A United Nations official said Monday that the number of Rwandan Hutu rebels who have left the Democratic Republic of Congo and gone home has risen substantially since the beginning of the year. Despite recent violence in eastern Congo, the official credits the world body's efforts to convince rebel fighters that repatriation is best for them and for the stability of Africa's Great Lakes Region.
Bruno Donat, the head of the United Nations' disarmament, demobilization and repatriation efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says about 13,000 Rwandan Hutu rebels and their dependents have returned home since the program's creation in 2002.
Speaking in Washington at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, Donat said his program uses a long-term approach to building stability in the region that includes visiting remote rebel communities, winning fighters' trust and convincing them to lay down their weapons and return to Rwanda.
"This is again where we build confidence, so we stay, we talk, we use our satellite phone to get somebody to speak to folks in Rwanda," said Bruno Donat. "I've done that many times. We do all kinds of things together. And by the end, it takes, I think, months usually, if there is no military pressure, to get people to be convinced to join the process."
Donat said repatriation increased - even during a recent joint Rwandan-Congolese military action against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR. He said the two countries had not warned the UN force in Congo that they would attack the rebels. But Donat said he saw an opportunity in the surprise offensive, which began on January 20.
"We thought there was a short window of opportunity to target the FDLR, while there was military pressure," he said. "I had, in North Kivu, nine collection points where combatants could come. We went up to 15. In South Kivu, we went from four to six. We added mobile teams and we did increase sensitization. Not only we had face-to-face meetings, but we had mobile radios - like radio stations - where we broadcast in Kinyarwanda, so we beefed up the sensitization program."
As a result, Donat said, some 1,350 fighters and their family members have returned to Rwanda in the past two months - more than during all of last year.
"We bring them to the border, we pass them on to the Rwandan authorities," said Donat. "So most of the combatants go to a center - it's called Mutobo - where they stay for a few months. They are given courses, civic activities - very, very basic stuff, like: Why is it not OK to rape women? Why is it OK to participate as a citizen? And afterward, when they graduate, when they become civilians, they have access to some grants."
Since 1997, some estimates have put the number of people dead from attacks, disease and malnutrition in eastern Congo as high as 5.4 million. Additionally, some 1.5 million people have been displaced the fighting.
The international community has recently lobbied Rwanda and Congo to find a solution. The two neighbors and onetime enemies launched a recently completed four-week military operation against each other's enemies, including the FDLR.
The FDLR is widely believed to include some of the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which claimed the lives of some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus that sparked future regional wars.
Herbert Weiss, an expert on Congo, told the Johns Hopkins University panel that the FDLR remains a potent military force in eastern Congo, even after the Rwandan-Congolese joint operation.
"The largest, most rooted area of FDLR activities is in South Kivu, not North Kivu," said Herbert Weiss. "That remained completely untouched. Under the most optimistic view, by far the largest part of the problem is still to be dealt with."
Like Herbert Weiss, participants at the conference agreed that plans to fully demobilize and repatriate FDLR fighters are far from completion.