When Genocidal Warlords Fly to Rome
Rwanda and the United Nations clash over rapprochement with the FDLR
The United Nations technically doesn’t allow Victor Byiringiro—the leader of one of Africa’s most notorious rebel groups—to travel outside the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Which is why it’s surprising the warlord spent 10 days in Rome last month with U.N. assistance. But the reason is because one government’s hated rebel group is another government’s best frenemy.
Byiringiro is the leader of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR. It’s one of the least likable rebel groups in Africa. It’s a shade less awful than Uganda’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army.
The FDLR, which is currently active with several hundred fighters in the forests of eastern Congo, has its origin in the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. And in the years since, the group has indiscriminately killed thousands of civilians in the Congo.
But the FDLR also has a complicated history of cooperation with the French-backed Congolese army, and some governments in the region see the rebels as a counterweight to Rwanda’s regional ambitions. Militarily, years of warfare have weakened the FDLR, but it still controls territory and recruits new fighters.
Twenty years after its founders fled Rwanda, most of its soldiers today are Congolese, but among its officers and political leadership are remnants of the genocidaires, hardened war criminals subject to international sanctions and travel bans.
Travel ban? What travel ban?
In June, Byringiro—the charming leader of the FDLR who is responsible for possibly the worst massacre of civilians in eastern Congo ever committed by the group—left his usual forest hideout for a special trip, courtesy of the United Nations.
After boarding a helicopter and flying to the eastern city of Goma, he hopped on a plane to Congo’s capital Kinshasa, from where he was scheduled to leave for Rome to attend a conference sponsored by the Catholic order of Sant’Egidio.
The government of Rwanda predictably threw a tantrum. After learning of the U.N.’s request to temporarily lift the travel ban on Byiringiro, Rwanda’s permanent representative at the U.N. went ballistic.
“The request for travel ban exemption is part of a pattern, over the last two decades, of a series of maneuvers that attempt to deny and diminish the criminal essence of the FDLR,” Eugene-Richard Gasana, Rwanda’s representative, wrote to the U.N. Security Council.
Rwandan Pres. Paul Kagame meanwhile said he was “completely bored and disgusted by this problem.”
For the Rwandan government, the FDLR still represents the ideology and hatred that led to the 1994 genocide, which killed upwards of one million people.
Understandably, Rwanda opposes any kind of political negotiations with the rebel group, only accepting its unconditional surrender—which would include trials against its main commanders.
But the government of the Congo, as well as other African leaders, see things a bit differently.
Congo’s army has collaborated intensively with the FDLR in the past, especially during times when the Rwandan army invaded parts of the Congolese state during the Congo Wars from 1996 to 2003.
Afterwards, the FDLR proved to be an important counterweight to Rwandan proxy groups, like the CNDP—later renamed to M23—which ruthlessly ruled over considerable expanses of eastern Congo.
A delicate political arrangement allowed U.N. and Congolese forces to push the M23 out of the Congo in 2013, but because of Rwandan pressure, the Congolese state is now in negotiations with M23’s leadership in exile.
The Congolese government feels it would only be just if Rwanda did the same with the FDLR.
U.N. forces, drawn from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, also aren’t exactly keen on eliminating the FDLR by military means, especially because the rebel group has indicated that they might be willing to disarm voluntarily.
An offensive against the militia’s last holdouts is certainly possible, but such action always brings with it the risk of considerable civilian collateral damage, and hinges on support from the Congolese army to be successful. It would also mean the almost certain death of at least some peacekeepers.
For the time being, the U.N. and most neighboring countries have decided that negotiations are in order. A recent regional summit in Angola has given the FDLR six months to throw down their weapons. The peace talks in Rome are part of the process to find a peaceful solution.
The FDLR’s leadership, including Byiringiro, will certainly try to find a way to avoid a trial for war crimes, although this would hardly be acceptable to Rwanda and parts of the wider international community.