Rwanda's genocide still echoes in Congo
By JASON STEARNS
Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group
Special to Globe and Mail Update
Congo — The survivors of Mamba are not likely to forget July 9. That night, a
band of militiamen surrounded their village in the hills of the eastern
Democratic Republic of the Congo and forced them into their huts. Those who
resisted were attacked with machetes. The militiamen then doused the houses with
gasoline and set them alight. According to United Nations investigators, about
50 people, mostly women and children, were burned alive. One witness told how
militiamen threw infants into the blaze as other villagers fled.
The perpetrators of the slaughter were Rwandan militiamen from the Democratic
Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), some of whom were involved in the
1994 genocide of at least 800,000 people in Rwanda. They then fled to the
forests of eastern Congo, where they have been living off the back of the local
population. Mamba is only one example. A UN report in May detailed more than
1,700 summary executions, rapes and hostage-taking committed by the FDLR during
the preceding year.
It is possible that the Mamba massacre is part of the FDLR's death throes. The
warring parties in Congo have signed a peace agreement and now form a
transitional government; elections are planned for next year. The FDLR, which
survived by allying itself to one or the other faction during the war, has run
out of friends.
At the beginning of July, tired of a series of broken promises by the rebels,
the UN decided to step up the pressure, sending its Pakistani and Guatemalan
contingents to chase the FDLR militiamen out of their camps. It was in response
to these operations that they attacked Mamba.
The UN is now at a critical point. Should it continue to step up the pressure,
risking further retaliation against the civilian population, or should it back
down? According to one witness in Mamba, the attacking militiamen jeered: "Where
are your blue helmets now?" The UN may succeed in pushing the FDLR militiamen
out of their camps, but the rebels are likely to take their revenge on the
population as they flee and set up camps elsewhere.
Two key steps must be taken. First, all the peaceful avenues need to be
exhausted. It would be a tragedy if hundreds of Congolese are killed in a
campaign against the FDLR if other solutions are at hand. The most obvious step
is for the Rwandan government to meet the FDLR for technical discussions
regarding their return. Until now, the government has refused even to speak to
the rebels. The only incentive it has offered to returning combatants is $200
and a small microcredit. While this is enough for the rank and file, it is
insufficient for the commanders, who have controlled the mines and trade routes
in Congo for years.
Many of the FDLR's militiamen did not take part in the 1994 genocide and have
little to fear in Rwanda. During the four years I have spent in the region, many
of the FDLR commanders have told me they would be willing to return home if they
were offered jobs or other incentives. Neither Rwanda nor the international
community, especially the United States, has given this peaceful option much
attention. And without this carrot, the only way to deal with the FDLR is by
The second step is to prepare for military action. This strategy will make the
carrot all the more palatable. It will not be easy to chase down the FDLR
militia, which operates in the jungle in an area half the size of Nova Scotia.
What the UN has done in its current operations is chase the militiamen out of
their camps into the forests, without engaging them directly. While this has
made life difficult for the FDLR, it has also dispersed them into inaccessible
bush, where they will take their anger out on the local population. Together
with the Congolese army, the UN needs to review its military strategy to tackle
the FDLR head-on. If it refuses to demobilize, direct confrontation will be
A few days after the Mamba massacre, the FDLR went on another killing spree,
this time slaughtering 13. As people in a nearby town watched TV footage of the
London bombings, they shook their heads. "The world doesn't care about us," one
man said. The UN and the regional authorities need to prove him wrong.
is a Nairobi-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group