The DRC's most notorious outlaws may finally be ready to end their 20-year war of rape and plunder.
GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Fourteen-year-old Habimana was asleep in his bed when armed militiamen burst through the door of his home and demanded that he carry their luggage to a nearby market. When he arrived at the market, with two other children from his village in the Masisi territory of eastern Congo, they were told they would never see their families again.
That was six months ago, and the armed men were from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group that relies heavily on abducted child soldiers and counts among its members men who participated in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
Now, after 20 years of preying on the civilian population of eastern Congo, the biggest faction of the FDLR says it wants to come in from the bush. In April, it declared its intention to lay down its weapons and engage in political dialogue, and on July 3, a group of foreign ministers from southern and east African countries said they would suspend military operations against the FDLR for six months in order to give the rebel group a chance to make good on its pledge.
Whether the FDLR is serious about disarming or just playing for time is, of course, impossible to say. But there can be little doubt that the group is feeling the heat. Ever since the United Nations' special intervention brigade, fighting alongside Congolese troops, trounced the M23 rebels last year, both parties have come under tremendous pressure to take on the FDLR. Meanwhile, a diplomatic full-court press on Congolese President Joseph Kabila means that the rebels can no longer look to Kinshasa for support.
"Kabila is under intense diplomatic pressure to get this settled and he no longer needs rebel support to fight the M23 or its predecessor movements," said Laura Seay, a professor of government at Colby College and an expert on the Great Lakes region, in an email. "So [the FDLR is] in a predicament."
Already, some 200 FDLR fighters out of an estimated 1,500 have turned themselves in. But the United Nations is only cautiously optimistic that the remaining rebels will disarm voluntarily. "These guys are criminals, bandits, and they have been deceiving us for years. Why should we trust them?" said Ray Torres, the head of office for the U.N. mission in North Kivu, the province where the most recent FDLR disarmament took place. "Still, it would be irresponsible not to give this a chance.… What is at stake here is a 20-year-old war, and we have an opportunity to end it in a few months without having to kill anybody."
For the last two decades, eastern Congo has been the site of seemingly unending tragedy. After the Rwandan genocide, the perpetrators, along with roughly 1 million refugees, fled across the border to what was then Zaire, touching off a regional war that toppled the government in Kinshasa and, at its height, involved dozens of rebel groups and nine different countries. The human cost was astonishing: More than 5 million people have died in eastern Congo since 1996, mostly from war-related disease and starvation.
Today, the country of 60 million is moving, haltingly, toward peace. The world's largest U.N. peacekeeping operation -- and the only one that is authorized to take offensive military action -- has improved the security situation in the east dramatically. Meanwhile, a U.N. and U.S. diplomatic offensive has convinced the Rwandan government, which in 1996 pursued the Hutu genocidaires across the border into Zaire and has been exploiting the chaos ever since, to cut ties with rebel groups that were causing the most damage.
The preliminary results are impressive. In Goma, which fell in dramatic fashion to the M23 less than two years ago, U.N. peacekeepers have little to do except break up bar fights that have spilled into the street (they don't dare enter the establishments themselves) and neutralize the occasional drunken Congolese soldier who is stumbling around, armed to the teeth. So secure is the provincial capital, in fact, that the United Nations deemed it safe for me to accompany its North Kivu brigade for a night patrol without wearing a helmet or bulletproof vest.
But large parts of Congo are still controlled by armed groups, roughly 50 of which operate in the eastern portion of the country alone. Among the alphabet soup of rebel movements, the FDLR is one of the more potent, but its real significance is political, not military. As the successor group to a genocidal army and militia, the FDLR's demobilization would eliminate Rwanda's favored pretext for meddling in Congo.
But even as some elements of the flagging militia prepare to hand over their weapons, others continue to terrorize civilians and even recruit additional fighters. According to a report released July 3 by U.N. experts, the FDLR "continues to recruit and train combatants, including children."
Andre Moussa, a child protection specialist at UNICEF, confirmed that the FDLR still ranks among the top 10 armed groups operating in Congo in terms of recruitment of child soldiers. "The FDLR is still actively recruiting children," he said. "The risk of recruitment and re-recruitment is high, particularly for children in the Rutshuru territory," which is located to the east of Masisi in eastern Congo.
