Rwanda: The insurgency in the northwest

Posted: December 11, 2010 in Evidence Material
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Press release from African Rights

The ongoing violence in the northwest of Rwanda could have been predicted by anyone familiar with the nation’s troubled history. Blood spills on the soil where hundreds of thousands of corpses lie in shallow graves. For more than a year people from all communities in the northwest and beyond have been dying at the hands of insurgents. On 27 April 1997, seventeen students and a Belgian nun were killed in Satinsyi, Gisenyi; on 14 October 1997, 28 people lost their lives in Nkuli, Ruhengeri; on 6 February 1998, 58 people were murdered and 63 wounded, in Rubavu, Gisenyi. On 24 March 1998, five students died at a secondary school in Gatovu, Ruhengeri; on 8 April 1998, 26 people were killed in an attack upon the commune office of Bulinga in Gitarama. The killing continues – on the scale, or with the speed of the 100-days genocide of 1994, but with distressing regularity.

The intensity of the past slaughter should not prevent us from feeling shock at these recent deaths, nor from believing that something can be done about them. Most of Rwanda has remained relatively calm over the past year and the refugees have been peacefully integrated in many parts of the country. Stability and confidence have returned to the regions, such as Cyangugu, which had been badly-affected by infiltration raids from the refugee camps in the former Zaire. Recent violence in the form of an organised insurgency has been confined to Gisenyi and Ruhengeri and the communes of Gitarama, Kibuye and Greater Kigali which border these regions. Like the genocide, the violence is not random or ethnic, but politically-motivated. The insurgents are now fighting a war which the military and political leaders of the former government of Rwanda began to prepare for even as they were ousted from power in July 1994. The insurgency was planned long before their defeat in Zaire, but was forced ahead because of it. They may be low on weapons and supplies, and living a harsh existence in the forests, but they are following a carefully co-ordinated strategy, manipulating and implicating the people of the northwest region in their campaign to reconquer power. And if the insurgency came out of a regional context, it has in turn helped to shape political developments in the Great Lakes region, contributing significantly to the current upheaval in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).


Since the mass repatriation of refugees from Zaire in November 1996, security in the northwest has been fragile, with regular attacks taking place. In May 1997, infiltration missions and isolated incidents developed into a full-scale military operation; the insurgency dates from the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko from power and is directly related to it. Between 30-40,000 insurgents entered the northwest, with around 5,000 remaining in the DRC in bases around Masisi in North Kivu. They immediately began targeting Tutsi survivors in an effort to complete the genocide and to eliminate witnesses prepared to testify against known génocidaires. Former refugees who returned from exile and Congolese Tutsis fleeing violence in Masisi have been equally vulnerable. Some of the worst massacres have taken place in transit camps housing these refugees and returnees. Hutus who fail to support the insurgents’ agenda have been deemed “traitors” and murdered, particularly government officials. Rather than face head-on the militarily superior forces of the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA), the insurgents favour guerrilla-style hit-and-run tactics. They have created a regime of terror; the people of Ruhengeri and Gisenyi are living on the frontline.

The insurgents aim to prevent the government from functioning in the region by paralysing state institutions, spreading panic and causing loss of confidence in the state. Commune offices, health centres and schools have all been the sites of atrocities; military convoys and civilian vehicles have been ambushed, set on fire and the passengers killed; bridges and roads have been damaged. In recent months, indiscriminate killings, designed to force the Hutu population to “choose sides” have been a prominent feature of their campaign, especially in villages where Hutus and Tutsis have maintained solidarity against the insurgency.

The insurgents’ leaders are soldiers of the Rwandese Armed Forces (FAR) of the previous regime who also held important positions in the military structure set up in the refugee camps in the DRC. For weapons, financial assistance, political and diplomatic support, they rely on their close ties with leaders of the former government, now in exile. They belong to the Liberation Army of Rwanda (ALIR); their political wing is known as the Armed People for the Liberation of Rwanda (PALIR). The rank and file is also composed of many FAR soldiers; interahamwe militiamen; former refugees who received training in the camps in Zaire and new recruits from among the local people. Many of their fighters have died in clashes with the RPA; others have been killed by their leaders as punishment for violating the insurgents’ strict code of conduct. Many have also died from illness, due to the lack of food and medicine and the difficult life in the volcanic forests which form the border with the DRC. They are not paid. Thousands of their military and civilian supporters have abandoned voluntarily since April, prompted by the insurgents’ failure to take and administer substantial territory; the death toll among civilians; hunger and disease and the adoption by the RPA of a more political, and less militaristic, approach. They have provided the RPA with considerable intelligence; as a result, the insurgents have recently suffered serious military setbacks, losing the heads of both ALIR and PALIR, amongst many others. Even so, they show no signs of giving up; on the contrary, they have intensified their efforts to eliminate Hutu “traitors.” Deserters are increasingly being replaced by forced conscripts.

