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April 12, 2009 / jeni

A Bit of Congo With That Lager?

fdlrThe BBC ventures into South Kivu to track the origins of tin — the stuff that lines food and drink containers — to mines controlled by the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu rebel group based in Congo.

This group first arrived in DR Congo – under other names – in 1994 after Hutu military commanders and militiamen had masterminded the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The FDLR still vows that it will return to power in Rwanda. It says it doesn’t want war and calls for a political dialogue with the Rwandan government (which the Tutsi-dominated elite in Kigali is most unlikely ever to agree to).

The FDLR says its weapons are just an insurance policy. But for now, with the rebel group deeply implanted in the forests and mountains of DR Congo, those weapons are also used to extort taxes and minerals from local diggers and traders, reaping profits worth millions of dollars a year.

Local diggers are forced to pay the FDLR in order to work in the mines. Local traders must pay the rebels for access to the miners, as well as a tax on the tin they move. Export companies in Bukavu are seemingly aware of these abuses but don’t see how they can change anything, and the cycle goes on.

What would break up this arrangement is a strong military push to force the FDLR out of the area. Congo’s President Kabila is apparently ready to remove the various Rwandan rebel groups from his territory, but actually accomplishing this will be difficult given the terrain, lack of capacity, personal and political ties, etc.

Since arriving in Congo in 1994 the FDLR and its predecessor Hutu organisations have woven a web of complex relationships with their hosts. Some of those relationships are military. Some are related to businesses – legal as well as illegal. Some of the relationships are personal.

The international community has encouraged the Congolese government to demonise the FDLR and say the rebels should return to Rwanda or else. In reality, even if Congo had the military capacity to enforce its will, untying the relationships the FDLR has developed in Congo over the past decade and a half may take many years.

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