Hundreds of thousands of people were massacred during the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda. Now, in the crucible of the ensuing war in neighbouring Congo, the fugitive killers are training their children to carry on the Hutu mission of extermination, and awaiting their opportunity to return to the mother country.
Jerubaal Kayiranga fought with the FDLR. One of his responsibilities was to recruit children to its ranks, many of them forcibly, before he fled back to Rwanda last year. In a demobilisation camp there he describes how the philosophy of the Hutu 10 Commandments lives on in the hills of eastern Congo and how some of its most enthusiastic adherents are the FDLR’s youngest fighters. In the Congo fighting, "many FDLR soldiers died, so that’s why these boys are recruited at 10 years old to fight," he says.
"They’re worse than the older ones because they don’t even know how Rwanda is. They don’t know any Tutsis. They just hate them as the enemy. It’s the same as they [extreme Hutu leaders] were telling us during the genocide. They told us what we should do is kill all the Tutsis in the country."
That is exactly how the boy sees things.
"The Tutsis stole our country and they are killing the Hutus or making them slaves. We have to kill them wherever they are. It is the only way to get our country back. When they are defeated I can go home," he says. "It’s not hard to kill. You shoot."
A Hutu rebel commander wants to meet in the market of a Congolese village called Sange near the border with Rwanda. Arriving with a handful of his troops, Colonel Edmond Ngarambe sits on a wooden bench in the shade of a tree. His soldiers scatter to guard his back. I remark on how some look to be in their teens.
"Most of our new recruits came from Rwanda as children," he says. "They are fighting to take their country back."
Ngarambe is in Sange to persuade me that the FDLR is not what it seems. It’s true that its website describes the present Tutsi-led government in Rwanda as fascist, bloodthirsty, arrogant and barbaric. It also, in an interesting about-face from reality, says the Tutsis are seeking to exterminate the Hutus.
But Ngarambe, who served as a lieutenant in the army of Rwanda’s former Hutu government, which led the genocide, says that is not the full picture. The FDLR is much misunderstood, he argues, and is merely seeking democracy and justice. That, it turns out, means a return to the Hutu domination that underpinned the 1994 genocide and an end to the trials of those indicted for mass murder.
But then, Ngarambe sees himself as a victim in his self-imposed exile.
Countless extremist militiamen and soldiers joined the million Hutu refugees - the boy and his mother among them - who, in July 1994, struggled from Rwanda into what was then Zaire (the country changed its name to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997) fleeing the consequences of genocide. Their arrival set in motion a cycle of civil war and invasions that engulfed eastern Congo, as foreign armies, rebel groups, warlords and militias rooted in mystical tradition carved up the region.
No one knows how many died here but the most widely accepted estimate is of more than five million, mostly from disease and starvation, although massacres were commonplace enough that mass graves are still being unearthed. The living suffered too, enduring the rape of entire towns and villages. Through it all, the broken, defeated but unrepentant murderers from Rwanda carried their ideology of hate. The old organisations that led the genocide - the notorious interahamwe militia and Hutu army - gave way to new groups that then emerged as the FDLR.
But the boys in the hills are mostly too young to remember all that. They are sullen and avoid eye contact. There are no smiles and few hints of a child under the skin. It is hard to say what kind of killing these children have seen or are responsible for, but for many it is probably their most formative experience.
They are like the boys with guns coerced into fighting in other parts of Africa, battle-hardened by acting as porters, carrying weapons and food to get them used to the sound of gunfire and death. In time they are drawn into the killing, perhaps made to perform some atrocity not only to harden them but to implicate them so that there is no turning back.
With it they learn a terrible lesson: that a gun will get them what they want - food, money, sex. They also believe it will get them back to Rwanda. But if they ever do get there, they will discover, like the former child soldiers of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Uganda, that it is not easy to return to what passes for a normal life.
Ngarambe sees none of that. He says children are drawn into the FDLR’s ranks because of a burning sense of injustice. "Schoolboys are coming to us. They are fighting to be free. We do not have to indoctrinate them. They come to us because they know who the enemy is. They do not want to be slaves," he says.
But they are so young.
"It doesn’t matter how young they are if they don’t have their freedom. They will not be free so long as the Tutsis control Rwanda."
ourteen-year-old Bahati Mugisha doesn’t put it that way. He is a young FDLR fighter who was captured by the group’s principal enemy inside Congo - a renegade Tutsi general, Laurent Nkunda, who broke from the Congolese government army to battle the Hutu rebels who were killing and ethnically cleansing Congo’s own Tutsi population of several hundred thousand.
"They gave me a gun and said we were going to fight the Tutsis," says the teenager. "They said these were our enemy and we must kill as many as possible." Asked who told him these things, the teenager says his commander - men such as Aloize Mbanza, a 53-year-old former Rwandan army corporal who found himself indoctrinating a new Hutu generation in Congo. Mbanza fled back to his homeland last year.
"Most of the FDLR who are young came from Rwanda when they were very small, so they grew up in Congo," he says. "Now the FDLR is also recruiting Rwandan boys who were born in Congo, in the refugee camps. They are 12 or 13 years old. They are the ones who don’t have fear. They are fighting with guns. There are many of them. The only school they know is the army."
They are also dying.
"There were other boys fighting with me," says Mugisha. "I know some of them died. I saw two who died, killed there in the battles. But there were others, too. Some of the other boys were younger than me."
Others have been killed trying to escape the FDLR’s clutches. Former rebels such as Mbanza and Kayiranga are lucky to have got away. "If our chiefs thought we were going back to Rwanda, they would take you and kill you," says Kayiranga. "I saw Colonel Haguma killed because he wanted to come back. They beat him and he died. I know a sergeant who was hanged from a tree because he had the idea to come back. They call a meeting and they point at you and say you want to go back to the Tutsi government and then they kill you. Sometimes they kill you by hitting your head with a hammer. They have many ways."
To be continued