The northwest was an obvious place for the insurgents to begin their battle. Most of their leaders are natives of Gisenyi and Ruhengeri; former President Juvénal Habyarimana was originally from Gisenyi and had allowed fellow northerners to monopolise political power and access to economic and educational opportunities. The population of the northwest is overwhelmingly Hutu and the region is the cradle of the hard-line ideology known as Hutu extremism, whose terms defined the genocide. Most residents of Gisenyi and Ruhengeri have relations or friends amongst those determined to recapture power. Many of these men are wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda or by the Rwandese judiciary. The insurgency is presented as the only opportunity to re-establish the privileges lost in July 1994, and the best chance to keep justice at bay.

From this power-base, the insurgents aim to overthrow the current government, or at least to force it to negotiate. Although they have made inroads further south, into Gitarama, Kibuye and Greater Kigali, there is nothing to indicate that they will realise this ambition in the near future. However, as long as the fighting continues, so will the anguish; the people of the northwest, Hutus and Tutsis alike, are all suffering from the consequences of the insurgency. The insurgents are fighting a dirty war, massacring and kidnapping civilians and using them as human shields or spies. The conflict has played hard on the hopes and fears of all the people of Rwanda and is a source of deep concern in the region as a whole.

The RPA is fighting back and both infiltrators and RPA soldiers are regularly killed in open battles. However, the campaign to crush the insurgency has also shown up failings in the army. It is not easy to judge the extent of these. Certainly, RPA soldiers have been responsible for civilian deaths during search operations. The widespread participation of both armed and unarmed civilians in the insurgents’ military operations, alongside the insurgents’ strategy of hiding within communities, makes it difficult for the army to separate civilians from infiltrators, with tragic consequences. RPA soldiers have also been accused of killing civilians intentionally, of looting, and of failing to come to the assistance of people in danger. Soldiers and senior officers have been brought before military tribunals and some have been punished in front of the families of the people they killed.

Rwanda: The Insurgency in the Northwest presents the results of more than a year of research into the nature and origins of the conflict. It includes interviews with former military and civilian insurgents, survivors of the violence, residents caught up in the conflict, local government officials, and RPA soldiers. Documenting a cross section of incidents, it examines all the aspects of the violence and brings them together in an effort to understand the political and social context which made the insurgency possible. It discusses the aims, strategies and identities of the insurgents, the network of internal and external collaborators which they have established, their source of arms and the economic and social impact of the insurgency. The report follows the evolution of the insurgency, looking at the impossible pressures upon civilians and analysing the government’ response.

The insurgency has claimed thousands of lives and it is destroying the society and economy of the northwest. Théophile Munyandekwe, a former insurgent now integrated into the RPA, has experienced the conflict from all sides: “When two elephants are fighting, it is the grass that dies. The infiltrators are prepared to die if necessary, and the army is determined to win. The population suffers”.


The insurgents are united by fear of the RPF-they have been taught to believe they are fighting not only for their country, but for their lives. Often dressed in military uniform, they think of themselves as an army, and are divided into operational sectors, battalions and companies whose activities are usually co-ordinated. The men in charge of the insurgency on a day-to-day basis, in Rwanda and in their rear base in North Kivu, are all ex-FAR soldiers. They have become known as “infiltrators” although many of them are living in Rwanda. Col. Dr. Froduald Mugemanyi, killed by the RPA on 3 August in Nyarutovu, Ruhengeri, was chief of staff of ALIR. He used to be the head of Kanombe military hospital; in Zaire, he was head of medical services for FAR’s 1st Division based in Bukavu. His deputy Lt.Col. Léonard Nkundiye, was also head of PALIR; a former head of the Presidential Guard, Nkundiye was also commander of FAR’s 2nd Division in Goma and a native of Habyarimana’s home, Rambura in Karago, Gisenyi. He was killed in Giciye, Gisenyi, on 22 July. Another key leader is Lt. Col. Paul Rwarakabije, head of the military camp of Katale housing the refugees in Zaire and commander of the 242nd battalion in Goma; he comes from Nkuli, Ruhengeri.

The rank and file are also in the main ex-FAR. Many of them are also génocidaires who have good reason to avoid returning home. Since the closure of the camps in Zaire and Tanzania, doors have closed to them in the region and elsewhere in Africa-their only remaining hope of evading justice lies with this insurgency. Warrant Officer Célestin Mutabaruka is one such man. A motor-mechanic with the former army, he took refuge in Katale camp, Zaire, in July 1994. There he came under the command of Lt.Col. Paul Rwarakabije. The soldiers and new recruits prepared themselves to “win the country back again”. Convinced by propaganda that the RPF would either kill or imprison them upon their return, they saw joining the insurgents as their best chance of survival. Célestin did not speak of his own reasons for taking part in the insurgency, but he has been publicly accused of involvement in the genocide in his home commune of Muhazi in Kibungo. Amongst other crimes he is said to have rounded up soldiers and militiamen to carry out a massacre near Lake Muhazi on 16 April 1994. Many of the insurgents have a similar history.

