GOMA, Congo (AP) — Ibrahim Nsanzimana says he can no longer return to his home in Rwanda for fear of death. The 28-year-old recounted the tortured history of his Rwandan family's entanglement with neighboring Congo, and his latest recruitment by Rwanda to fight in eastern Congo.
When the bitter memories and bleak prospects for his future confronted him, his eyes glazed and a tear ran down his cheek.
"They'll kill me," he said bluntly, referring to Rwandan officials and their vigorous denials that he is among many men trained in Rwanda and brought to Congo to fight alongside the M23 rebel movement. Out of work and desperate to make a living, he said he agreed to join the Rwandan army in early July.
"Our area chief called a youth meeting, I think it was July 1, and there were about 300 of us young men at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali (Rwanda's capital). Military police in red berets told us we were all going to become soldiers, and they promised us a salary" equivalent to $60 a month, he said.
They were crowded into five Rwandan Defense Forces trucks and driven at night to Gaviro military camp, home to Rwanda's School of Infantry near the border with Uganda, where they spent a week learning how to shoot with AK-47 assault rifles.
"Only then did they tell us that we had come here to fight to take North Kivu province (of eastern Congo) and to make it part of Rwanda," Nsanzimana said. He said the announcement came from Rwandan army Capt. Francois Mugabo.
"When I woke up the next morning, we were in the volcano area in Congo," he said, brought to fight a war led by the Tutsi tribe that he considers a mortal enemy of his Hutu people.
Terrified that he was going to be killed, Nsanzimana fled into the forest and wandered for days before he was captured three weeks ago by Congolese soldiers. He is being held in an overcrowded holding cell of the military intelligence agency in Goma, Congo's eastern provincial capital. There, he gave The Associated Press details of Rwanda's alleged complicity in the latest rebellion in eastern Congo.
Similar stories have been told to officials in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo by fighters who have been captured or turned themselves in to Congolese troops. Some said they were trained at Kanombe military barracks just outside Kigali; others said they received training only once in Congo, near its borders with Uganda and Rwanda.
Eleven Rwandans who surrendered in May said they were recruited as early as February — three months before the rebellion started, according to Patrick Garba, head of the U.N. demobilization office in Goma.
That testimony helped form the backbone of a controversial July report by a U.N. Group of Experts that accuses high-ranking Rwandan officials, including the minister of defense, of helping to create, arm and support the M23 rebellion and some Congolese militias. Their fighting over the past three months has brought some of the worst violence in years to eastern Congo, forcing some 280,000 people to abandon their homes as the rebels have seized a huge swathe of eastern Congo.
Rwanda denies the charges it has backed a rebellion, and has refused to allow back home the captured and surrendered Rwandans, initially arguing that they were not Rwandan.
Garba said his office now has 45 Rwandan fighters, and the AP interviewed some of a group of 30 being held by Congo's military intelligence.
A military intelligence colonel who spoke on condition of anonymity said they have sent proof to authorities in Kinshasa, Congo's capital, including the identity card of a Rwandan Defense Force captain, other Rwandan ID cards, uniforms and guns and mortar shells that make up part of the Rwandan army arsenal and are not part of Congo's. He said captured Rwandans are using AK-47 rifles with folding butts, while the Congolese army issue has fixed butts.
The U.N. report has led several Western countries to suspend some aid to Rwanda, a country they consider a critical ally in helping to bring stability to this Central African region plagued by foreign rebels and local militias. A bipartisan group of U.S. legislators on Aug. 3 sent a strongly worded letter to Rwandan President Paul Kagame saying they are "absolutely convinced that Rwanda is involved in supporting the unrest in the Kivus."
Kagame has a history of intervention in eastern Congo. Rwanda first invaded its neighbor to the west in 1996, pursuing Rwandan Hutus who fled after committing the 1994 Rwandan genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. It took Kagame a year to admit that his troops had invaded eastern Congo. They deployed after U.N. and Western powers failed to act as the "genocidaires" used the cover of massive refugee camps to arm themselves and make incursions into Rwanda.
Remnants of the genociders in Congo formed the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, which is at the heart of a never-ending cycle of violence in eastern Congo, and which Kagame's government fears will one day invade Rwanda. Kagame then orchestrated a rebellion of Congolese Tutsis led by Rwandan soldiers that toppled Congo's longtime dictatorship and precipitated back-to-back civil wars that drew in the armies of eight African nations in a scramble for Congo's massive mineral resources. Some 5 million people died before the war ended in 2003.
After Rwandan troops withdrew under international pressure, Kagame turned to proxies, supporting a Congolese Tutsi-led rebellion that engulfed east Congo in 2008. To end that insurgency, Congo's President Joseph Kabila signed a pact allowing the rebels to integrate into the army and for Rwandan troops to come into Congo for three months to again hunt down the FDLR. The mutinying soldiers who began this year's insurgency were part of the 2008 rebellion.
Nsanzimana said he was 10 when his family first came to Congo, among more than a million Rwandan Hutus who fled after the genocide. He was here in 1996 when Kagame's troops bombarded refugee camps, killing genociders and innocent civilians indiscriminately. Then they chased those who fled in an orgy of massacres across the breadth of Congo, a country the size of Western Europe.
His father and one brother died in that flight. His sister escaped to neighboring Republic of Congo. One brother remained as an FDLR commander.
Nsanzimana and one remaining brother finally returned home to Rwanda, only to find that their father's properties had been seized by Tutsi neighbors.
"When we tried to reclaim our property, those who had stolen it made false accusations against us about the genocide, and we landed up in jail," he said.
In 2004, the brothers were released and given back one house and a farm. Life remained a struggle, he said, living off the land on the farm.
Nsanzimana believes Rwanda's latest adventure has left him homeless. He thinks his only chance is to seek refugee status far from Rwanda and eastern Congo, where he believes the history of hatred between Tutsis and Hutus can never be resolved.
"The Rwandan Defense Forces are the same Rwandan Patriotic Front (rebels) that killed my brother and are responsible for the death of my father," he said. "They are the same Tutsi military that trained me how to fight and brought me to this battlefield."
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