In January 2009, a major joint Rwanda-DRC military offensive codenamed Umoja Wetu (Our unity), was launched against negative forces in DRC’s vast eastern region. The militia landscape changed completely, as they were no longer able to cause havoc in Congolese villages with impunity. For Hakizimana Uzziel alias Lt Col Uzziel Akbar, it was the clearest of signs that his bloodline would disappear if he didn’t do something.
The father of six plus two orphans decided, when the Rwandan and Congolese guns went silent, to send three of his elder children to Rwanda. “They were growing fast and needed to be in school to secure their future,” said Hakizimana in lengthy interview with The Chronicles. “I thought about it deeply. I decided to send them to Rwanda. It was extremely risky, as that would be seen as betrayal by my fellow commanders.”
To implement his secret plan, Hakizimana lied to his rebel colleagues that his wife was very sick. At the time, militia commanders didn’t live with their families. These usually lived in ordinary Congolese villages, often hours-walk away from the rebel camps.
Hakizimana informed the rebel leaders that the second-born son, 12, and third-born daughter, 7, would travel to go live with their mother so that they can help her with household chores. Hakizimana remained with the eldest child, a daughter, 15. This elder daughter was also aided to come to Rwanda some months later.
Hakizimana narrated: “Luck was on my side. An officer had confided in me that he was going to surrender. I asked him to go with my two children, register them with [UN] as his own. I gave him contacts of my relatives in Rwanda. For the children, I convinced them that they should go with him, and that I would be following them a few days later.”
Well, when Hakizimana dispatched the children to Rwanda, he was in the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR-Foca). By the time he was capture and repatriated back to Rwanda in early 2020 following Congolese military operations, Hakizimana was senior commander with National Council for Renewal and Democracy- Ubwiyunge (CNRD), a breakaway of FDLR. CNRD had its military wing the National Liberation Front (FLN).
Today, the eldest daughter is married with a child. The second-born son completed high school last year, preparing for higher education. The third-born daughter is also in high school. “I’m a grandfather,” Hakizimana extatically exclaims. “My eldest daughter was to have her wedding but we asked her to hold until the time after I come home. All the other ceremonies have been completed. I want to be the one to give away my daughter.”
The liberation war, 1994 genocide against the Tutsi
The Chronicles interviewed Hakizimana at the Mutobo demobilization and reintegration center, Musanze district where 750 ex-combatants have been undergoing reformation. Usually, combatants are there for about three months. The lot that is there, repatriated at different times since late 2019, has stayed at the center much longer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Born 1963, Hakizimana Uzziel alias Lt Col Uzziel Akbar, was the last-born in family of 11, from commune Murama in current Nyanza district, southern Rwanda.
Hakizimana, at the time in primary school, vividly remembers the July 1973 coup that brought former Rwandan leader Juvenal Habyarimana to power. “We didn’t go to school for some days. The news on radio throughout was that the soldiers had removed a civilian president. People in [our region] were worried because the ousted president (Grégoire Kayibanda) was from the south,” said Hakizimana of that period.
He studied at EFOTEK Kanombe (Ecole des Formations Techniques et Construction), at the time a school for military families. Hakizimana’s elder brother was a soldier. In January 1984, Hakizimana joined the army, attending the infamous Ecole des Sous-Officiers (ESO-Butare) in current Huye district. The facility trained elite commandos.
As the best cadet officer, Hakizimana was retained at ESO-Butare as Instructor. He went on to join the Rwandan army’s construction and engineering unit known at the time as ‘Bâtiment Militaire Kanombe’.
When the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army launched liberation struggle in early October 1990, Hakizimana says he had gone back to EFOTEK Kanombe, to upgrade to a diploma in construction, completing in late 1991. Hakizimana tells us his unit did construction works in different regions, including the frontlines where the army was battling the ever-advancing RPF rebels.
When the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi began on April 7, 1994, Hakizimana says he was student at the National University of Rwanda (now University of Rwanda Huye Campus), but also attached to the construction unit of the ministry of defense headquarters in Kigali.
It was holiday time. The genocide was ongoing. Hakizimana went to the frontline for the time. The first operation was retrieving a FAR unit which had been held up in Kabuga, about 20km east of Kigali. From then on, Hakizimana was on the frontline, as the RPF overran location after another.
Hakizimana’s unit retreated towards Gisenyi (Rubavu district) bordering DRC in July. He sought permission from his superiors to move south to Cyangugu (Rusizi district) to look for his relatives. Hakizimana says he was disarmed by French soldiers at the Rwanda-Zaire border together with many others, crossing to Zaire without a gun.
Hakizimana, together with multitudes of civilians, ex-army and genocide militias ended up in a refugee camp in the Kalehe territory, far north of South Kivu provincial capital Bukavu. Hakizimana was employed as a construction contractor by humanitarian NGO Concern, which was operating from the camp and other areas dotted with refugees.
From the Kalehe camp, Hakizimana got married. In 1996, as tens of thousands were repatriated back to Rwanda, Hakizimana and wife moved north into North Kivu, eventually ending up in Walikale territory. He says together with his wife and first-born daughter, and some relatives, opted to stay in Walikale, as other refugees continued. It is this daughter that is married today, as highlighted at the beginning of this story.
Joining ALIR-PALIR militia
Around the same time, the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (French: Armée pour la Libération du Rwanda, ALiR) was born, with military wing called PALIR. Hakizimana says there was three groups of ALIR; one formed form the interior of Congo, another based between Masisi-Walikale, and another faction operating inside Rwanda – known at the time as Abacengezi.
