
Mid last year, Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) launched special operations against all armed groups that operate in the region, most of whom are in the eastern part of the country.
The forces captured combatants mostly those that belonged to the National Council for Democratic Renewal (CNRD) – a breakaway faction of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) militia group also based in DRC.
During the operations, 300 members of the FDLR were captured by the Congolese army with their weapons in the Kalehe region of South Kivu province after their base in Kahuzi-Biega National Park was destroyed.
Ikirenga was among the many who were captured.
Those who were captured alongside their dependents were repatriated to Rwanda in December last year. They included more than 340 former fighters and nearly 2,000 dependents of these fighters.
Former combatants are currently hosted at Mutobo Demobilisation Centre while their dependents are at Nyarushishi Transit Centre, Rusizi District.
‘Brigadier General’ David Mberabahizi is one of the many ex-rebels repatriated from DRC in December. He says he was in charge of security advisory and resistance for CNRD, a job he said he had held since 2016.
“I served in FDLR administration but broke up with them due to the injustice I was seeing. Three years ago, I was recruited in CNRD to be a security advisor,” the 57-yeal-old recounts.
In November, he adds, Congolese army targeted their base in a territory called Kahuzi and they spent five days fighting with them in Kahuzi-Biega National Park (in Bukavu) until they could not resist anymore.
During that time, Mberabahizi who’s a former military para-commando in ex-FAR, says they were not getting food, medical assistance and there was no sense of direction.
“It is at this time that we chose to surrender to the Congolese army. We were held at Nyamunyunyi barracks until we were repatriated to Rwanda in December,” he notes.
What exactly were they
While Mberabahizi doesn’t clearly explain why they kept fighting against Rwanda for more than two decades, he claims top officers like him hoped they could build wealth in the jungles.
“Take an example of agriculture, if you had expansive banana plantations it was compared to the trade of drugs. That is what I was doing personally,” he reveals.
In essence, he adds, most people like him believed such businesses were lucrative just like the trade-in charcoal and mineral activities, even though this was carried out by a few big people.
While that might be true, many ex-combatants believe most of the assets owned by these people were not sustainable. Mberabahizi doesn’t contest this, especially given the fact that he lost all he had when the operations broke out.
Providence Barakamfitiye, a former resident of Ruhengeri now Musanze district, claims she left the country in 1997 during the time the people of Ruhengeri were facing security threats caused by the same people she later joined.
“I decided to be part of insurgents – commonly known as Abacengezi – because I didn’t know what was really going on. Some people used to lie to us that RPA forces were killing our people so I had to join the opposition party,” she explains.
The former woman fighter served, first in FDLR and later in CNRD, a faction that was formed in 2016 after some rebel members split up with leaders of FDLR.
Anasthase Nshimiyamana, one of the key political ideologues of CNRD, reveals that the FDLR split as a result of disagreement over access to resources and political representation.
“We realised there was a lot of disagreements on what we stood for. Some members were proposing for peace agreement with Kigali and there were those opposed to the idea. After a long time not being able to have consensus, some decided to go their way which resulted in the formation of CNRD,” he explained.
Nshimiyimana, 50, adds that another big reason that led to the split-up was greed over resources by some members.
He highlights people like Paul Rusesabagina, Jean-Paul Kalinijabo, Faustin Twagiramungu, Felicien Hategekimana, Innocent Twagiramungu, Eric Munyemana, Innocent Biruka, and Benoit Biraguma, as some of the outstanding financiers of activities of armed groups.
Most of them are based in Europe and the United States.
Nshimiyimana believes most armed groups have lost strength and momentum, arguing it would be hard for those remaining in jungles to carry out the agenda they have.
Fred Nyamurangwa, a commissioner with Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission believes consolidating peace and stability in the region is critical for the country and that it is through neutralising armed forces that this can be achieved.
“For Rwanda and the whole region to have peace and security and to be able to continue realizing strong economic growth, we have to deal with armed militias,” he says.
Having spent many years outside of Rwanda, former members of armed groups are sometimes scared to repatriate for fear of prosecution for possible crimes committed during the genocide.
Others, who joined armed forces while in DRC are held hostage by their commanders, who maintain tight control over mindset and movements of personnel and their families.
Some women dependents had expressed doubts over whether their husbands most of whom are former rebels captured during the operations were not killed by Rwandan forces.
But a visit at Nyarushishi Transit Centre on Friday gave us a different view.
Jacqueline Niyokwizerwa, a wife to Joseph Gatabazi a senior member of the militia group told The New Times that she was able to finally speak to her husband who is also at Mutobo.
Gatabazi, who was the militia’s head of military operations, was captured by the Congolese army.
“I was pessimistic about whether my husband was not killed. Fortunately, I was able to speak to him and I hope to meet him after the training programme to build a life here,” she noted.
Claudine Musabyimana, the wife of Mberabahizi says she’s looking forward to meeting her husband after a reintegration programme.
“I am glad I now know where my husband is. At first, we were scared that they were killed by Rwanda forces. We lived a life that wasn’t really worth living in Congo, but we are determined to change,” she said.Follow https://twitter.com/Julio_Bizimungu