When she joined the Local Defence Forces about nine years ago, Clementine Ahishakiye was buoyant and in high spirits.
Indeed, years before her admission into the force, she had been wishing to put on the dark-red uniform.
“Whenever I came across the local defence officers, I envied them and always looked forward to the day I would put on the dark-red uniform,” she reveals.
“I wanted to serve my country. I had been actively involved in improving people’s livelihoods at the grassroots and wanted to move to the next level,” she adds.
At the time, Ahishakiye was the in-charge of security at her village in the rural Kaburemera Cell of Ngoma Sector, Huye District.
“I was tasked with ensuring security in my village. I was, therefore, compelled to enrol in the force to be able to fulfil that responsibility,” she says.
“When I was selected by my community to join the force, I felt honoured. It was for me a dream come true,” Ahishakiye says, with a smile.
A law establishing the Local Defence tasked Cell councils to select members of the force. The selection process was mainly based on the willingness to serve under the voluntary force and integrity of candidates.
Ahishakiye says when she was sent for training to become a Local Defence member, she felt that her efforts were being recognised.
“It showed that my community appreciated what I was doing and above all my behaviour,” she notes.
Happy to be a volunteer
But after nine years of what she calls a “dedicated voluntary work”, Ahishakiye is returning to civilian life following a government move to phase out the local defence forces.
Under the new arrangement, a new force, dubbed the District Administration Security Support Organ (Dasso), is set to take over.
Dasso will have 7,000 officers who are currently undergoing training at the Police Training School in Gishari, Rwamagana District.
A law determining Dasso’s responsibilities, organisation and functioning has already been adopted and gazetted.
The law tasks Dasso members to help district authorities enforce their decisions and instructions, arrest any person disrupting public order and hand them over to the Police as well as report any security threat, among others.
“It required passion, commitment and patriotism for us to serve this country and its people,” Ahishakiye says of the years of voluntary work.
“But I am happy to have served my country. These years have greatly shaped my life.”
Theogene Hakizimana, who joined the force in 1997, says he always feels a sense of ‘pride and honour’ when he thinks over his voluntary services.
“I am pleased to have been given an opportunity to serve my country,” Hakizimana says.
“The voluntary work has also been an eye-opener as it gave me the confidence to engage in other activities to uplift my living conditions.”
One of the major set-backs directed against the Local Defence Forces has been the force’s failure to maintain discipline within its ranks.
Some of the forces’ members have been, for long, associated with criminal activities including robbery, corruption, as well as consumption and dealing in illicit drugs among others.
“In some instances, local defence personnel have been causing insecurity (instead of ensuring security),” Jean Claude Nkeshimana, an educationist from Muhanga District, recently told The New Times.
But for Hakizimana, looking at the forces’ work through the lens of a few undisciplined individuals would be downplaying the sacrifice and efforts of the ‘many others who did a commendable job’.
“Even the best family can have an errant child,” Hakizimana says, citing a Rwandan adage which states that ‘nta muryango utagira ikigoryi.”
“If one or two people were involved in crimes, it doesn’t mean that all of us are criminals,” he insists.
Even Ahishakiye holds a similar view, emphasising that those who single out indiscipline as something that has dogged their reputation tend to forget that their efforts were crucial in curbing crime in the community.
She says the ‘so-called indiscipline’ is a ‘case of the sinful girl who tarnishes the image of other women’– also aluding to a Rwandan popular saying.
“Our efforts have been instrumental in maintaining order and fighting against crimes such as drug abuse and the manufacture and sale of illegal brew which hitherto had been a major cause of instability,” says Frank Murenzi, who was until recently the head of Local Defence Forces in Huye District.
“We served with diligence, passion and patriotism and if some of us erred it shouldn’t be blamed on all of us.”
Looking to the future
Murenzi says they have faced several challenges, including delivering service to the community without expecting any kind of payment.
“But we are happy that we played our part in making our country and community better,” Murenzi says.
In addition, Murenzi says, the years of voluntary work have also allowed the members to get involved in income generating activities to sustain their lives.
Some managed to get job-paying offers at various private and public institutions where they worked as security agents while others were helped to acquire practical skills, particularly driving skills.
While Hakizimana pursued a driving course and acquired a driving license, Ahishakiye got a security job in Butare town.
Hakizimana currently owns a motorcycle and works as a commercial Taxi-Moto rider in Huye District.
“This is something I believe will continue to generate revenue to sustain my life,” he says, adding that he has no regret and that he is grateful for having had an opportunity to serve his country.
Ahishakiye, on her part, says she looks forward to using the ‘little’ money she has been saving monthly to start a business.
“I have been saving Rwf10, 000 every month and as I reintegrate in the community, I will use that money to start a business,” she proudly says.
She says she also has livestock that she believes will help her transform her life.
“I am not afraid of the future because I have been preparing for it,” Ahishakiye says.
While some of the ex-Local Defence members look at possibilities of starting their own business, others believe their survival is in the creation of cooperatives–which local leaders have pledged to support.
Others, like Jean de Dieu Mbanjubugabo, say the government should have designed a special ‘discharge package’ to help them integrate in the community and adapt to their new life.
But as the men and women return to community life and as they wait for any possible support from the government and other members of their communities, they say nothing can stop their resolve and dedication to keep guaranteeing community safety.
“We have put off our uniforms but we are still committed to working for this country and ensuring that people are safe,” Murenzi vows.