Since 1997, new recruits usually come from within Rwanda. Many of the ex-FAR who returned to the northwest in the first wave of repatriation in November 1996 or before, were not involved in the insurgency initially and lived legitimately within their communities. However, between September and November 1997, many started to drift towards the infiltrators for reasons that are complex and varied, including exposure to propaganda and pressure from family and friends. Fighters and supporters are recruited through enticement, violence and blackmail. Jean Marie-Vianney Cyizere, a civilian, was in Zaire from July 1994 to January 1995, when he and his family returned home to Kinigi in Ruhengeri. In September 1997 he was approached by four armed insurgents who insisted that he join them, saying:

  • ‘You have studied, but you remain unemployed. The present regime doesn’t want to hire you. And now we have conquered the whole of Gisenyi, which gives us hope of conquering the whole of Rwanda. You will then have a job. Even before then, you will obtain a military rank’.

He deserted them after three months because he was sceptical about their chances of success and because, he said, he opposed their “cruelty.” He described the tight controls which govern the fighters.

  • All sexual relations, willing or not, drunkenness and unauthorised looting are punishable by death. Seven infiltrators accused of stealing 13,000 francs from a peasant were executed while I was an infiltrator. They included the soldiers Frédéric Nsenga, Singirankabo and Wanga. They were killed in front of us, by small hoes and strangulation. The death penalty is also applied to infiltrators who show fear in combat. Only the commander can give the order to withdraw.

Desertion carries its own penalties. Since he left, Jean Marie-Vianney’s younger brother, Félicien, and his niece, Uwimana, have been murdered, and his mother and two sisters abducted, by his former colleagues.

This is an indication of just how desperate the infiltrators are to maintain their numbers. With some dying from illness in the damp forests, others at the hands of the army, and many more weak or wounded, a campaign of forced recruitment began around December 1997. Daniel Munyabikari, a soldier, was ordered by two armed infiltrators to “go to work… refusal would mean my death”. He joined 85 ex-FAR; only 25 of them were volunteers. He pointed out that because infiltrators are not paid, they must either ask their families for money, or steal. He too complained of the ruthlessness of their leaders who could order looting with impunity, but, as he witnessed, also ordered the execution of a soldier from Kinigi who stole 1500 francs from a peasant. Daniel quit after only a few days.

Despite the evidence that many of those taking part in the insurgency are not doing so willingly, or with enthusiasm, there remain a hard-core of fighters who believe wholeheartedly in its aims and in its potential to succeed. Fabien Niyonsenga, an ex-FAR from Kibilira in Gisenyi, and arrested in Gitarama in April 1998, gave a remarkably frank interview.

  • God promised us this country. God gave this country to Kagame, believing that he would be grateful… He began to kill and imprison the people and this is why God had decided to take this country away from him and give it back to us. The people will eventually understand us through education and through terrorism, because we kill everyone who is against us.

As Fabien’s testimony shows, the insurgents believe that they are fighting a holy war. Spirit mediums, the majority of them women from Rwanda or Masisi, are attached to most units as a source of divine inspiration and protection. Chants that “the army of Jesus Christ is coming!” have accompanied recent massacres.

All the insurgents we interviewed mentioned the role of women and girls in their ranks. Sub-Lt. Consolée Mukangwije, captured in Nyamutera, Ruhengeri, in June 1998, named several other female ex-FAR who are currently in the insurgents’ frontline.

  • Amongst the women infiltrators are: Sub-Lt. Jeanne Mukakinanira, alias ‘Aminata’, from Kibuye; Sub-Lt. Fabiola Dusabimana from Gisenyi, who operates in sector Charlie and Sub-Lt. Mukamanzi, the wife of Lt. Nizeyimana, alias ‘Bigaruk’, the commander of sector Delta. She is fighting with her husband and they live with their two children.


Behind most of the deaths which have taken place in the northwest, there is a clear political or practical objective. Although units of infiltrators may act independently to identify targets with the help of local people, it is rare for them to carry out pure acts of banditry, and if discovered they will be punished for doing so. They routinely loot clothes, food, medicines, weapons and money, but within the context of their political programme. Their central aim is to systematically eliminate members of those groups which present an obstacle to their control of the region.

Tutsi Civilians: A Policy of Extermination

The infiltrators are open about their intention to eliminate Tutsis. This policy of completing the genocide is, according to one ex-infiltrator, “part of the fight against the ‘Tutsi regime’… not even Tutsi babies or foetuses should be spared”. Two massacres at Mudende in Gisenyi, on 21 August and 10 December 1997, claimed the lives of hundreds of Congolese of Tutsi origin; they had sought refuge in Rwanda because of insecurity in North Kivu. The insurgents sometimes attack on several fronts, making it difficult for the military to respond effectively and to co-ordinate the despatch of reinforcements. On 10 December, the soldiers had left the refugees to defend the commune office of Rwerere against a simultaneous assault. Gaëtan Kayitsinga lost his wife and one of his three children.

