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War crimes

The string-pullers

by Claudia Isabel Rittel
In late November, German authorities arrested two men who allegedly commanded the Hutu militia FDLR in Northern Congo for years – by phone from Germany. In the meantime, UN experts have assessed the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo and demand more international pressure.

“The FDLR is a tightly organised group – from the president down to the lowest levels. I oversee the organisation. I am the president of this organisation. I know exactly what happens.” That is what Ignace Murwanashyaka told the news magazine Fakt in an interview more than a year ago. He was living in Germany at the time, free to go about his business unchallenged despite the fact that Interpol was on his heels with an arrest warrant.

From 2001 onwards, Murwanashyaka was the top commander of the “Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda” (FDLR), one of the biggest guerrilla organisations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The FDLR’s origins lie in the Interahamwe militia, which was crucially involved in the Rwandan genocide. After the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda, many of its members moved abroad – a large number of them to the neighbouring DRC.

When Murwanashyaka assumed leadership of the rebels, he had already been living in Germany for 12 years. Originally in the country to study economics, he was granted political asylum in 2002. Although he made no secret of his political activities, and was known internationally, he had no trouble with German authorities until 2005. However, after a preliminary investigation of war crimes, charges were dropped in 2006. Ilona Auer-Frege of the Ecumenical Network Central Africa says the investigators were not persistent enough. According to her, things changed a year ago when Germany’s Federal Prosecutor General and the Federal Criminal Police Office set up a special war-crimes unit.

In late November, Murwanashyaka and his deputy Straton Musoni were arrested and charged with violating Germany’s Code of Crimes Against International Law. Specifically, they stand accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The two men are alleged to have been active in Germany for years, directing the FDLR, which, like other rebel forces, has spread fear and terror through Eastern Congo in recent years. They all drive people from their villages, commit systematic acts of rape, and force children to kill.

None of FDLR’s crimes, it is said, happened without Murwanashyaka’s approval. He spoke regularly with local commanders by satellite phone, was the strategic head of the organisation and looked after its finances. He is also believed to have arranged arms supplies.

According to UN experts, militias in the Congo depend on support from the diaspora. They get help from hundreds of sympathisers in Europe, North America and Africa, who raise funds, spread propaganda and launder money the militias make from trafficking resources. Without that external support, a recent UN report says, operations in the field would be far more difficult.

The UN experts believe that the FDLR troops control many mines in South Kivu. The resources in question are mainly gold and a tin ore called cassiterite. According to official DRC data, annual gold exports amount to only a few kilogrammes, but the Congolese Senate estimates that some 40 metric tons, worth more than $ 1 billion, is actually shipped out of the country each year. The UN team reckons that millions of that money ends up in rebels’ hands.

The illicit exploitation of natural resources fuels the war economy. There are absolutely no controls on trade in gold and minerals in the Congo. Things could be different, however, because the metals can be traced to their source as long as they are not smeltered. So far, however, there are no checks. No exporter would refuse a consignment of minerals just because it came from a conflict area, states the Enough Project, an NGO, that strives to end war in Central Africa. John Prendergast, co-founder of Enough, says it is too easy to sell conflict minerals and, until that changes, the mines will continue to cause violence. So far, there are no effective measures in place to improve transparency. However, the UN Security Council assigned the job of drafting guidelines on the matter to a group of experts.

The two men arrested in Germany do not face charges for the business deals they are assumed to have done. They will be put on trial for the atrocities they allegedly made happen in order to stay in business. At present, the men are in jail. Auer-Frege believes that this in itself will weaken the rebel group: “They have lost their strategic hardliner,” she explains, which should impact on the morale of the troops in the Congo.

Investigations are still going on. An opening date for the trial against the two rebel leaders has yet to be set. According to a spokesperson of the Federal Prosecutor General, it will probably take several months until they are officially charged.

The two men will not be the first to face trial for crimes committed in the conflict in Eastern Congo. Proceedings are already underway against the leaders of two other rebel groups. Thomas Lubanga has been in the dock at the International Criminal Court in the Hague since early 2009 (see E+Z 2/2009) and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui since the end of November. Chui is being tried jointly with Germain Katanga, who belonged to yet another group. Claudia Isabel Rittel