- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2010

KIMUA, Congo | The young man had been fighting in the rebel movement for 11 years when a piece of paper fell from the sky and fluttered down onto the jungle floor.

When he was sure no one was looking, he picked it up. To his surprise, he could read it. It was written in Kinyarwanda, the language 30-year-old Elias Sanvura had learned as a boy in neighboring Rwanda. It asked a simple question: What’s keeping you from going home?

Inside this clutch of jungle, thousands of young men who belong to a rebel army are beginning to ask themselves the same question.

The answer will affect not only their future, but that of this giant nation, which has been brought to the breaking point by almost two decades of brutal conflict. The nerve center of the conflict is the rebel army, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, founded by the same men who led the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

The rank and file of this 6,000-strong militia are men under 30, who are here only because they fear they have no other choice. In a twisted effort to keep them in the bush, the group’s leaders have lied to recruits by telling them they will be imprisoned if they return to Rwanda. The young men are cut off from information, have no cell phone coverage and are not even sure if their parents are alive.

The only way to pierce the bubble of tangled foliage in which the rebels live is from above. So the U.N. is using helicopters to drop fliers over the jungle, and just enough are making their way to the muddy ground. Desertions are on the rise, from 50 a month in 2008 to more than 100 a month last year.

Each passing week, more and more young men like Mr. Sanvura are deciding to take the chance.

Long walk

Mr. Sanvura was 15 during the Rwandan genocide, when he escaped to Congo and began a life on the run.

In his hometown of Butare in the south, Hutu extremists had drawn up lists of their Tutsi neighbors. Hutu teachers identified their Tutsi students. Doctors checked the IDs of their patients. Priests turned over their parishioners. The meticulously planned campaign of slaughter killed more than 500,000 people in less than three months in a place the size of Maryland.

Mr. Sanvura’s Hutu family lived on a small plot of land on a hilltop just outside Butare. They saw the bodies of their Tutsi neighbors pile up. They did not take part in the killings, he says, but they became guilty by association because they were Hutu.

So when the slaughter finally ended, they joined 2 million other Hutus who fled. They streamed across the countryside in a human wave heading toward Congo. In the confusion, Mr. Sanvura became separated from his parents.

Mr. Sanvura’s father walked until his legs gave out. He died somewhere in Congo, convulsing on the ground from fever.

His mother lived in Congolese refugee camps for several years. Then she returned with her other sons to their dirt floor house in Butare.

But her eldest, Mr. Sanvura, didn’t know any of this. He kept on walking. For months. Possibly a year.

He doesn’t remember how long it took to traverse Congo, a jungle-covered country the size of Western Europe, before reaching its capital, Kinshasa, 700 miles later. He made his way to a refugee camp hastily erected for Hutus like him across the Congo River in the city of Brazzaville, in the neighboring, but much smaller, Republic of Congo.

The years passed, and Mr. Sanvura kept expecting his parents to walk in. His voice changed. Even if he could have found a way to telephone his mother, she would no longer recognize him. By the time he was 19, his future was a hole.

The day the Hutu militia came to recruit him, he felt relieved.

‘Operation Insecticide’

In Congo, the Hutu extremists launched an insurgency from teeming refugee camps like Mr. Sanvura’s with the aim of retaking Rwanda. They organized hit-and-run expeditions into Rwanda, known as “Operation Insecticide.” Their goal was to kill genocide survivors and any Hutus who might testify against them. They recruited young people from within the camps.

“I would say that 75 percent of the FDLR are people too young to have had anything to do with the genocide. Only 25 percent are old enough to be charged. And not even 1 percent are genocidaires,” says Maj. Gen. Paul Rwarakabije, who was the military chief of the FDLR until 2003, when he deserted and returned to Rwanda. “But it’s this 1 percent that are in control. They are holding the rest hostage.”

The FDLR has terrorized Congo. Last year alone, the group is accused of killing at least 700 civilians, gang-raping women and torching villages, according to a report released two months ago by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

“If we don’t get these people out … the whole area will continue to slip into disaster to an extent we cannot even describe,” said analyst and FDLR specialist Harald Hinkel, who formerly worked for the World Bank on a program to demobilize the Hutu rebels.

The army gave Mr. Sanvura a uniform and a matriculation number. He was sent back across Congo to a military academy in the eastern jungle, not far from the Rwandan border.

His commanders said they would soon retake Rwanda - and that those who helped would get good jobs in the new government. But as the years passed, the militia was pushed further and further into the overgrown Congolese bush. Mr. Sanvura saw how his superiors made a comfortable life for themselves by controlling mines or pillaging Congolese villages, with no real intention of returning to Rwanda.