  • The attackers came from all sides, from the clinic, the storage area and the teachers’ campsite. They used metal bars, machetes, spears, hammers, axes, etc… Some were dressed in military uniforms, others were women and children. Many tents were burned. I was in the clinic and crawled out into a field on my stomach. My wife and child were in the clinic and were killed there. They killed until 4:30 a.m. without problems. In the morning you could faint when you saw how they had tortured people before killing them: cutting off heads, legs, arms, genitals, breasts, etc… Some women had sticks in their vaginas.

Large-scale massacres like these reveal the insurgents’ organisational capacity and the extent of civilian support for the genocidal aspect of their campaign. But there are even more numerous examples of infiltrators operating in small units to target Tutsi individuals or families, sometimes at the request of a neighbour or acquaintance. Often, the threat to survivors’ lives comes from the same individuals who killed their loved ones in 1994, and who are now seeking to escape justice. In Kayenzi, Gitarama, on 22 April 1998, seventeen-year-old Evariste Sibomana watched as a group of infiltrators murdered his mother and brother. He discovered that Sergeant Kagame, the man who had killed his father in April 1994, was among them.

  • I heard someone knocking on the door and asking us to open it for him. My mother wanted to know who it was, but this person preferred to say a ‘visitor’ rather than specifying his name. The criminals broke the door down and about ten of them came into the house. When my mother couldn’t find the money they asked of her, I gave them 1,500 francs. Thanks to the bright light from their torches, I was able to see that some of them were armed and others were not. My mother was killed by swords and small hoes. They also killed my younger brother, Narcisse Munyabugingo, nine years old. They also seriously wounded my younger brother, Bernard Habiyakare, thirteen. After I gave them the money, they beat me on the head with a small hoe and

left me for dead when I fell to the ground.

They went on to kill other survivors, including Evariste’s aunt and grandmother. There would have been more victims if the neighbours’ call for help had not forced the infiltrators to flee. The neighbours identified Sergeant Kagame; since the return of the refugees, he had been hiding at the home of his uncle in commune Nyabikenke.

Many potential victims have abandoned their homes, gathering in public buildings for safety, as they did in 1994. The belief that they will never escape the genocidal ambitions of the ex-FAR, interahamwe and their civilian supporters has created a psychosis of fear among Tutsis. The refugees at Mudende came to Rwanda seeking safety from attacks by Congolese and Rwandese militiamen in North Kivu. Their sense of despair is overwhelming, as Gasana Sengabo from Masisi expressed it: “We have crossed almost the whole country, running away. What have we done to be punished like this? How long will we have to be on the run?”


The War Against Hutu “Traitors”

There are high penalties for those who refuse to collaborate with the infiltrators. Hutus working for local authorities are especially vulnerable and many of them have been killed for their commitment to peace. African Rights interviewed Elisaphan Kwigera in May 1997; he spoke of his refusal to work with the infiltrators, of the punishment beating he was given on 3 August, and the torture his two wives suffered as a result. He expressed fears for his safety. The family were forced out of their home, but when Elisaphan had recovered, he accepted the post of responsable, placing their lives in greater danger. On 7 September 1997, he was murdered.

Capturing infiltrators living within the community is best achieved through the co-operation of local people. Denis Hitimana, the councillor of sector Bisizi, commune Kanama in Gisenyi risked everything to expose infiltrators in his sector; a week later he and his family suffered the consequences. When a neighbour alerted Denis to the presence of six insurgents in his sector, he went to meet them. Assuming he was sympathetic to their cause, the infiltrators explained that they were planning to attack the RPA and they expected the local population to assist them. Denis offered them beer, while his neighbour went to contact the army. When the soldiers arrived, an infiltrator shot one of them dead. The RPA shot back, killing five of the infiltrators. The sixth was wounded and escaped. Denis is certain that an assault upon his home on 11 April was the infiltrators’ revenge for his involvement in the death of five of their number the week before. Denis was the intended target, but he had spent that night in Mahoko. Slaughtering the families of “sellouts” is standard practice. In his absence, Denis’ two wives-Verdianne Bizimungu and Suzanne Nyirahabimana-were killed and his three year-old son was beaten on the head with a nail-studded club, leaving him physically and mentally damaged. Marie-Gorette, his 14-year-old daughter was inside the house.

  • They looked everywhere but did not find my father, so they came back to torture my mother to force her to confess where my father was. Meanwhile, the other killers went to fetch my father’s second wife, Suzanne. After a while, they brought her to our house so that the two women would reveal my father’s whereabouts. Suzanne tried to climb into the ceiling because she was undergoing unbearable torture. They made her get down.

Marie-Gorette heard them ask for money. After Verdianne gave them the 800 francs she had, they killed her and then Suzanne. Denis, now a widower with eight children to look after, was forced to leave his home to move closer to an RPA base for security. The attacks upon Hutu “traitors” are as brutal and ruthless as those upon Tutsis. Their punishments serve as lessons to the community, spreading fear. Almost everyone has a story to tell of someone who has been punished for their resistance to the insurgency-a local official, a tax-collector or an ordinary citizen who has refused to comply with their demands.