Hakizimana for his part was among first to join ALIR, which was in Walilale-Masisi. ALIR was led by Col Leonard Nkundiye, killed in mid-July 1998, and was replaced by his deputy, Lt Col Dr Froduald Mugemanyi. The latter was also killed in August 1998 inside Rwanda. Major Gen Paul Rwarakabije took over control of the notorious militia group, but would himself surrender several years later.
During the initial months and years, Hakizimana was in the YANKEE Battalion, led by Major Celestin Pasteur Haguma, which was in charge of mobilization for recruits and looking for arms.
In May 2000, the different ALIR blocs joined up to form Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (French: Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR). Here is how Hakizimana explained what happened: “The ALIR from west had been chased by [Congo’s President Lauren Desire Kabila] to go back home. The ALIR which was operating inside Rwanda (abacengezi) had also been defeated. Both these groups came to join us in North Kivu. It was decided by the high command to form a new body to change the perception of the international community from viewing us as killers.”
Hakizimana became FDLR combatant with rank of Second Lieutenant. Hakizimana says due to his background in military training, he spent the next 13 years as an instructor, training officers and new recruits. He tells us they never stayed in one place because of constant battles, setting up for a week, then spending a month or so in another. There is one region where they spent about six years in one same location.
It is within this period that the Umoja Wetu joint Rwanda-DRC offensives took place, which was also when Hakizimana decided to send some of his children to Rwanda for safety.
On May 30, 2017, factional in-fighting broke out with the FDLR at their location in Lubero territory, north Kivu. This is when the National Council for Renewal and Democracy- Ubwiyunge (CNRD) was born. By this time, Hakizimana was at rank of Captain. He told The Chronicles that he personally had grudge with FDLR top commanders who had blocked his rise in rank, claiming he should have been above Major by then.
The CNRD moved short distance away, establishing their new bases. Hakizimana says few days after the break up, the remaining faction of FDLR attacked them accusing the CNRD of taking their ammunition. The Congolese army and UN forces intervened to stop the FDLR, as they hoped to convince the new faction to lay down their arms, explained Hakizimana.
“[Congolese army] and [UN] were patrolling the zone between the FDLR and CNRD,” he said.
Now promoted to rank of Major within the CNDR, Hakizimana was moved closer to CNRD founder Lt Gen Wilson Irategeka, as security advisor. He relaunched his claim of delayed promotion, and was moved up again to Lieutenant Colonel. Hakizimana’s job was to collect all sorts of information including media updates, and compile it all as a report for the force commander.
CNRD Ubwiyunge joined up with Paul Rusesabagina’s Party of Democracy in Rwanda – Ihumure (PDR Imhumure), that of ex-prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu and that of Nsabimana Calixte alias Major Sankara, to form the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRDC). Together, were led by Rusesabagina, had the military win FLN. Sankara was the spokesman.
Around mid-2019, the UN forces and Congolese forces began expressing concern over expansion of MRCD, whose rebels had also attacked Rwanda. The UN had expected they would give up their arms for repatriation, unlike the remaining FDLR. Hakizimana says UN and Congolese forces attacked them, forcing them to move to south Kivu, establishing base at Busesama, located in Kalehe territory of South Kivu. The area was chosen partly because many of the CNRD combatants had families in a refugee settlement in the mountains of Kalehe.
In Kalehe, the UN forces again followed them, setting up bases near the MRCD. The Congolese army also moved closer to their localities. “We had several meetings with UN and FARDC pushing us to surrender, and that the Rwandan government was also monitoring situation,” said Hakizimana.
Finally, in December 2019, the Congolese forces made final attack on the different positions of the MRCD. They dispersed to all directions. Hakizimana says he fled into the large and dense Kahuzi forest, where he lost contact with remaining his children and wife. Hakizimana doesn’t know how the commander Lt Gen Irategeka was killed.
Col Wilson Irategeka’s beach trip in Tanzania
Corroborated reports suggest Irategeka was killed around January 19, 2020 at a location called Luindi. He had more than 200 fighters, with most of them killed.
Hakizimana says he was captured by the Congolese forces. “I was very sick and was resting with some soldiers, one of my children plus two orphans I had been looking after. The FARDC surrounded us and ordered us to surrender without a fight, which we did,” says Hakizimana.
As the children were taken to UNHCR, Hakizimana and other captees were transferred to the Nyamunyonyi military camp where Hakizimana was received by Congolese Colonel, telling Hakizimana: “Don’t worry. You actually have same rank as mine. You won’t be killed because you are now within the international jurisdiction. We ask you to sensitize all these others captured that nothing will happen to them.”
He was later handed to the Rwandan authorities, who transferred him to Mutobo center.
Around May or June 2016, then Col Wilson Irategeka travelled clandestinely to Tanzania. A photo emerged of Irategeka, at the time the FDLR Executive Secretary, standing on a beach with other people including Alex Bakunzibake, who was from Rwanda as representative of PS Imberakuri party faction claimed by Bernard Ntaganda.
According to Hakizimana, Col Irategeka had gone to Tanzania for treatment. It was after he returned that he began mobilizing like-minded FDLR combatants to separate from the hardline FDLR. “He was telling some of us that FDLR has negative tags like terrorists, killers, genocidaires. Irategeka engaged some senior commanders. That was followed with many cases opened against him including sabotage against the movement,” said Hakizimana.
Around the same period, Irategeka is said to have been at the forefront of efforts encouraging Rwandan refugees to go to UNHCR centers to be registered as part of a census of all Rwandan refugees. Hakizimana told The Chronicles the push for a census of Rwandan refugees and travel to Tanzania were seen as high treason, as he was suspected of having ulterior motives aided by the “enemy”.
The mainstream hardliners in the FDLR didn’t want any census of Rwandan refugees.
Later the following year, Irategeka led the revolt, which produced CNRD.