Despite repeated pledges by the United Nations and the Congolese government to take on the FDLR, no decisive military action has been taken to date -- a fact that many experts believe reflects the cozy relationship between officers in the Congolese military and the FDLR. According to a U.N. report that was leaked earlier this year, FDLR fighters regularly shack up under the same roof with Congolese troops and purchase ammunition from the Congolese military for as little as 5 cents per bullet. Over the years, the two have also fought alongside one another frequently against Rwanda and its proxies.
While the United Nations' special intervention brigade is authorized to take offensive military action with or without the support of the Congolese military, in practice Lt. Gen. Carlos dos Santos Cruz, the force commander of the U.N. mission in Congo, has interpreted his mandate very conservatively thus far.
"He sees the mission's task as being not just about ending the violence, but also to build institutions and the Congolese people's confidence in them," said Seay. "In that mindset, having the [Congolese military] involved is really important."
The announcement of the six-month grace period by the group of African foreign ministers seems to push the military option even further down the road. But exactly how long the FDLR has until it needs to worry about the type of offensive military action that routed the M23, a much larger rebel faction that captured the eastern city of Goma in 2012, is not entirely clear.
"There is some negotiations about this timeline," Santos Cruz said in an interview on July 3. "It's not been fully established."
But Santos Cruz was clear that the FDLR will eventually have to choose between total disarmament and war. "The surrender is one option. But if they stop [voluntarily disarming], the military option is the one we will use."
Taking the fight to the FDLR will be tricky, though, because unlike the M23, which was easily distinguishable from the civilian population, FDLR fighters live among the communities they terrorize. "It's completely different from the situation of M23," said Santos Cruz. "The operations against them were very classic operations. The FDLR is completely different. Some small groups are inside the population, and then you need to treat it case by case because [you don't want to] cause more suffering to the population."
That will be easier said than done. According to Seay, the only way to pry the FDLR loose from the civilian population is to conduct door-to-door searches. As a result, a military solution would be "really messy" and almost certainly cause "a lot of civilian casualties."
Even if the FDLR is serious about going out peacefully, the demobilization process is fraught with potential pitfalls. For one thing, the group itself is deeply fractured, and only one faction -- the Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi (FDLR-FOCA) -- has declared its intention to disarm. Whether the remaining factions will follow FDLR-FOCA's lead is anybody's guess. "A rebel group is not an organized army," said Torres, the head of office for the U.N. mission in North Kivu. "So disarmament is going to be a slow and consultative process."
Then there is the possibility that other rebel groups could try to prevent FDLR fighters from turning in their guns. The United Nations is preparing for the possibility that Cheka, an armed group previously allied with the FDLR, could attack the facilities where ex-FDLR fighters are being processed. The result is a bizarre scenario in which U.N. peacekeepers are being deployed to protect recently demobilized members of one armed group from another.
Finally, there is the ever-present risk that combatants, once demobilized, will tire of civilian life and eventually return to the bush. These are people who have spent 10 to 20 years feeling powerful because they carry a gun, explained Santos Cruz. "Your power is the weapon, and suddenly you are going to drop it."
Already, there have been reports that former members of the M23, most of whom are in camps in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, have begun to recruit and rearm. Last year, the Congolese government set up a so-called DDR -- disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration -- camp in Bweremana, a village in the Masisi territory of North Kivu, but failed to provide adequate services for the ex-combatants and their families.
"The place was a complete mess," said one NGO worker who visited the camp before it was closed down. "Many of the more battle-hardened fighters took one look at the place and marched right back into the bush."
The disarmament and demobilization facilities administered by the United Nations are by all accounts better run than those overseen by the Congolese government. But the idea that men who once killed and raped at will can be turned into productive members of society is at best aspirational -- a fact that is confirmed by the U.N.'s own record on DDR. According to the Small Arms Survey, which has conducted DDR assessments in more than a dozen countries, "there is still little evidence of its effectiveness."
Habimana, the 14-year-old who was abducted by the FDLR earlier this year, is now taking part in his own DDR program after he and a friend pulled off a daring escape a few weeks ago. The two were given weapons and ordered to loot a farm in Masisi territory. Instead, they made a break for it and ended up seeking refuge on a U.N. base.
Today, Habimana is being housed in a transit and orientation facility for former child soldiers, where he is at least on track to be reunited with his family. Still, he told me that he does not want to return to his home village for fear of being recognized and recaptured. "The FDLR is still a big problem for us," he said. "It is not yet safe to go home."
Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images