In the different neighborhoods where she lived in east DR Congo city of Goma, Premier sergeant-major Kanyere Rosette blended in as a student, a desperately poor mother selling charcoal and above all; a Congolese. What her classmates and neighbours had no idea about, is that they were living with a highly prized individual vital to operations of the democratic forces for the liberation of Rwanda – FDLR, a militia group that has rampaged across eastern Congo for many years.
At first encounter, Kanyere Rosette comes out as shy, avoiding to look directly at the interviewee. She speaks very little. But her responses, sometimes punctuated with fluent French, give another hint; Kanyere is not your ordinary villager, she is a highly trained intelligence officer. She even reminds us that the English version of her rank is ‘Staff Sergeant’.
We found Kanyere Rosette at the government’s Mutobo demobilization and reintegration center located in Musanze district, where she has been since October 2020. There are over 700 others like Kanyere at the facility, plus children. Some of them are complete families including fathers, mothers and their children. This facility has hosted thousands of ex-combatants for many years.
Kanyere was born in current Musanze sector of Musanze district, on March 15, 1981. The fifth from family of eight, Kanyere is mother of three (12, 8 and 5). The older two children are living with Kanyere’s family as she takes care of the youngest at Mutobo.
In February 1998, at the height of the ‘Abacengezi’ insurgency in that northwestern region, the teenage Kanyere says she followed people fleeing an attack by the militia as they retreated. Kanyere says they were many people, walking through forests for days, eventually reaching Ruza, Rutshuru Territory, eastern Congo, where they settled.
In the village where Kanyere lived, with another teenage girl, a Kinyarwanda-speaking man from the area wanted to marry her. “I was still young. He was married already. There was no relative of mine. So instead of getting married, I chose to join the rebels. I escaped from the village around 5am to the rebels,” said Kanyere, referring to ALIR – Army for the Liberation of Rwanda.
ALIR militia camp was about three-hour walk away. At 17, Kanyere started her journey in the militia group. Kanyere tells us the militia refused to recruit her, preferring she goes back to the village to live with other civilian Rwandan arrivals and Congolese locals.
“I told them I can’t go back because there is a man who wants to forcefully marry me, yet I’m not ready. The commander allowed me to join,” narrates Kanyere.
ALIR had been formed in 1995 by defeated government soldiers and interahamwe genocide militia, with intent to return to Rwanda by force of arms. Among ALIR commanders whom Kanyere remembers from her early days is Rambo Pele, real names Maj. Jean-Bosco Ndimukanga, who had been chief warrant officer in the Presidential Guard of President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Kanyere joined a training program that lasted several months. “They used to tell us that we were training to go take back our country,” said Kanyere.
In addition to tough military training which was done all mornings, during the afternoons the recruits looked for food from neighboring villages, standing guard, cooking and other chores in the militia camp. Kanyere says the camp had a lot of combatants.
What did Kanyere do in Goma?
After training, Kanyere was assigned to the elite CRAP force, which is a well-known commando unit. Even when ALIR turned to FDLR, this unit remains in place to date. Kanyere was attached to J2, the militia’s intelligence unit.
“I didn’t go for field operations, I was based at headquarters receiving different information and organizing it for the commander,” brags Kanyere with laughter.
Kanyere says there was a time everyone in the rebel force had to be on the frontline and in the forests, without a permanent base. Our estimation points to the period between 2000-2003, when eastern Congo was battleground for many national armies and militia groups.
“I don’t have a particular battle that I remember because all of them were bloody. We were roaming from region to another. We were defending ourselves against FARDC and other groups,” said Kanyere.
In 2005, Kanyere got married to fellow combatant, and apparently, they had wedding which she proudly speaks of. She moved out of the militia camp, after getting pregnant, to live in the neighboring villages. The husband, who is also at the Mutobo center, came regularly to visit. However, the child died some time later.
They had another baby. Kanyere tells us the husband moved her to Lubero territory of North Kivu where she restarted school in primary 6. After completing primary, Kanyere was moved to Goma town, the main city in eastern Congo, for secondary school in 2008.
On completing the first four years of secondary, known as Tronc Commun in the French system, Kanyere joined the well-known institut supérieur de technique medical (ISTM), a medical training school in Goma where she studied for four years while leaving in neighborhoods of Goma.
In 2013, after nursing school and giving birth to third child, Kanyere says she couldn’t find a job in Goma’s health facilities. She went back to same ISTM school to study midwifery for another four years.
While her real role right from time of arrival in Goma was to be FDLR’s liaison, Kanyere doesn’t want to talk about it. Kanyere’s narration of her life in Goma doesn’t add up. It has many gaps, clearly suggesting she doesn’t want to give us details. It is likely she shared the trove of information with Rwandans authorities and cannot share it with any other person. She only tells us the husband regularly sent her money for rent through traders who came from region where the militia was based. The husband came occasionally.
However, Kanyera inadvertently tells us she owned a phone on which she communicated with her husband very often. Kanyere also says, while the husband rarely came to Goma, she travelled to FDLR camps to visit him very often. However, also adding that sometimes when the FDLR were under attack, she was told not to visit.
One day, in December 2019, the husband came to Goma for some days. Then left back to the forests. It was the last time they were in contact, up until they met in Rwanda. She narrated: “I escorted him to location where he boarded Moto taxi around 8am. It was a Friday. I got back home to take the newly born fourth child for immunization. Hours went by without him calling back to tell me how the journey was going. It was unlikely of him.”
Kanyere called his phone severally, and it was offline. Thinking it was perhaps a network issue, Kanyere says she called his superiors who responded that he could still be on the way. “They told me ‘immediately he arrives, we will make sure you know’,” she said.
Late at night, Kanyere received a phone call from the FDLR superiors. “They told me that they had got information my husband had been captured and sent to Rwanda. I was devastated because in my mind I knew we would never see each other again. It was as if he had come to say goodbye.”
‘I chose to return to Rwanda’
Kanyere says that two days later she informed the FDLR superiors that there was no way she could manage looking after three children. “They told me to go to UN to ask if they knew whereabouts of my husband. When I got there, something came up in my mind pushing me not to leave, so I decided not to go back home (Goma). I told UN officials that I wanted to go back to Rwanda,” says Kanyere.
The UN mission in Goma facilitated her until she got back to Rwanda. In collaboration with Red Cross, the two bodies have been doing this for years with Rwanda returnees. They link up people to families even when they had been born in Congo.
Kanyere was linked to family of her husband in Gakenke district. In October 2020, Kanyere says her husband Nduwayezu Claver alias Sanko just showed up at home. He had not communicated with them at all.
“At first, I thought it was a ghost, since I had begun to accept that he was no more,” says Kanyere.
Both stayed in the village home, until transfer to Mutobo center for the reintegration training since they were former combatants. Civilian returnees who were living in ordinary Congolese villages don’t need to pass through the training.
We ask Kanyere to give us picture of her 40-year life, whether she felt it was worth it. She responded: “My 40 years have been wasted, even if I did attain education. I have to rebuild everything from scratch. My hope is that it will work out but won’t be easy.”
Kanyere wants government to consider her recruitment into health facilities to practice what she learnt in the eight years of nursing and midwifery training. “I used my youthful energy trying to destroy the country, I would like the chance to use my final years to contribute to what others are doing,” she said.