There’s in fact little reason for the senior leaders of the FDLR to go back to Rwanda. If they do, they will face prosecution for genocide crimes - unlike their young recruits, who were children at the time and who are exempt from charges by Rwandan law. Also, it is in the economic self-interest of the senior leaders to stay in the Congolese bush, where they benefit from a free work force, according to Rakiya Omaar, an FDLR specialist.

Mr. Sanvura was assigned to the security detail of a commander who had confiscated the palm trees of local villagers. Instead of fighting to retake Rwanda, Mr. Sanvura’s main duty was to carry 20-liter jugs of palm oil to market to sell. He walked for days at a stretch, his back bent like an upside-down L. Whatever he earned selling the oil, he handed over to his boss.

He had little information about his family. He was told Tutsi neighbors had confiscated his father’s land. Through others, he learned that his father had died somewhere in Congo. He also heard that his mother and brothers had gone back to Rwanda, but was told his brothers were most likely in prison.

In the bush, he got permission from the FDLR to marry a young Hutu woman. They had a son.

The movement’s top commanders sent their children to study abroad, including at universities in Paris. Mr. Sanvura barely had enough money to buy his son clothes.

Last January, Congo allowed Rwanda on its soil to flush out the FDLR.

Mr. Sanvura ran with what he could carry on his back. They moved deeper still into the jungle until they reached the forests surrounding Kimua. One day he came back to his hut and found a note from his wife saying she was returning to Rwanda. She left him the phone number of her brother.

Around the same time, a shiny piece of paper caught his eye on the muddy footpath. It was the U.N. flier.

When he was sure others were not listening, he tuned his radio to a U.N. station broadcasting messages from deserters who had recently returned to Rwanda. They told stories of being reunited with their families.

Over several weeks, he saved money and bought himself a banged-up cell phone. He walked three hours one way to reach a clearing in the bush with intermittent cell phone coverage. He made the trip back numerous times over several months, dialing over and over again.

Then one day, he got to the top of the hill. Sweat running down his face, he dialed. His brother-in-law answered.

Over a scratchy line, Mr. Sanvura learned there was no warrant for his arrest in Rwanda. He also got the phone number of his elderly mother. When she answered, she didn’t believe it was him. To prove it, he recited the names of his brothers and sister.

The next day he walked to the edge of the barbed wire surrounding the U.N. camp in Kimua.

U.N. camp

The U.N. camp was set up last year for the sole purpose of luring defectors. One side of the camp is flanked by a wall of head-high reeds, so that would-be deserters can crawl to the base on their forearms.

Lt. Col. Roberto Pereira, a 46-year-old Uruguayan who commands the U.N. peacekeeping platoon here, goes on daily patrols giving out fliers to FDLR soldiers. They gather around him.

A 36-year-old militiaman with an overbite said he’s heard that in Rwanda, Hutus are being killed. “That’s a lie,” Col. Pereira told him. “Forty thousand people have been repatriated. They have not been killed. They live like other Rwandans. … This government that you say is bad, can you really change it from here in the bush?”

On the day he finally left, Mr. Sanvura told his commanding officer he was going for a walk. The punishment for desertion is death by firing squad.

It was early in the morning. The militiamen watching over the camp were sitting on stumps at one edge of a soccer field, their AK-47s slung around their backs. He cut across near one of the goalposts. Before the others could stop him, the peacekeepers motioned him in.

He arrived with nothing. To get his luggage, a line of U.N. peacekeepers carrying automatic weapons escorted him back up a steep hill to the straw-covered hut he shared with another rebel. He ducked in and emerged with the backpack he had packed the night before.

The next day, he was flown by helicopter to the Rwanda border. There, a bus took him and a dozen other FDLR deserters back to Rwanda. At a demobilization camp just inside Rwanda, he found nearly 400 others.

“Why did I stay so long in the bush?” asked Seraphin Gasore, a member of the FDLR’s executive committee, who helped write the rebel movement’s penal code calling for the execution of deserters. “I kept thinking, ‘Maybe next year there will be a solution.’ Eventually, I realized I was wasting my time.”

Mr. Sanvura got a one-week leave to see his family. He boarded a bus, carrying a backpack with a soggy Bible and a jug of palm oil from the Congolese jungle for his mother.

When she heard her eldest son was almost home, Mr. Sanvura’s mother dropped to her knees on the red earth. He walked in and took her twig-like body in his arms.

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