On May 21, 2001, soldiers of the Rwandan government army (Rwandan Patriotic Army, RPA) engaged some seventy fighters of the rebel Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (Armeé pour la Libération du Rwanda, ALIR I) in the first important hostilities within Rwanda since 1999. From May through July 2001, the Rwandan government forces fought a series of other battles and smaller skirmishes in northwestern Rwanda as ALIR combatants arrived from their bases across the border in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The renewed military activity in northwestern Rwanda, the ongoing combat in the eastern Congo, and the current threat of war between Rwanda and Uganda suggest that peace in this region is still only a distant hope.
Rwandan combatants hostile to the current government of Rwanda and based in the Congo are often called "ex-FAR and Interahamwe," referring to forces involved in the genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. Many commanding officers in ALIR did in fact serve in the former Rwandan army (Forces Armées Rwandaises, FAR), but the majority of ALIR combatants were not part of the FAR or of the genocidal Interahamwe militia at that time.
The recent fighting differed from previous violence in northwestern Rwanda and the 1994 genocide by the relatively small number of civilian deaths. Both parties appear to have ordered their forces to show greater respect for civilian lives than in the past. ALIR combatants killed at least ten civilians, mostly in the course of looting, but they do not appear to have targeted civilians in general, nor Tutsi in particular. In the course of combat, Rwandan government troops killed at least dozens of people who were traveling in the company of the ALIR combatants and who appear to have been civilians but they have made no reported reprisal attacks against people living in the northwest.
The apparently more scrupulous respect for human rights and international human rights law by government and rebel forces alike in northwestern Rwanda seems to stop at the border. In the Congo they both reportedly continue to engage in killings and other abuses of civilians. They may be limiting killings in Rwanda in hopes of building greater political support among residents in an area that has been important because of its prior history of revolt and because of its role in producing political and military elites in the past. The parties may also be more anxious than previously to avoid international censure for human rights abuses. They know that diplomats and other foreign observers find it far easier to travel in northwestern Rwanda to evaluate the situation than they do to war-torn areas of the Congo.
ALIR has supposedly also ordered its combatants not to steal valuable personal possessions of local people, although it permits combatants to take and sometimes even pillage food and other materials thought essential for their survival. They also pillaged three health centers, seriously reducing access of local people to medical care.
The opposing forces have not changed their attitudes about using children for military service. ALIR, like others fighting in this long and bitter war in Central Africa, has incorporated children in its ranks. Known by the general Swahili term kadogo, or child soldier, these children include both those who take part in combat and many others who serve as porters, cooks, and general workers. ALIR combatants abducted some of these children and incorporated others who joined of their own volition, seeking protection and food. Whatever their role or means of recruitment, the children in ALIR all have suffered the privations and risks of military life. Rwandan government soldiers have aided their allies, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), to abduct children and force them to be soldiers.1 Rwandan military and civilian authorities recruit children as young as fifteen years old to serve in the ranks of the Rwandan Local Defense Force (LDF) which has also engaged in combat against ALIR.2
Some 280 child soldiers have been captured by Rwandan or RCD soldiers or have surrendered to them or civilian authorities. Initially housed at a military camp together with adults who had surrendered or been captured, the children then spent more than a month being "re-educated" with the adults at a "solidarity camp." In mid-August, the Rwandan authorities transferred the children to a center in southern Rwanda where they are supposed to follow a program designed for their special needs before returning to ordinary civilian life.
This report is based on dozens of interviews with ALIR combatants, child soldiers, and civilian auxiliaries now in Rwandan hands. Human Rights Watch researchers conducted the interviews, generally on an individual basis, in various Rwandan government military facilities, a hospital, and the Gitagata children's center between June and August 2001. Rwandan authorities were not present at the interviews. This report draws also on interviews with Rwandan military and civilian authorities, residents of northwestern Rwanda, and foreign diplomats stationed in Kigali.
1 See Human Rights Watch Short Reports, Democratic Republic of the Congo, "Reluctant Recruits: Children and Adults Forcibly Recruited for Military Service in North Kivu," Vol. 13, No. 3(A), May 2001 and, concerning similar abuses by Uganda, "Uganda in Eastern Congo: Fueling Political and Ethnic Strife," Vol. 13, No. 2(A), March 2001.
2 See Human Rights Watch, "Rwanda: The Search for Security and Human Rights Abuses," Vol. 12, No. 1(A), April 2000.