Following one of the numerous deadly attacks by Rwandan rebels, ‘Abacengezi’, in northwestern Rwanda in 1997, 18-year-old Barakamfitiye Providence went with them as they retreated back to their jungle hideouts in eastern Congo. Since giving birth to first child in 2005, Premier sergeant-major Barakamfitiye has spent all years looking after her eight children. Today, she is the Doyenne for women, overseeing hundreds of women at a World Bank-funded center for ex-combatants. She wants your forgiveness.
Barakamfitiye is among combatants and their families, over 2,000 of them, repatriated to Rwanda in December 2019 after the Congolese army cleared a large camp of the Conseil National pour le Renouveau et la Démocratie-CNRD-UBWIYUNGE, led by detained Hotel Rwanda movie personality Paul Rusesabagina. The camp was located in Kalehe territory, south Kivu province.
Since her husband was a Lieutenant colonel as recent as 2016, Barakamfitiye has rubbed shoulders with the highest-ranking commanders in the evolving Rwandan militia groups. Barakamfitiye personally knew Lt Gen Wilson Irategeka, founder commander of CNRD with its military wing National Liberation Front – FLN. Different versions report he was killed in the battles of early 2020, which have nearly decimated the group.
Barakamfitiye, mother of six (aged 17, 15, 13, 8, 4 and 2.4 years) left Rwanda in late 1994 as part of a column of tens of thousands of Rwandans fleeing to the then Zaire. She was in primary six in the current Nyabihu district. The entire family with parents and siblings fled together. Two years later, they were repatriated, together still. Barakamfitiye went back, this time alone with the Abacengezi.
Barakamfitiye knows firsthand the notorious ALIR – Army for the Liberation of Rwanda, which at some point issued bounties for American citizens. She was on the frontline. The group later joined others to form FDLR in 2000. Barakamfitiye says she roamed across north Kivu, in that it was difficult to keep track of the locations they stayed or operated.
In 2003, Barakamfitiye moved to the medical unit which looked after injured and sick combatants, which is when she also got her rank. Since then, Barakamfitiye did not gone to war front. As her husband moved up the ranks, Barakamfitiye moved out of the militia’s jungle hideout, to live in Congolese villages in the vast Masisi territory.
Whenever the FDLR relocated to escape government army onslaughts and attacks by other militias, Barakamfitiye moved with them, but always staying outside the militia camp. In 2006, after giving birth, Barakamfitiye went back to start secondary school at a Congolese school since she had completed primary six back in Rwanda.
By this period, the Congolese army and mai mai militias were hunting the FDLR like never before. Barakamfitiye attended just two years of secondary school. More years went by, as the miltia and their families moved from region to another.
In 2016, a bitter split occurred within the FDLR. A faction led by Gen Irategeka formed its own force. Barakamfitiye’s husband, then a Lieutenant Colonel, joined Irategeka. For about a month, the new faction moved downwards from North Kivu to South Kivu, eventually settling the mountains of Kalehe territory.
“Wilson was an amiable person and very accessible to different people,” said Barakamfitiye, of the fallen militia leader, whose real names are Laurent Ndagijimana.
It is that faction of Gen Irategeka which would later team up with Rusesabagina’s political group, that of ex-prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu and other groups to form CNRD-Ubwiyunge.
Genocide convict Angelina Mukandutiye
When the Congolese military launched massive operations in South Kivu to disarm CNRD in mid-2019, weeks of battles took place in Kalehe mountains. The militia group moved to the forests. Many were captured. The civilians fled southwards to Bukavu. They were gathered in a Congolese military camp, and later all repatriated to Rwanda.
Some of those captured have been convicted. Among those repatriated is Angelina Mukandutiye, a woman accused of conscripting young girls into the CNRD. During the widely mediatized trial, Mukandutiye said in court: “The men were always away in battle, leaving me alone with women and children. We couldn’t keep ourselves safe because the women had no military skills. I suggested idea of training woman to Wilson Irategeka and he agreed. My job was to sensitize them.”
In addition, back in Rwanda, Mukandutiye already had a genocide life sentence rendered in 2006 while she was in the DRC jungles.
When the CNRD had settled in Kalehe, Barakamfitiye like Mukandutiye, also worked in the headquarters of the militia group. She worked in the administration unit where they handled all kinds of documents and correspondences concerning the whole group. The unit was headed by Barakamfitiye husband, who also handled other high profile responsibilities.
During the DRC government army attacks in late 2019, Barakamfitiye says she lost her two eldest children, the boy and his sister. The two would later narrate to their mother that they moved upwards to Masisi in North Kivu, where they met up with other relatives who knew them.
By this time, Barakamfitiye was already in Rwanda at the Mutobo center, desperately looking for the children. Following weeks of appearing in radio broadcasts, in which Barakamfitiye gave phone numbers of Mutobo center, the relatives in Masisi were able to call. The two children were facilitated by the Red Cross, for repatriation to Rwanda.
The children were first brought to Mutobo. “The children left Mutobo to go live with paternal relatives where they are currently in primary school,” said Barakamfitiye.
Looking back, what do you think you have achieved in life? We ask Barakamfitiye. She responded: “I thought I was working to build something all these years. I have not reaped anything meaningful. For example, by now, I should have been owning my own home, which I don’t have. Since 1994, I have not settled. I have been moving ever since.”
“My view of life is bleak. Life has been really tough. Over time, I lost all hope. The life I’m living today is the opposite of my dreams. Here at Mutobo is not perfect, but at least I have a place to live, eat, think about my children, no constant running from the enemy.”
When we ask Barakamfitiye in what way she would like government to support her after she leaves Mutobo center, she responded with laugher: “I will be grateful of course if I continued to be a leader even back in my region. However, there are different things we have been trained to do from here. My choice of what to do will depend on the conditions I find back in my area. I will determine what to do from there after looking at what is missing or what is more lucrative.”
About her husband, Barakamfitiye said: “He appears to be adamant to come home. I know one day he will come because the children want him. We all miss him. I know he is wondering how to start afresh. Let him come, we will figure out a way.”