A pile of arms surrendered by FDLR fighters in eastern Congo earlier this year.
As Rwanda pushes for military action against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) even before the six-months deadline for the group’s disarming expires, the Hutu rebel faction has outlined fresh conditions for what it calls lasting peace solutions in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), The Citizen has learnt.
Kigali has been calling for a military offensive against FDLR, which has been operating freely in eastern Congo for two decades, but Tanzania, South Africa and DRC maintain that no military action should be taken until the deadline expires. The stance is also supported by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). The deadline for the voluntary disarmament of FDLR fighters is December, this year, according to details gathered by The Citizen.
Both SADC and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) want the deadline to elapse before military action is taken against FDLR.
DRC wants the FDLR fighters who want to surrender to do so now or face military action after the deadline expires. The DRC government wants FDLR fighters who surrender to be repatriated to a transit camp in Kisangani, about 900km from South and North Kivu areas where the rebels are based.
But, according to details obtained by The Citizen, Rwanda and the UN want military action now and are strongly opposed to the six-month deadline.
So far, only 183 fighters have surrendered with less than 200 weapons, mostly old guns, handed in.
But in their letter addressed to the SADC chairman, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, FDLR, among other things, says it would not move its former combatants from Eastern Kivu to Kisangani as agreed earlier.
FDLR says between 2001 and 2002, when its fighters disarmed to pave the way for peace in war-torn DRC, the former combatants were attacked, killed and others forcibly repatriated to Rwanda.
All this, claims FDLR in the letter signed by Major General Byiringiro Victor, who is the president of the rebel faction, happened under the watch of UN peacekeeping forces (Monusco) and Congolese and Rwandese military officers.
Alarmed by what transpired in the past, FDLR has issued key conditions that should be fulfilled if Rwanda, DRC and the international community want lasting peace in eastern Congo.
- First, the rebel faction wants SADC to be actively involved in the whole peace process by being at the forefront of the efforts.
- Secondly, the group wants SADC and the African Union (AU) to plead on its behalf in persuading the European Union, United States of America, United Kingdom and Canada to support the peace process in eastern Congo.
- The third condition, according to the letter obtained by The Citizen, is SADC and AU to make use of both their respective diplomatic and strategic positions and persuade both the US and the UN Security Council to put more pressure on Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame to accept political dialogue between his government and the Hutu rebels.
The US, EU and United Nations still maintain that FDLR is a rebel faction, which, apart from being accused of playing a role in 1994 genocide, has also committed atrocities in eastern Congo during the past two decades.
The Citizen could not independently establish whether Rwanda would accept the proposal to have a political dialogue with FDLR.
When President Jakaya Kikwete suggested that it was time Mr Kagame launched political dialogue with FDLR, Kigali vehemently rejected the idea, straining relations between the two countries.
In its letter, the rebel faction says it is worth noting that the Rwandan problem is a political problem and therefore its solution is not military action, but political dialogue.
It is not clear why FDLR has changed its tone from an armed rebellion to political dialogue, bearing in mind that the group has in the past two decades been fighting to overthrow the Kigali regime.
A senior security officer in the Tanzania government told The Citizen on condition of anonymity, “Our position is that no military action should be taken before the deadline expires…after the expiry then we would make a decision.
“Our problem is that after we defeated the M23, the FDLR rebels, having sensed that they were the next target, decided to abandon combats and use locals as human shields. This situation complicates the military action process because you can’t fight them without killings innocent civilians.”
Last December, a Tutsi-dominated rebel faction known as M23 was militarily dismantled, ending 18 months of fighting in eastern Congo.
The M23 rebel faction, also known as Congolese Revolutionary Army, which was mainly formed by former National Congress for Defence of the People (CNDP) fighters led by Brigadier General Sultan Makenga and General Bosco Ntaganda, mutinied against the Kinshasa regime early in January 2012 and sparked a crisis that lasted for nearly two years.
But the group opted for peaceful means to attain their political goals in DRC following a sustained offensive by the UN Intervention Brigade.
Following the defeat, SADC and ICGLR leaders agreed that the focus should now be on FDLR and other rebel forces that have destabilized eastern Congo for years. Although there are about a dozen rebel factions in eastern Congo alone, FDLR is the most resilient, having operated from Congo for two decades during which it collected taxes and controlled illegal mining activities to fund its operations.
What is the FDLR?
According to documented evidence, FDLR rose from the ashes of the 1994 genocide perpetrators to form a strong Hutu extremist army, thanks to the free handout and safe heaven provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in the DRC’s Kivu Province.
The assassination of former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana in 1994 opened the bloody chapter of the massacre of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, sparking a full-scale offensive by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Mr Kagame. The formation of FDLR was spearheaded by, among others, Theoneste Bogosora, said to be among the chief architects of the genocide, and General Augustine Bizimungu who was chief of staff of the Rwandese army during the genocide.
At the time of Habyarimana’s assassination, RPF fighters were just 40km outside Kigali, waiting for the implementation of the Arusha peace accord, which, among other things, would have given the Tutsi rebels key positions within the transition government that was to have been announced by Habyarimana.
After months of fierce battle, RPF ended three months of genocide, but also sparked the exodus of refugees who fled Rwanda fearing retaliation by the RPF regime.
In July 1994, an average of 12,000 Rwandan refugees, mainly Hutus, entered DRC every hour through the town of Goma, fleeing the RPF soldiers who had just toppled the Rwandan regime. Among those fleeing were soldiers and Hutu militia known as Interahamwe.