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Rwanda's genocide still echoes in Congo

By JASON STEARNS
Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group

Special to Globe and Mail Update

August 24, 2005


Bukavu, 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 force.

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 inevitable.

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.
 

Jason Stearns is a Nairobi-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group www.crisisgroup.org.

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