Assaults Upon Public Institutions And Services

Without dismantling the institutions which structure society, the infiltrators can only continue to function as guerrillas. Schools, health centres, roads, bridges, and, most importantly commune offices and detention

centres, remain in government hands and the local population continue to be dependant on the state for services. Attacks upon commune offices present a very real challenge to the authorities. These buildings are at the heart of the government administration; attached to them are detention centres where genocide

suspects and common criminals are held, together with their files. Insurgents aim to release the detainees and burn down the offices, and they have had several successes in doing so.

Their attempt to storm the commune office of Nyakabanda, Gitarama, on 2 December 1997 was thwarted by the RPA. They returned at 5:00 a.m. on 28 February 1998. The bourgmestre, Alfred Gasana, estimates that the insurgents numbered around 1000.

  • · They surrounded every side of the commune office. They weren’t able to set fire to the office, which was their main objective. However, they injured sick people at Gitega health centre, burned down the maternity centre and stole the medicines. They looted the shops at Mboneka centre and then set them on fire. They destroyed and took some of the equipment that belonged to COFORWA [a development NGO]. They set fire to a dormitory of the state secondary school. They burned two vehicles that belonged to a trader, killed the assistant bourgmestre, Gaston Hakizimana and set fire to two houses belonging to communal policemen. They also killed the guard at the courthouse. They freed the sixteen women and sixty men held for common crimes. They tried to free the people held for genocide, but they were unsuccessful.

Despite the risks for the infiltrators and the large number of prisoners who have died in the cross-fire, such attacks are common. They follow a clear-cut pattern and are prompted by very practical and strategic reasons. African Rights has documented twelve in a period of eleven months. By freeing genocide suspects, insurgents have a ready-made source of new recruits and win support among people who insist relatives and friends were unfairly arrested. Although some prisoners have given themselves up to the authorities rather than join the infiltrators, others have proved useful as guides to the targets in the area. Moreover, by looting the commune office, infiltrators have sometimes gained access to the administrative seals of the commune, the official stamp giving them freedom of movement.

The frequent and deadly assaults against schools are integral to the aim of destroying state institutions. A tract delivered to the secondary school of Gatovu, Ruhengeri, was addressed to both teachers and students.

  • We have warned you verbally to leave the school and stop lending your support to the enemy, but you have refused to listen. You will be responsible for the consequences.

A few days later, on the night of 24 March 1998, they killed five students and wounded seven. In attacks on other schools-in Nyange, Kibuye and Satinsyi, Gisenyi, insurgents were met with courageous solidarity when the children refused to separate into Hutus and Tutsis. Hutu children who could have saved themselves chose not to do so and died along their Tutsi friends and classmates. The deaths of all these children were tragic in themselves and for the country; they represented the seeds of hope for future unity and peace in Rwanda.


As early as 1995, ex-FAR and militiamen based in Zaire sent infiltrators or recruited allies in Rwanda to educate the population about the conflict which was to come. They began “awareness raising” programmes to garner support among refugees in Zaire and Tanzania and communities in Rwanda for their political and military objectives. This programme was the foundation for the insurgency. When the troops arrived in Rwanda, they only launched operations in those communes which had been exposed to the message of the insurgents. As the education programme continued, the network of supporters increased, and they took on a more active role.

Propaganda encouraging hatred of the government, the Tutsi people and Hutus described as “sell-outs” has been circulated in the northwest and beyond, usually in the form of tracts. These are directed at the Hutu population, which in the northwest constitutes the vast majority, and are variations on a single theme-the oppression of the Hutu people by the RPF. They are usually very direct in approach, describing Tutsis as “foreigners” who should go “home” to Ethiopia before it is “too late.” They call for an all-out war between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and more broadly in the region. They argue that the RPF is a dictatorship which is incapable of either managing the country or of providing security. They repeatedly warn that the lives of Hutus are under threat, unless they unite to defeat the government and the “Tutsi/Hima hegemony led by Kagame and Museveni.” The insurgency is represented as a war of liberation, with national popular support. A typical tract is entitled: Muhutu, Rise Up Before You Die Like An Ant.

  • You Muhutu, have you noticed that Hutus die like ants while the Tutsis get together to avenge the death of any one of them? You Muhutu, did you know that the Hutus wanted to co-habit with the Tutsis who refused, preferring to plunge you into interminable wars? You Muhutu, are you aware that the Tutsis have power at their finger tips, and that when they have seized it, they will kill the Hutus little by little, in order not to let go of this power? If you know it: Are you not intelligent? Don’t you have any strength? Don’t you have any money? Don’t you have any courage? If not, await the moment when the Inyenzi [RPA] will kill you without even using bullets.

The tracts try to emulate the cocktail of bravado, fabrication and threats which made propaganda, on the radio and in the newspapers, such a pernicious instrument of genocide. At least one member of the extremist party, the Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), which led the killings, Stanislas Simbizi, is said to be involved in composing them. Most of the tracts remain the crudest form of propaganda, but their potency is cumulative, reinforcing a message with which Hutus have been bombarded before, during and since the genocide.

