Residents of Kigogo in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s South Kivu province have never seen so much activity in their otherwise sleepy village.
Six helicopters have arrived, bringing the UN, DRC’s government officials, members of the Southern Africa development community and journalists.
Tucked away in a corner of the village is a tented camp. Some men stand beside a tent, speaking in low tones.
They seem happy enough to see us and let us carry on with our jobs. They are rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
This is the second of a voluntary disarmament programme that started at the end of April. Then, 105 rebels laid down their weapons. This time only 83 showed up – but none were really senior in their military ranks. Some of the fighters looked feeble. The weapons they handed over were old, rusty and some appeared obsolete.
I asked their executive secretary Colonel Wilson Irategeka why so few fighters came. He said it was a process and more would leave the forest soon.
The rebels have been given a month’s grace period to voluntarily disarm. The government has not clarified what happens after the deadline.
The FDLR’s leadership is cautious and with good reason.
The rebels have terrorised villages in South and North Kivu for two decades. They have been accused of human rights abuses including murder, rape, abduction and the use of child soldiers. Some of them are wanted in Rwanda for alleged crimes they might have committed in the 1994 genocide.
Naturally, they’ll feel uncomfortable exposing themselves too early, too quickly.
A ‘step forward’
Some people see this exercise as a significant step forward. The process is being overseen by the Southern Africa Development community (SADC).
For now, from face value, the FDLR seems to back this process. The group has over the years been weakened, backed to a corner and riddled with infighting, and doesn’t seem to have much leverage.
But critics across the border in Rwanda are more sceptical.
They question the sincerity of this disarmament and would describe it as a carefully laid-out ruse, choreographed to fit the rhetoric in conferences by regional states under pressure from the international community.
Some wonder why the rebels are being given such a soft landing. It took four days for the Congolese army, Tanzania and South Africa to dislodge another rebel group. So why can’t they also engage militarily with the FDLR?
The problem with that is that FDLR rebels have always lived among civilians- their families and thousands of Hutu refugees who have lived in DRC since 1994.
They are ready to go back to Rwanda but the FDLR wants their safety guaranteed. Colonel Wilson Irategeka, the executive secretary, says they will reinvent FDLR into a political outfit and push for political recognition from Rwandan government. They want the government to sit down with them and talk.
A lot of people will tell you that it’s a very tall order – they don’t have the leverage to make many demands.
The silence from Rwanda, which has been conspicously absent from this process, is telling.
Rwanda has always viewed FDLR with great suspicion. It was formed in 2000 when members of Interhamwe militias and former Rwandan soldiers joined forces. Both groups carried out the genocide.
Wilbard Hellao, Namibia’s ambassador to DRC and the man who received the rebels on behalf of SADC in Kigogo, told me that there would be no compromise and that whoever was found to have been involved in the genocide must be punished.
SADC has taken full responsibility for the rebels, their families and the Hutu refugees. The regional bloc will ensure they are resettled but the question is where.
There is pressure for Rwanda to allow them back.
There’s also a suggestion by DRC’s government to move those uncomfortable with going back home to west DRC, in particular to Aquateur Province at the border with the Central Africa Republic. The idea is to get the rebels as far as possible from areas they operated in and from the border with Rwanda.
This is a process being watched very closely by many. It is as political as it is sensitive.
Rwanda has often accused DRC of supporting the rebels to threaten its border. DRC in turn has blamed Rwanda for supporting a counter rebel group, the recently neutralised Tutsi-dominated M23.
So is this process a ruse or is finally the beginning of the end of FDLR?
It is very difficult to predict how things could play out in DRC’s complicated politics…..dynamics here keep changing, alliances shifting.