Ex-combatants find their way back to a changed Rwanda

A former 'big man' deserts his Congo-based militia after learning more about the country he left

Kigali, Rwanda – On a cool February afternoon, Jean Damasceau Mwambutsya and a few friends – one in a UN peacekeeping baseball hat – lounged in the grass at Mutobo.  They'd returned to Rwanda in November and were in the middle of ingando – reeducation camp. "We're learning how to conduct ourselves once we get out of here," he says.  "We're learning how to live with other people and relate to them."  He and his friends are less interested in lessons than in finally seeing their families.  They left Rwanda in 1994, the year of the genocide, and haven't seen their parents or siblings – sometimes their wives – since. 

Usually, ex-combatants leave the ingando and return to the villages they once called home. But many find they're unable to earn a living and head to Kigali, the capital, where work is more plentiful, and more lucrative.  When they get there, they spend a night or two, or several weeks, on Faustin "Kunde" Gasugi's couch.

Mr. Gasugi was, in his words, a "big man" in the FDLR, a Hutu militia whose leaders, Rwanda says, helped plan the genocide.  He had been in the Rwandan Army's cadet school during the genocide; he crossed Congo on foot, moving all the way to Kinshasa as a fighter in different rebel groups.  He returned to eastern Congo and helped found the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in 1998. 

"We wanted to fight our way back into the country," he says.  "We heard different things [about Kagame's new government].  We didn't know it as liberation, so we wanted to fight."

Gradually, he says, his vision of a worthwhile struggle eroded, especially as he learned more about the realities of daily life in post-genocide Rwanda.  As a commander, he traveled to major cities in Congo like Lubambashi and Kinshasa, where he could make calls freely and use the Internet.  His contacts and his research revealed information about a Rwanda that seemed to him more peaceful and open than the one his fellow commanders pictured; by 2002, he'd made the decision to leave.

"It wasn't easy," he says, shaking his head.  "If they got to know you wanted to leave, they'd kill you.  I would be the first to be killed.  As a leader, I had all their secrets."

Gasugi planned an escape not just for himself, but for 64 younger soldiers.  He drilled them during the day, then talked to them individually, in secret, in the evenings, explaining the new Rwanda and getting them in touch with relatives back home through letters and e-mail.  They deserted together, each providing cover for the others in the event of an attack by their former comrades.

In Kigali, Gasugi found work as a construction foreman; today, he puts fellow ex-combatants to work.  He's been nicknamed "the Ambassador" by the returnees – guys like Donnath "Sabenea" Ntamunoza, who knew Gasugi in eastern Congo and sought him out for advice and work.  Trained by Gasugi for the new Rwanda, Mr. Ntamunoza is a mason, a skill that earns him $140 a month.  It's not great money, but it is a job.  In his off hours, he rides his bicycle and rests.  It is an unremarkable life, and he appreciates it.

"I was just happy to get here," he says.  From the border, he remembers, "I could even see lights.  It made me so happy.  In the bush, we never had lights."

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