The first few haggard Rwandan rebels started to trickle out of the Congolese forests of North Kivu in early January. Within weeks their numbers grew to hundreds. By June, more than 8,000 — including about 1,000 former gunmen — were back home in neighbouring Rwanda, aided by United Nations peacekeepers and refugee workers. One of the fighters, Antoine Uwumukiza told a reporter for the Washington Post why he decided to go back. “We’ve heard people say, ‘In Rwanda, there is good government,’ and we have decided to go see if it’s propaganda.” When he discovered that the government’s reconciliation policy was real, he said, he decided to stay.
But the situation along the Congo-Rwanda border is not unique. Foreign fighters like Mr. Uwumukiza who fight across borders “are significant threats to regional security in all areas where they exist in significant numbers,” notes a study, ‘Combatants on Foreign Soil’, prepared by the UN Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA).
Unlike fighters who are nationals of a country emerging from war, most foreign combatants cannot simply rejoin local communities after the guns fall silent. Frequently there are no organized programmes to help fighters return home. Where they do exist, fear, suspicion and poor relations between governments may mean that fighters are left behind to become persistent security threats.
African insurgent forces have long operated across poorly-guarded national borders, notes the OSAA study. Some have been viewed positively, especially in the early anti-colonial liberation struggles or the movements against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
While such groups often had clear political goals, disciplined troops and support from local communities, the fighters in the many civil wars that followed did not. Not only have government and rebel forces both targeted civilians, they have also recruited combatants from abroad. The involvement of fighters from neighbouring countries added a further layer of complexity to the violence.
West Africa was one region where multiple armed groups operated repeatedly across national borders. In 1989, rebel forces entered Liberia from neighbouring Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. Then from Liberia, Charles Taylor, initially as a warlord and later as president, backed the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in its attacks against the government of Sierra Leone. At various times, combatants from Liberia, Burkina Faso and other countries fought directly alongside the RUF. Later, two new rebel groups opposed to President Taylor launched a second civil war in Liberia, initially striking from Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire and eventually prompting Mr. Taylor’s departure in 2003.
Following the peace agreements in Sierra Leone and Liberia, UN-organized disarmament programmes succeeded in demobilizing tens of thousands of homegrown fighters. But little was done to help foreign combatants return home. “This difficulty was compounded by shortcomings in fully reintegrating former soldiers back into civilian life. Many youths were left idle and dissatisfied, with no jobs, little education and few skills other than handling weapons. So when war erupted in Côte d’Ivoire in 2002 and both sides in that conflict sought new foot soldiers, there were thousands of ready recruits willing to cross the border.
The US-based Human Rights Watch, in a 2005 report on West Africa’s “regional warriors,” interviewed some 60 combatants from 15 groups. Most had fought in at least two conflicts in the region. “There are some of us who can’t seem to live without a weapon. Anywhere we hear about fighting we have to go,” said a 24-year-old Liberian who had fought in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.
Living by the gun
For these fighters, the main reason appears to be economic. Most of those recruited for successive wars lacked jobs and lived in desperate economic conditions. The recruiters and commanders promised they would be able to loot. Some readily shifted allegiances from one group to another as the opportunities for pillage changed.
To reduce the likelihood of such an “insurgent diaspora,” experts argue, governments should stop recruiting or backing foreign fighters, while peacekeeping forces should better coordinate their own efforts. The UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire now works closely with its counterpart in Liberia to ease the repatriation of foreign ex-combatants.
It is just as important, experts argue, to better reintegrate former fighters into their own societies. If they have jobs, social connections and other opportunities at home, they will be less open to recruitment for wars abroad and more likely to try life without a gun.
Rwanda welcomes rebels home
Benoït Barabwiriza returned to Rwanda in January for a short visit with several other former rebels. He is a member of the FDLR, a Hutu rebel force that opposes the government of Rwanda and it was the first time in years that he had seen his homeland. “We have come here to assess how the country is doing,” he explained to a journalist, “after which we will go back to our colleagues in Congo and tell them of our experiences. Then we will decide whether to come back for good.”
For several years the government has been seeking to convince such exiles that they are welcome back. Such outreach efforts are part of a broader process of national reconciliation intended to re-knit a country torn apart by the 1994 genocide, in which some 800,000 Rwandans, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, were slaughtered.
In recent years, some 20,000 former rebels have returned, aided by small financial settlements that include cash, scholarships, vocational training, access to credit and other support for setting up small businesses and income-generating projects.
Government representative Jean Sayinzoga welcomed Mr. Barabwiriza and his fellow visitors, emphasizing that they could go wherever they wanted in Rwanda, including visiting former combatants who had previously been repatriated. “Feel free,” he told them, “and feel at home.”
Mr. Ernest Harsch is the managing editor for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.