The Times of London
Goma, DR Congo
Dressed in a pink cotton tracksuit, Corporal Innocent Rakundo looks an unlikely member of the FDLR, one of Africa’s most feared rebel armies. He fiddles with a pen as he describes the 15 years he spent living and fighting in the forests of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the shifting web of political allegiances, commercial interests and military power that stretches across the region, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, better known by their French acronym, are out of favour and under siege. The FDLR’s Europe-based president and vicepresident were arrested in Germany this month, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In eastern Congo’s forested hills, FDLR fighters are under assault by the UN-backed Congolese Army, which began a fresh offensive in March. Footsoldiers such as Corporal Rakundo are abandoning the group in growing numbers and its ability to trade in conflict minerals such as gold, coltan and tin ore has been hampered.
Yet the FDLR is far from a spent force. A leaked United Nations investigators’ report seen by The Times states that UN peacekeeper-backed offensives against the FDLR “have failed to dismantle the organisation’s political and military structures on the ground”.
In Goma, the regional capital, UN officials have said that FDLR leaders — some of whom are accused of organising the 1994 genocide in Rwanda — have been recruiting new fighters, sometimes by force. Large areas of the provinces that neighbour Lake Kivu remain under rebel control.
The report detailed a web of political support, funding and money laundering that stretches from the heart of Africa to Britain, Europe, Hong Kong and the US. As in a previous report by the UN panel of experts, issued last December, the British-owned Amalgamated Metal Corporation is accused of funding the FDLR through purchases of tin ore mined in rebel-held areas — a trade the company told The Times it suspended two months ago. The report said the trade in the ore alone earned the FDLR “several hundred thousand dollars, up to a few million dollars, a year”. Notoriously corrupt and murderous, some Congolese army commanders even provide weapons and support to the rebels they are supposed to be fighting. Yet until the start of this year the two were allies, battling the charismatic renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda and his National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a group that operated as a Rwandan proxy in Congo.
But in Congo, allies can quickly become enemies, and vice versa. A surprising d?tente between the leaders of Rwanda and Congo, Paul Kagame and Joseph Kabila, ended years of distrust and hostility, and led to the capture of Mr Nkunda in January.
The guns were then turned on the FDLR. A hasty integration process inserted Mr Nkunda’s 6,000 mostly Tutsi troops into the Congolese Army, where they rapidly became the stormtroopers of attacks against the FDLR, an ethnically Hutu group. Or, as an intelligence source in Goma put it: “Nkunda’s soldiers didn’t integrate into the army — they took over the army. The offensive gives them the excuse to attack and kill anyone they identify as FDLR.”
The accusation is backed by this week’s leaked report: “Military operations have not succeeded in neutralising the FDLR, have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis and have resulted in an expansion of CNDP military influence in the region,” it stated. Humanitarian groups estimate that about 900,000 people have been forced from their homes during the nine-month offensive — roughly one in five of the region’s population — thousands of women have been raped and hundreds of civilians have been killed by both sides.
This month’s arrests of rebel leaders Ignace Murwanashyaka and Straton Musoni have shaken the group by taking out two leading ideologues with strong links to the Hutu diaspora. “We feel very bad because of the arrests,” said Corporal Rakundo, 35, who deserted this week. “I decided to leave the FDLR because life was difficult in the forest. Ignace Murwanashyaka was our leader. Now we know that Europe wants to finish all Hutus.”
The rebels now appear to be looking for a way out, and want talks with the Rwandan Government they have been seeking to overthrow. Rwanda refuses to negotiate with a group it accuses of orchestrating the 1994 genocide.
Speaking from a forest stronghold, an FDLR spokesman, Laforge Fils, described the arrests as unjust and unjustified. “The solution to the problem is not to arrest the leaders of the FDLR, but to request the Rwandan Government to come to the negotiating table,” he told The Times. “The fundamental problems should be solved at the political level, because they are political problems.”
He bristled at the reports of rape, torture and murder attributed to the rebels by human rights groups. “They accuse us of all the things you mention, but when we ask for a commission of investigation the Congolese Government is the first to refuse. They hold us responsible for things that are done by others.Our men are very disciplined, they would not attack the population.”
However, that is exactly what they do, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch and others. Typical examples of the tit-for-tat ethnic killings that characterise the conflict involve the Congolese Army and the FDLR taking turns to slaughter scores of civilians as areas switch hands, activists say.
Corporal Rakundo went home to Rwanda yesterday for the first time in 15 years to be reunited with his wife and four children, but the tensions that keep the region in seemingly perpetual instability were not far from his mind.
“I have told you how the life of a Hutu is — we are enemies for everybody,” he said.
“But it will feel very good to be home with my family, as long as Rwanda does not arrest me.”
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