How could a radical, racist militia linked to war crimes and crimes against humanity come to identify itself with a country like modern-day Germany?
It is a question which has preoccupied German journalist Simone Schlindwein for some time. She is based in Uganda but makes regular trips to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where she has met fighters from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) on several occasions.
“Many are football fans who support Bayern Munich or Stuttgart, everybody has heard of Angela Merkel, some even speak German,” she said.
The FDLR rebels feel a certain affinity towards Germany. They assumed that the former head of the FDLR Ignace Murwanashyaka used to live in the country in ambassadorial style with his own villa.
Murwanashyaka came to Germany in the late 1980s and studied at Bonn University. The Rwandan Hutu leader was later granted political asylum on account of political persecution in his home country. He lived quietly in the German city of Mannheim until his arrest in 2009.
Murwanashyaka and his deputy Straton Musoni controlled the activities of the FDLR in eastern DRC from Germany via text message, email and satellite phone.
In their book recently published in German “Tatort Kongo – Prozess in Deutschland” (Crime scene Congo – Trial in Germany) Simone Schlindwein, Dominic Johnson from Germany’s Taz newspaper and Bianca Schmolze from the Medizinischen Flüchtlingshilfe Bochum (Medical Refugee Aid Bochum) explore and analyze one of the most complex trials in German legal history.
The book examines the hierarchy of the FDLR, whose fighters have killed, raped and plundered their way through the east of the DRC for the last 20 years. It describes the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and how thousands of militant Hutus fled in its aftermath to eastern DRC and founded the FDLR. It also looks at Rwanda’s colonial past.
Genocide culprits had Bundeswehr training
The trial of the two FDLR leaders, who resided in Germany, lasted four and a half years. In September 2015, the court in Stuttgart sent Murwanashyaka to prison for 13 years. He was found guilty of war crimes in relation to five FDLR attacks in eastern DRC and of leading a terrorist organization.
His deputy, Musoni was acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but was found guilty of leading a terrorist organization. The German court gave him an eight year prison sentence.
These were the first convictions anywhere relating to membership of the FDLR.
They were made possible by the German Code of Crimes Against International Law which was adopted in 2002. It allows German courts to prosecute certain serious crimes against civlians irrespective of where they are committed.
After the Rwandan genocide, troops who had served the ousted Hutu regime mingled with refugees flooding into Zaire (now DRC)
More than a century elapsed between the start of German colonial rule in Rwanda in the 1890s and the Stuttgart convictions but there is still a link between these two events. After Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962 (Germany’s colonial era ended in 1918), modern-day Germany maintained closer ties with the Hutu government of the small East African state. Numerous Rwandans came to Germany to train and to study at university. They included Murwanashyaka and Musoni.
Sylvestre Mudacumura was a Rwandan officer who was trained by Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr. He was among the thousands of Hutu militants who slaughtered at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in less than a hundreds days in 1994. This was the Rwandan genocide. Mudacumura later fled to eastern DRC where he helped to found the FDLR, of which is now the commander-in-chief. Mudacumura and his subordinates continue to spread fear and terror in the region to his day.
Witness testimonies of FDLR crimes were read out loud in the Stuttgart court room; the names of the witnesses were withheld to protect their identity. One woman, referred to as Witness Z6, told how she had been stabbed in the thigh with a bayonet and then raped while her husband was forced to watch. Their 13-year-old daughter was then sexually abused by five FDLR rebels in succession. The family was then abducted and taken to the forest where the mother was forced into sexual slavery. After seven months, she was able to escape.
The logistical effort and financial outlay involved in making witness testimony like this available to the court was considerable. “Many charges had to be dropped because of a lack of evidence,” said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, who followed the court’s proceedings for the group Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In spite of all the difficulties in amassing evidence and getting witnesses to testify and the quarrels over translation, Schlindlein believes the trial sent an extremely important signal to the FDLR. “The FDLR had always regarded Germany as a partner, some had even regarded its as their second home. This trial has changed all that. We will not tolerate crimes in the DRC being planned, controlled or in anyway supported here in Germany,” she said.
When Murwanashyaka and Musoni were arrested in 2009, 1,200 FDLR fighters surrendered within a matter of weeks. “The inability of the FDLR leadership to operate out of Germany, weakened the militia considerably,” Schlindwein said.
In February 2015, the DRC’s army launched an offensive against the FDLR. Estimates as to how many active fighters the FDLR still possesses vary from 100 to 1,500. “We continue to record serious crimes in which civilians are kidnapped, raped or killed by FDLR fighters,” HRW’s Mattioli-Zeltner said.
In May 2016, DRC authorities announced that they had arrested the FDLR’s chief of staff General Leopold Mujyanbere. Schlindwein believes military action against the FDLR may soon be unnecessary because of internal feuding. “The militia is in the process of splitting into smaller militias. Perhaps the end of the FDLR is already in sight,” she said.