Alongside the distribution of propaganda, civilians loyal to the infiltrators have other tasks to carry out. Organisers and informants have become known as partisans and résistants. Partisans are usually educated people, such as teachers or councillors, and liaise between the insurgents and the population. Their role is to convince people to back the insurgency, to recruit résistants and collect financial contributions. Eraste Musekura, 50, is a Pentecostal pastor in Karago, Gisenyi, and became a partisan in March 1998. He fled with the insurgents to the volcanic region of Rugano.

  • I had to make the people understand the infiltrators’ goals and explain that each person’s contribution was indispensable. I had to encourage them to go to the front and to explain that we had been oppressed for a long time and therefore must fight for liberty. I had to teach all this to the people in the same way that I taught the Gospel to Christians. I had to first teach those who were with me in the forest, before going into the villages.

Résistants are young people, including children of eight or nine, who track the army’s movements and collect food and supplies for the insurgents. The older ones are given crash military training and arms and participate in military operations, setting up roadblocks and ambushes to deter RPA interventions, to evacuate the dead and wounded and to transport looted property. This work is often dangerous and taxing, but it is a mark of commitment to the cause. Not all recruits are willing. Emmanuel Nzabarinda said he was warned that if he did not join the résistants “I would find myself dead, just like my mother.” His mother had been killed by the insurgents because she accused them of taking money and goods during a public meeting on 18 January 1998.

Bangayiki, 25, was trained for four days in a forest in Ramba commune, Gisenyi in March 1998, together with 100 recruits. The men returned to their homes and took part in night patrols to locate the whereabouts of RPA soldiers.

  • · We stayed together in groups of about ten to fifteen people, armed with knives and a single whistle per team. When we saw the Inkotanyi [RPF] arrive, we used whistles and cried out: ‘The Inyenzi have come!’ in order to ask the population and the infiltrators to flee the place.

This strategy of encouraging or forcing local people to flee with the infiltrators as the army arrives is disastrous and is responsible for the largest number of casualties in the conflict. Designed to provide the fighters with a human shield, large numbers of civilians have been killed as a result. Alienating people physically as well as mentally from the current government is considered vital; many people are now displaced and résistants also warn people not to attend meetings with the local administration.

A much wider group of people are called upon to provide intelligence, food, shelter and financial dues to the infiltrators. One former fighter, Marc Nyirimpunga, recalled: “Everywhere we went, we enjoyed food donations from the people.” One sign of just how effective the infiltrators’ message has been, is the fact that women and children have taken a brutally direct role in many massacres in the northwest, as they did in the 1994 genocide. The testimonies of infiltrators and local people suggest that women play a vital part in gathering information, feeding and housing the infiltrators, and offering encouragement as spirit mediums. Huge crowds, either unarmed or carrying machetes, clubs and whistles accompany them during attacks to intimidate soldiers by sheer force of numbers, and by chanting war songs and insults and beating drums and tins. The prospect of material reward has encouraged some civilians to take part; hundreds have died while looting alongside insurgents engaged in military operations. Some insurgents have family and friends, or sympathetic local officials, prepared to offer them practical support and information. But much of the support is given out of fear. The murders of “collaborators”, the widespread use of propaganda and the presence of a network of insurgents operating from within the civilian population mean that most people feel they have no choice but to comply with the infiltrators’ wishes.


The army and the civilian authorities have tried to deter collaboration with the infiltrators, through regular visits and meetings with local residents. But people in the northwest have been angered by the methods used in search operations as the army track down infiltrators. Residents there acknowledge that the army cannot distinguish insurgents from the civilians during open battles because of the insurgents’ strategy of hiding amongst civilians. But they see no justification for the harsh tactics which have characterised many search operations.

Although there is nothing to suggest that it is RPA policy to target civilians, some elements within the RPA appear to believe that terror can only be countered with terror-that if the infiltrators can threaten and kill those who refuse to cooperate, then so should the government forces. At issue for the army is the problem of maintaining control over a force which has undergone significant changes since the defeat of the interim government in July 1994. During the genocide and since then, new recruits have poured into its ranks-genocide survivors, a large number of former FAR soldiers and even many ex-insurgents. Although this has been a relatively successful policy, there have been instances of ex-FAR soldiers deserting to join the infiltrators and other questions about divided loyalties.

The commune of Ruhondo in Ruhengeri had hardly been affected by the insurgency until 1 April 1998 when soldiers of the 21st battalion killed 134 people in sector Ntarama. 16-year-old Evariste Munyaneza lost four relatives. He first heard gunfire coming from commune Cyeru; an hour later the army chased the infiltrators through Ntarama. The family were not afraid at first, even when additional troops arrived. Then Evariste became aware of the threat.

  • I took fright when I saw a soldier shoot a Cyeru farmer. I hid in the shower of my neighbour, Alfred Kazumbwenge, and was joined by some women. The soldiers smashed the doors to search for the fugitives. We were discovered and ordered to come out. I ran and returned home later to check on my family. My father, Casimir Maganya, had been killed by a bullet to the head. My grandmother, Josephine Nyirambazande, and her grandsons, Macanire and Nikuze, both five, were also dead. I also saw the bodies of Aloysie Nyirarufungo and her child of one year and a half. A family friend told me that Hingabugabo and nine members of his family were dead.

