Through the window, the sun is rising over lush green hills. Hategekimana Valens hurries to wash himself up and make the bed and join his colleagues on the breakfast table before they squeeze inside a corrugated iron classroom. They grab a pencil and try to take clean notes on a piece of paper leaning on their legs.
This is not a school or a prison — it is the Mutobo Demobilization Center, a place where a former killer and rebel can have a fresh start back in his homeland, Rwanda.
The camp is a 40-minute drive from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, but for many it takes a whole life to cover this route dotted with banana fields and volcanoes.
"We thank God every day for helping us return to Rwanda," said Hategekimana, smiling shyly. He spent 17 years in DRC. Like thousands of Hutus, he fled to the neighboring country in the aftermath of one of the most terrible crimes in modern history: the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days of 1994.
Mutobo Demobilization Camp in Musanze, northwest Rwanda. Photo by Maria Campo.
In the years before the genocide he fled he had been forced to work as a doctor for the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), which played a key role in the atrocities. "They approached me and asked me to treat their soldiers," he told VICE News. "In that moment, it was absolutely impossible to refuse to join the FAR because it had the area under its control."
He doesn't want to offer many details about his time with the FAR, but states that his main task was to provide medical assistance to the militia men.
In 1998, the young Hategekimana fled the country with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation for Rwanda, or FDLR, a rebel group founded by the leaders of the genocide who have continued to commit atrocities against the Congolese population ever since.
Hategekimana said he spent two decades living in hiding in the jungle in eastern DRC, struggling to get something to eat, longing for his wife and children. One day he couldn't bear it anymore.
"To be clear, I spent many years thinking of coming back and in my defense, I have to say that I started moving around and I came across a group of the DRC Army soldiers," he said. "I told them that I wanted to come back to Rwanda."
Once he had planned his escape route, he had to keep quiet. "In the FDLR, you cannot tell anyone you are planning to return, not even your friends. They will kill you," he said. The Congolese Army, currently fighting to dismantle the FDLR, ultimately helped Hategekimana reach the city of Goma, where he surrendered to the UN Mission in the DRC.
Hategekimana Valens worked as a doctor at the FDLR in the DRC and now hopes to find a job after completing his demobilization training at Mutobo Camp. Photo by Maria Campo
For Hategekimana and other 54 former rebels, Mutobo is the re-entry ticket to their own country. They must spend here three months before they are free to come back to their communities, find an honest way to make a living and regain the respect of their neighbors.
The reintegration process starts with civic education classes. Sitting next to each other on long narrow wooden benches, the former militiamen learn about the new administrative organization, societal values, and government policies.
More than anything else, they learn about reconciliation: "Before, they said we were different, that there were Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa," explained Mutobo's manager, General Robert Murenzi. "Now, we try to show them that we all are united, that we all are Rwandan."
Over 10,000 former ex-combatants have undergone civic training at the camp, which has inspired similar demobilization programs in countries like Somalia. Everyone arrives with the same principle fear: "They think we are going to kill them," said Murenzi.
It is a bright Saturday morning and a group of strong men, with clenched fists and stern expressions, cannot help getting emotional when the "chorus lesson" begins.
"We have come to build a new country," they sing under the directions of General Murenzi, while cheering for the best dancers of the group. But some of them reveal other motivations for their desire to return. "I was in a foreign country where I had no freedom, I didn't have the rights that citizens have," said one ex-rebel, Jean Claude. "For example, I got sick and the treatment was a problem."
A group of former Hutu rebels sing during a "chorus lesson" at the Mutobo Demobilization Centre under the directions of General Robert Murenzi. Photo by Maria Campo
The rebel life behind them, they are excited about their future plans. Jean Claude wants to work the land to build himself a future; Batista dreams of rebuilding his hometown parish; Hategekimana still needs time to figure it out.
Later that night, they will sit together and share stories about their time in the forest. "Here we live in harmony because we all have experienced the same. Now, we compare our lives to the ones we expect to live in Rwanda," said Hategekimana. "We have seen that there is a big change in Rwanda. I want to stay here to get all the information about the social and economic development in Rwanda and I hope to get the spirit to reintegrate into the community."
Their dreams start taking shape inside the camp, where they learn mechanics, carpentry or hairdressing. Once they are out, the government will give them 120,000 Rwandan francs, around $175 dollars, to start their own businesses.
"We don't just brainwash," joked Jean Sayinzoga, president of the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission. He explains that once these rebels get a job and have a family, the chances of them going back to the forest are very slim. This is critical for a regime that regards the FLDR as the most serious threat to Rwanda, beset by buried ethnic tensions that rarely manage to surface.
"The former rebels might find a job here in Musanze, the region where Mutobo is placed, with a majority of Hutu population, but it will be very difficult for them to do it in Kigali. I am a survivor, I cannot trust a murderer," admitted a tourist agent, refusing to reveal his name.
In Kigali, where the political and economic power remains in the hands of the Tutsis, one former member of the FDLR is trying to provide for his family. Three years have passed since Edward Nsanzumuhire, 37, took his first steps back on his homeland. Before, he had spent 18 years in the DRC, where he got married and had four children.
"I stayed at a UNHCR refugee camp in Goma from 1994 to 1996," he told VICE News. "Then, they stopped giving us food and closed the camp. I was 16. I was forced to join the army, the Liberation of Rwanda group that merged with the Hutu resistance movement into the FDLR. I had no choice."
Nsanzumuhire says he regrets fleeing Rwanda. "Sometimes I cry and think I wish I had come back earlier," he said. He did not because the FDLR's leaders said that "they would kill me or send me to prison." He didn't believe his mother when she called him from Rwanda to tell him that it was safe: "You usually think that it is a lie and that she has been forced to do it."
After going through Mutobo's demobilization program, he now makes a living by doing odd jobs with tools he bought with the government assistance. Even though it is not easy, he doesn't miss the rebel life: "I am not going back to the bush because it is not good."
Nsanzumuhire said his children were what finally sparked him to leave. "I decided to come back when I learnt that the children of the FDLR's leaders were studying, while my kids weren't," he said. "If I am to be killed, so be it, but my children must go to school."
Edward and his wife planned an escape encouraged by the hope of a better life. The six of them reunited in the Rwandan capital, "too late," he regrets.
Many exiled Hutus want to return, but they are afraid. Nsanzumuhire still appears that way that, speaking softly, almost whispering some specific words — "FDLR," "rebel," "kill " — when the bartender comes by to bring another Fanta.
This former rebel said he never expected his Tutsi neighbors in Kigali to let him have a peaceful life back in the streets where he was born, but that is what eventually happened. Maybe because, as he claims, "as long as you are a good person, they will let you reintegrate."