The DR Congo-based FDLR militia, which comprises elements blamed for the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, is wrecked by internal wrangles and is now weaker following another split last year, according to new defectors.
According to Brig. Gen. Cômes Semugeshi, 50, who fled from the militia camp early this year, internal wrangles climaxed end last May when a group led by Col. Wilson Irategeka formed a new group, the Conseil National pour le Renouveau et la Democratie (CNRD)-Ubwiyunge, and immediately turned their guns on the Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi (FOCA), FDLR’s military wing.
Speaking during a recent exclusive interview with The New Times at Mutobo demobilisation and reintegration centre in Musanze District, the former rebel said FOCA, which is led by Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura, since 2003, was taken by surprise and outnumbered thought it fought back.
The clashes continue, he said.
Asked why he joined the new faction, Semugeshi, said he, “was not alone.”
“We decided that because Mudacumura and others are wanted by international tribunals, for war crimes, it is better they stepped, aside so that others lead but they refused,” Semugeshi said.
Since 2012, Mudacumura is the subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on nine counts of war crimes in eastern DR Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces. The FDLR political wing is led by Maj. Gen. Victor Byiringiro.
Another cause of the latest rift, he says, is the disagreement over the fate of thousands of Rwandan refugees – noncombatant FDLR dependents – who some in the militia want to be registered and given essential material support by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Mudacumura’s group is strongly against the idea.
Efforts by UNHCR to provide humanitarian relief and safety to the refugees are not welcomed by Mudacumura and his followers as the latter fear this could make clear the refugees’ actual number and possibly provide an opportunity for them to bolt from militia’s grip.
The FDLR, Semugeshi says, fear relinquishing its grip on the civilian Rwandan population in DR Congo as they are not sure how that can affect them. Besides being used as human shields the civilians are a source for new recruits, among others.
“We did not want refugees to die in the jungle but Mudacumura and his group could not accept that our people gather in safe refugee camps. In March 2016, they secretly executed an attack on a refugee collecting camp in my area of operation without my knowledge,” Semugeshi said, explaining that his unit’s commanding officer Brig. Gen. Mugisha “did not think I would agree with the operation.”
“This really annoyed me. It also proved to me that they had hidden motives.”
When Irategeka’s group then mobilised, covertly, to break away, Semugeshi, then a Colonel, followed them hoping they offered better options. He was quickly promoted but was disappointed once he realised that Irategeka also had other priorities.
The new faction’s plan, he said, is to link up with all other political groups and governments opposed to the Government of Rwanda and create a powerful coalition that can ably call for peace talks with Kigali.
Among the militia’s current regional backers, Semugeshi said, is Burundi, where he says FDLR now has free access as “they go in and out as they wish.”
“In forming CNRD, among our priorities there was the plight of Rwandan refugees. But now, Irategeka seems not to care anymore. I suspect that, maybe, with the politics involving these other groups he is working with, they identified other more urgent priorities.
“They are worried about what would happen if all refugees are put into camps and then taken away.”
Irategeka’s faction, Semugeshi said, joined forces with the Congolese army to eliminate Mudacumura’s group “in the hope that they get arms and any other support from the Congo army.”
Maj. Theodore Nduwayezu, 43, another CNRD defector who abandoned the FDLR three years ago only to join the new faction last year, describes the militia’s internal wrangle as a war between the old guard and a new generation.
“It has been nearly 24 years and these people say they want to return to their country; to fight and ‘‘liberate’’ Rwanda. But now, people are saying that ‘look, these people are old and haven’t taken us anywhere,” Nduwayezu said.
“But now, when you look at what the CNRD are also doing you realise that they are up to no good. Ever since they part ways with FDLR-FOCA, there has been infighting. I decided that I won’t be part of this, especially since those who return home are reintegrated and are doing well unlike the misinformation we’ve been given for a long time.”
Conflicts within the FDLR, the first occurring in 2003, have previously led to splits. After 2003, the political wing which was mainly based in Europe split as the then vice president Jean-Marie Vianney Higiro and treasurer Félicien Kanyamibwa defected to establish the Ralliement pour l’Unité et la Démocratie–Urunana (RUD-Urunana).
In November 2009, the militia’s political leaders Ignace Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni were arrested in Germany. In September 2015, Murwanashyaka and his deputy, Musoni, were sentenced to 13 and eight years in prison, respectively, when a court in the city of Stuttgart concluded its four-year trial.
However, as far back as 2005, Semugeshi said, all has not been well in the Congolese jungle as there have been power struggles with in the terrorist group’s ranks.
“Right now, there are three main Rwandan groups; FOCA, RUD, and, most recently, CNRD,” he says, explaining that they all have no clear objective.
“Their objective is survival,” he said. “They can’t mount any really successful attack on Rwanda.”
In the meantime, Semugeshi, like the others at Mutobo, is looking forward to a better life after he completes the reintegration programme.
He says he had never given up hope of returning home.
“There are many former colleagues who returned home and we kept in touch. They kept on informing me about the reality here and encouraging me to come home.”
The militia’s latest split, is the fourth major one ever since the FDLR’s creation 17 years ago, when they then vainly sought to shed off their Genocide connection.
It was a change of name and not the (genocidal) ideology, says genocide researcher Tom Ndahiro.
“Their discourse remained the same,” Ndahiro says.
In 2014, Kigali estimated the militia’s strength at 3,640.
When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of Rwanda and ended the Genocide in 1994, the former Rwandan Armed Forces, or ex-FAR, political leaders and the Interahamwe militia largely responsible for the orchestration and execution of the Genocide – escaped to eastern DR Congo, then Zaire, where they were given a safe sanctuary from which to plan their attacks on Rwanda.
Ndahiro adds: “The biggest threat posed by FDLR is not military but ideology. Their ideologues and friends have never stopped spewing genocidal venom, in the DR Congo and beyond.”