On 6 April, officers and the governor of Ruhengeri brought the soldiers in front of the victims’ relatives in Ntarama for a public lashing. They were subsequently tried by the Military Prosecutor’s office. Three officers were sentenced to death, the commanding officer to five years in prison and sixteen other soldiers were given sentences ranging from life imprisonment to one year sentences.

Individual soldiers have also been accused of exploiting the conflict to loot from residents. Following an attack by infiltrators upon the commune office of Kanama and the nearby market of Mahoko on 8 August 1997, soldiers sought out and killed suspects believed to have worked with the killers, including Mathias Nahimana and his brother, Jonathan Gisaza. Later, soldiers returned demanding money, his wife, Alphonsine Nyiratabaro, said.

  • One of them kept threatening me, and said: ‘Show us the money you keep in the house’. I replied that the money had been in my husband’s pockets. When they asked me where he was, I showed them the body, lying not far from us. ‘Does he really have money lying there?’ the soldier asked. I said he did. They sent me to join the other civilians gathered at the roundabout. Eventually they told us to go back home. When I got back, my husband’s pockets looked as though they had been searched. There was 400,000 francs missing, which had been kept in the house, and new clothes had been stolen. During the whole of Saturday, soldiers and civilians looted shops. On Sunday, at around 7:00 a.m., the remaining contents of my house were stolen. I was left totally destitute.

Major John Gashayija, the commander of the battalion involved, was arrested, along with two other officers and seven soldiers. Two officers from another battalion, who were present at the time, were also arrested.

Throughout the research for this report, it became apparent that the residents of the northwest have had two distinct experiences at the hands of the RPA. They value the protection offered by soldiers posted close to their homes, schools and commune offices. They may even be on friendly terms with them. But they fear those soldiers who come to their areas exclusively to carry out military operations in search of insurgents. Théophile Ntamugabumwe is a student in a boarding school in Gatovu, Ruhengeri, where insurgents killed five students in March 1998. His father was killed on 19 February 1998 at his home in Mukingo, Ruhengeri, during a search operation by the RPA. This has left him understandably bitter, yet he still spoke warmly of the soldiers who guarded them at school.

  • At home, one will be killed by the soldiers or by the infiltrators if one refuses to collaborate with them. At school, however, the soldiers cannot kill us; they are more like friends. A political officer at the Sinai post near our school was more like a brother. The only ones who can kill us at the school are infiltrators. If I go home I can be killed by either. To solve this crisis, the government should create safe places for decent people so that real infiltrators can be identified.

All those within the RPA are operating under difficult material and psychological conditions. The fact that many of the local people support the former regime, and have relatives among the insurgents, is a source of considerable tension. Nonetheless, the unacceptable use of force must be condemned. The punishment of some of the officers and soldiers responsible demonstrates the army’s commitment to preventing the recurrence of RPA killings and should be encouraged. If the government is to gain and maintain the trust of the local population, the determination to punish wrongdoers should be institutionalised at all levels of the army to help eradicate impunity from Rwanda’s body politic. We have found no evidence to substantiate the allegations from some quarters that the RPA, as an institution, is deliberately targeting returned refugees and using the insurgency as a pretext to massacre unarmed civilians wholesale. Local people, including former infiltrators, do not support these accusations, although similar claims have been made in the insurgents’ propaganda tracts.


Gisenyi and Ruhengeri used to be the breadbasket of Rwanda; but now people cannot even feed themselves. Farming has always been the most significant economic activity in the region, and most people have no other skills or resources to rely upon. Large numbers of peasant farmers have been forced off their land by fear; business has been devastated. The result is severe economic hardship; the price of some foodstuffs has increased fourfold. Meagre resources have been stretched by the insurgents’ demands for food and financial contributions from the local population.

People are finding it difficult to pay for basic necessities, including medicine. Many children no longer attend school, either because their parents cannot afford the fees, or because they are worried about security. The recent exam results from the northwest were very poor, emphasising the impact of the insurgency upon education there. Some teachers and student have joined the insurgents, some have been killed and others have been displaced. The core of the problem is that in many communes the clashes between state and rebel forces are too frequent and intense to allow ordinary people to get on with the business of day-to-day life. The local economy has steadily been beaten into exhaustion, and other parts of the country are beginning to experience shortages as a result.

Fear and anger have overwhelmed many communities, creating divisions in line with the infiltrators’ intentions. An incident in Mutara commune, following the massacre at Mudende on 18 August, revealed just how volatile the situation in the northwest has become. Taking the law into their own hands, camp survivors and other Tutsis, convinced that the insurgents were supported by-and living among-the local Hutu population, exacted revenge with indiscriminate punishment killings.

