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Exile Warriors: A social anthropological study about violence and community in the Eastern Congo

Picture of social anthropologist with rebel group
Social anthropologist Anna Hedlund with members of the FDLR Hutu militia (faces pixelated to prevent recognition). Photo: private

The Hutu militia FDLR, who were behind the genocide in Rwanda, now live in eastern Congo, one of a number of rebel groups in the war-torn country. Lund University social anthropologist Anna Hedlund has lived with the group and describes the systematic attacks on the Congolese population, as well as a hopeless situation in which the group live as exiles, not welcome anywhere.

The goal of Anna Hedlund’s research has been to try and understand the violence from the perspective of the perpetrators. However, her thesis is not about the violence itself, but rather what lies behind it – politics, religion and the writing of history. Anna Hedlund wants to look at the movement from a societal perspective and at how structures are created. The picture she has gained gives an inside understanding of how the movement works and why it still exists.

After studying in Lund, Anna Hedlund worked in Papua New Guinea on a project about sexual violence, and comparisons were often made there with the situation in Congo. Most studies naturally focus on the victims, whereas the perspective of the perpetrators is relatively unexplored. There is no similar academic research and Anna Hedlund became interested in trying to understand the actions of the perpetrators.

Through various contacts in Congo, Anna Hedlund managed to get an opportunity to travel to one of the Hutu militia’s camps in the east of the country. In total, she spent 15 months in the country, of which roughly three months in the rebel camp. For an outsider, it sounds extremely dangerous to travel to a place where murderers and rapists live, and Anna Hedlund agrees. However, she was accompanied by a colleague whom she trusted and she never felt threatened during her time in the camp.

“The rebels treated me well all the time; they were polite and friendly. However, it was clear that they wanted to get their propaganda across, and their ideology was ever present. Sometimes it was difficult to know how to react to that.”

The Hutus have re-written the history of what happened in Rwanda, perhaps to deal with what they did and explain to themselves why they live in camps under difficult conditions. Religion is one way for them to deal with an unstable existence, in which they are surrounded by enemy groups, women are raped and children are forced to become soldiers.

“The Hutus really have committed many awful atrocities. However, the picture is more complex than that. They find themselves in a complicated political situation: they cannot gain refugee status and are not welcome in either Rwanda or Congo. They live on the border without any rights. They are stuck, and their children are growing up in that environment”, says Anna Hedlund.

The Hutu militia is very hierarchical and it is not possible to just leave just anyhow, even if the UN does attempt campaigns to persuade more people to leave.

“But even if they want to leave, they have nowhere to go. These people fall outside all rules and norms.”

The militia do not deny the violence they carry out, but legitimise it by saying they are only defending themselves or trying to obtain food and medicines for their own people.

“The situation in Congo is very difficult, and the violence has been normalised”, says Anna Hedlund.

In the unit that Anna Hedlund accompanied, there were never any soldiers who used drugs or alcohol. However, the entire society was characterised by military discipline and control. While the men spend periods away fighting and carrying out attacks on the local population, the women and children remain in the camp, isolated and with extremely limited opportunities to change their situation. The children who grow up in the village are brought up with an extreme political ideology and gain a black and white image of the world, in which those who govern Rwanda are painted as the baddies.

“Children of around five have a very clear picture of the enemy and know why they are where they are. When I spoke to women and children, I soon noticed that they started to repeat the same things again and again. It was easy to see the hierarchy in the group and it was often obvious that the women were saying things that favoured the interests of the leaders, possibly what they had been told to say”, explains Anna Hedlund.

However, the question is whether it felt strange to talk to people who were known to be murderers, some of whom had carried out atrocious deeds?

“It was difficult to deal with the duality. They were very nice and friendly, so it was very easy to be influenced by that and try to put myself in their shoes, yet they still have a responsibility for what they have done.”

Jonas Andersson

The FDLR Hutu militia

It is now exactly 20 years since the Rwandan genocide took place, and the FDLR Hutu militia still maintains its extremist political ideology, which is based on the idea that they are the righteous rulers of Rwanda.

Following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Hutu militia fled to eastern Congo, where they have their base. Their aim is still to retake power, but they are one of a number of rebel groups fighting in Congo. At the start, there were around 20 000 of them who fled Rwanda, but today the group is estimated to comprise 6 000–7 000 soldiers and the same or a higher number of women and children. They are one of around 20 groups in Congo involved in various conflicts. The conflict in Congo is one of the ‘worst’ wars, with more or less systematic attacks including rape and murder, with child soldiers regularly taking part in the fighting.

For her thesis, Exile Warriors: Violence and Community among Hutu Rebels in the Eastern Congo, Anna Hedlund lived with the rebels and their families to try and see past the stereotype of evil mass murderers.