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.' "
Hitimana says he has been trying to leave eastern Congo for two years. He sent three of his children to Rwanda for school; last year, he was imprisoned for a week by the FDLR, which suspected him of wanting to desert. Last week, he escaped to MONUC with his wife and their year-old child as the Rwandans were closing in.
"We looked for MONUC because we couldn't trust the Rwandan army," he says. "They're armed, so it was risky.... We are getting shot at on both sides—by the FDLR, and by the Rwandan troops."
As the threat of battle with the Rwandans looms, the FDLR have gotten increasingly brutal, according to human rights observers.
"The vast majority [of murders] were as the coalition of Rwandan and Congolese forces were approaching Kibua, which was one of the main military bases of the FDLR," she says. "They started to turn against local population, blocking them from fleeing, actually abducting them … and taking them to a military base … and keeping them as human shields."
Others, she says, were shot, hacked to death with machetes, or hit with heavy weapons fire, including a rocket-propelled grenade. It's a level of "ghastly" violence she says hasn't been seen in years.
The rights group also heard reports of Rwandan troops raping Congolese women and girls near Kibua. One woman told the group that Rwandan soldiers accused her of being FDLR because she was Hutu, and then raped her.
Rwandan troops last fought in Congo during the 1998-2002 war, during which it aimed to wipe out the FDLR.
6,000 fighters still in the bush
Though the UN says the increase in deserters suggests that this time, the Rwandan presence may be working, some observers say desertion numbers aren't everything. There are still more than 6,000 fighters in the bush, and less than two weeks officially left of the joint operation.
Philip Lancaster, who ran the UN's demobilization efforts in eastern Congo until October, says the numbers might also suggest the FDLR are moving their families to safety in preparation for a major battle with the Rwandans. While Rwanda has reported killing upwards of 100 FDLR since the operations began, so far there's been no major military confrontation between the two forces.
Mr. Lancaster says that means it's too early to conclude that individual desertions show the FDLR is giving up, especially if the force commanders stay in the bush.
"I don't think the numbers mean anything," Lancaster says. "To see a single commander [surrender] with a group, that's an indicator something is changing."
The Rwandan Demobilization and Reintegration Commission calls the repatriation rates average. Coordinator Frank Musoni says the reintegration camps, where former FDLR fighters spend two months learning about life in Rwanda, are working well under capacity at their two sites, in Mutobo and Muhazi.
"We expect the joint operation to bring bigger numbers, but as of yet, we haven't seen anything exciting," he says. "Exciting numbers would be 1,000 in [the Mutobo camp] and 2,000 in [the Muhazi camp]. Then I would have something to say, yes, this is working."
Former combatants in Mutobo say that no one guilty of genocide will surrender.
"We came voluntarily, but other people will come [only] by force. They will come injured and in handcuffs," says Karege. "That's how we will know the difference."