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Hutu rebels drop guns, return to Rwanda

Rwanda's Army is flushing FDLR fighters out of Congo.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / February 20, 2009

On the run: Earlier this month, a fighter from the FDLR rebel group, which is being hunted by the Rwandan and Congolese armies, watched over civilians ordered to destroy a bridge in eastern Congo.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

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Ruhengeri, Rwanda

Joseph Karege wanted to give up his gun and come back to Rwanda long before the tide turned against him and his fellow Hutu militiamen.

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Until last week, Mr. Karege was a member of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan Hutu militia accused of committing the 1994 genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Millions of Hutus, afraid of reprisals, fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo just as the genocide ended; they have been hiding in the inhospitable jungle there ever since.

Last month, Rwanda – which considers the FDLR an existential threat – announced it had sent troops into Congo to get the rebels out once and for all.

Working together with the Congolese army, the combined troops launched a joint military offensive against the FDLR, hoping to drive the remaining 6,000 fighters out of the bush and across the border to Rwanda, where the Tutsi-dominated government promises them a fair chance at a new life.

As the operation nears its end – Congolese officials have said the Rwandan soldiers must leave by Feb. 28 – the numbers suggest it may be working.

Pace of surrender quickens

More than 320 former FDLR soldiers have been disarmed since the joint mission started on Jan. 20, according to numbers from the UN mission in Congo, known by its French acronym, MONUC. That's roughly half of the number who deserted in all of 2008. More than 620 of their family members have been sent back to Rwanda.

Karege was among the earliest deserters. It's true more people are leaving their guns behind, he says, but not because they're scared of the joint offensive. They're coming back, he and others say, because the offensive is creating the kind of chaos needed for a successful escape from a rebel group that threatens its foot soldiers with death if they try to desert.

FDLR deserters brave death to flee

"It has nothing to do with fear of the gunshots being fired [by Rwanda] now." Karege says. "I always wanted to come back.... But once you desert, if you get caught, you are shot. War provided the room to maneuver...."

Karege was one of 44 former FDLR fighters who returned to Rwanda early last week. They filed off the bus in the Mutobo reintegration camp near Ruhengeri, in Rwanda, with things in tow – suitcases, jerry cans, even a mattress. Their luggage is a sign, they say, that the FDLR is changing in response to Rwandan troops.

"Before the war, there was no way we would carry a bag," says Emmanuel Hitimana, who had been in Congo since 1994. "We used to have a front line. We would fight from that line, while we left our family behind, at a base. Now, the base has disappeared.... People are fighting as they are moving. We have the guns, and the women have the bags."

Mr. Hitimana says the fighters travel with their families because they're afraid of the Congolese troops, who have been displaying a boost in confidence since teaming up with the Rwandans in late January.

"If you go to fight, you come back to find that the Congolese [troops] have attacked your family," he says. "The Congolese have always feared the FDLR very much. One FLDR soldier could stop 20 Congolese. Now, attacking FDLR families is their way of saying, 'We can also do something.' "

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