KIGALI, Rwanda — A woman sat in the strong sun outside Rwanda’s genocide memorial at the end of February and told me what happened to her when she was eight years old. “Three men came to my house and killed my father and two brothers and shot my mother,” she said. “My mother survived, bleeding alone in the house for days.”
At the time of the attack, the woman was away from home, visiting her godmother nearby. They both managed to escape the swift and terrifying slaughter of Rwanda’s 100-day genocide, which began in the first week of April 1994 and killed more than half a million people, mainly ethnic Tutsis. The woman I spoke to walked for more than two weeks, sleeping at night wherever she could: in the bush, in the streets. She eventually reached the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) and crossed over with her godmother to find refuge at a camp set up in the city of Bukavu.
She was just one of an estimated 2 million people who fled their country because of the genocide. Many of them ended up in Congo. While some were Tutsi civilians, like this woman, many were ethnic Hutus who left their homes, fearing reprisals from the government, led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which took control at the end of the genocide.
Not all of the refugees, however, were innocent civilians.
Among the Hutus who left Rwanda were many of the thousands of men who had helped carry out the mass killings — men known as genocidaires. These men, and others sympathetic to them, settled into refugee camps in eastern Congo. From these ad hoc bases, they regrouped and staged attacks back into Rwanda.
It was the beginning of what has now become a nearly two-decade-long, deadly series of conflicts within Congo that are inextricably tied up with the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide. As the Hutu forces trained their sights on Rwanda (as well as Tutsis living in eastern Congo), the RPF government responded by invading Congo in 1996 and hunting down and massacring tens of thousands of Hutu refugees. Violence has continued since.
The FDLR still helps to sustain dangerous tensions between Congo and Rwanda.
Today, the Hutu forces have morphed into what is known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) — one of multiple rebel groups causing chaos and destruction in Congo’s east. Although seemingly few of the group’s estimated 2,000 or so members are original genocidaires, the FDLR still helps to sustain dangerous tensions between Congo and Rwanda. “Its covert purpose,” according to the United Nations, “appears to be to overthrow the Rwandan government.” More broadly, the FDLR is a crucial and sizable thorn preventing peace in the Great Lakes region — a thorn that has proven anything but easy to remove.