Whole villages have fled their homes in the past year and families have become separated. Families have also been torn apart by conflicting loyalties and choices; some parents have sought protection from their own children who have joined the insurgents and killed their siblings and relatives. It is impossible to estimate the displaced; many people have gathered near RPA bases for protection while others have accompanied the infiltrators, moving from one location to another. Many of the latter, including thousands of résistants and partisans, have now begun to return home. They are almost all suffering from hunger, illness and exhaustion; some children have Kwashiorkor. The hoes, cooking utensils, blankets and provisions, such as corn and rice, given to them by the authorities, are certainly not adequate, but they have no one else to turn to.


Although they do not have access to an abundance of arms, as long as the insurgents continue to have the manpower to fight, the conflict may persist. People who have thrown their lot in with the insurgents, willingly or not, now have an interest in prolonging the conflict. Meanwhile, their goals have enmeshed with the military and political interests of rebel groups which have sprung up in DRC, Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania since Mobutu Sese Seko’s fall from power. Such groups see the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and, until recently, of DRC, as closely tied, and have therefore sought to challenge them simultaneously. Whether this is more than a temporary coincidence of interests remains to be seen. It may be that this broader initiative to destabilise the region will provide the insurgents with the best long-term means of prolonging their war.

Masisi, a zone of North Kivu province in eastern DRC, is the most important rear-base for the insurgents. The region is rich in food and the local population, like the infiltrators, speak Kinyarwanda. The majority of Masisi residents are Hutus of Rwandese origin and the infiltrators are able to depend upon them for food and shelter. The most important bases are linked to a corridor in the volcanic region of Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Kalisimbi. Local militia like the Combattants, and the Mayi Mayi, and soldiers of Mobutu’s army, see the potential to use the northwest of Rwanda as a rear-base, and have supplied the insurgents with weapons, and fought alongside them in some of their operations. In recent months, the insurgents have also benefited politically from the rift between Laurent Kabila and the Government of Rwanda. Reports that Kabila has taken FAR soldiers and interahamwe to Kamina military base in Katanga for military training need to be verified, but if true, bode ill for Rwanda’s future. The close relations which FAR established with Burundian Hutu rebels-PALIPEHUTU and the National Council for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD)-during the period of exile in Zaire, are the basis for continued collaboration with ALIR, as expressed in a series of formal agreements and meetings. There are also links with the anti-Museveni Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), operating in eastern DRC and the Rwenzori mountains of western Uganda, as well as the Tanzania-based Democratic Resistance Alliance.

Initially, some infiltrators lost confidence in the battle because of a shortage of arms and ammunition and they deserted, mostly in June/July 1997. They overcame this temporary crisis, thanks in large part to an injection of arms from the war in Congo-Brazzaville where FAR’s contribution to the victory of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso was rewarded with weapons, money and by turning a blind eye to the military training which is taking place in the camps for Rwandese refugees in Loukolela, Kintele and other camps. Most importantly, there is a significant concentration of ex-FAR in Oyo, Sassou-Nguesso’s political stronghold. Although arms continue to come from or transit through Congo-Brazzaville, the distance is a disadvantage, supplies are irregular and the insurgents are again low on arms. They aim to obtain arms from RPA soldiers in battle, but this is equally unreliable. Since December 1997, they have resorted to stealing cows which are exchanged for guns from soldiers in DRC. One good cow buys two Kalachnikovs, or 2000 rounds of ammunition. More recently there have been reports of training camps and arms flows from Sudan, under the supervision of Col. Tharcisse Renzaho and Col. Aloys Ntiwiragabo, both based in Nairobi.

For those in opposition to the current government, inside the country and abroad, the insurgency in the northwest has provided an opening. They have represented the conflict as the possible foundation for a nation-wide revolt. Beyond the broad assertions by PALIR in tracts distributed in the northwest, the question of what political figures are associated with the conflict and the details of their relationship remain unanswered. One opposition group, Rassemblement pour la democratie, prefers to demonise Kagame and other individual politicians, without explicitly declaring the Tutsis as the enemy in the way that PALIR has done. But they are frank in their declarations of support for the insurgents’ agenda: “The Rassemblement invites you to rally to those fighting for democracy, so that we may get rid of the assassins and the army who only fights for the Tutsi ethnic group, and put in place a government which suits all Rwandese.”

Resolving the conflict will require more than a huge military operation. The recent military setbacks suffered by the insurgents were a collaborative effort between the residents of the northwest and the RPA; the RPA acted on intelligence provided by returned ex-FAR and résistants. As this experience shows, defeating the insurgents will be of limited value unless something is done to make the environment less hospitable to their message of hatred. There will need to be a sustained political initiative to address not only immediate grievances, but also the underlying political causes which sustain the conflict. This is not a task for the government alone; every sector of society has its contribution to make. Ultimately, the insurgency can only be fully tackled through a regional strategy because it is a source of profound regional instability. The turmoil in the DRC has been triggered, in part, by the extent to which political and military developments in North Kivu and northwest Rwanda have become intertwined. This illustrates the regional implications of the insurgency. The Insurgency in the Northwest ends with a set of modest, practical suggestions for alleviating the distress of the people of the northwest and for addressing some of the pertinent regional issues.

Transmited September 24, 1998


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