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Tired of life in the bush, some Rwandan rebels risking their lives to desert

GOMA, Congo—The three rebel soldiers were brought to the military hospital a few hours apart, each with days-old gunshot wounds that doctors said wouldn't fully heal.

One had a bullet shatter his right arm and had lost feeling in his hand. The other two had been shot in the foot and couldn't walk. All three looked tired, gaunt and a little disoriented. Still, they were relieved.

At long last they were out of the hands of the Hutu rebel army, which has been hiding in the lawless hills and forests of eastern Congo since 1994, the year their commanders helped carry out the genocide of 800,000 people in their home country of Rwanda.

Unwilling to return to Rwanda, where they could be prosecuted for war crimes, the commanders live off the land in eastern Congo, running taxation rackets and occasionally raiding villages. The rebels are blamed for scores of attacks on civilians and pose the leading threat to peace on the volatile Congo-Rwanda border.

But the commanders' grip on some 8,000 unpaid foot soldiers—like the three in the hospital—is growing shaky. Most of the men had no part in the genocide and are weary of living in hiding. Each month a handful try to escape, drawing fire from their supposed brothers in arms.

The three deserters lying next to each other in the U.N. hospital in Goma were lucky to have survived. They had no regrets.

"I had spent 11 years in the bush," said Ernest Nyabose, 30, as he fidgeted with the sling holding his broken right arm. "After so long you get really tired of that. All you wish is to leave."

Nyabose hadn't been paid in months and was growing ill from malnutrition. He began to think of his parents in Rwanda. He hadn't spoken to them since 1994. At his age, he thought, he should be married by now.

He stole away from his camp one night in the rain and had been on the run for two days when fellow Hutu soldiers saw him sleeping under a tree and fired at him. Although a bullet went through his arm, he still managed to outrun them. He doubts many others will try, however.

"Most are wishing to leave," he said. "They just know they aren't allowed to."

Nyabose and the two other injured soldiers said they weren't complicit in the Rwandan genocide. One was 6 years old at the time; the others said they were low-ranking officers in the old Rwandan army with no ties to the extremist Hutu militias or security forces that systematically exterminated rival Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the spring and summer of 1994.

But in the carefully chosen words of ex-soldiers still loyal to their army, they acknowledged that some among them were guilty of horrific crimes.

"As an FDLR soldier we were a group," said Adolf Kareba, 30, using the French acronym for the army's official name, the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda. "But everyone in FDLR has secrets. You don't know what this one did or that one did. No one ever talks about it."

Analysts believe resolving the rebel problem in eastern Congo is the key to lasting peace in a region characterized by failed governments, deep-seated ethnic loyalties and, over the past decade, unimaginable violence—beginning with the 1994 genocide.

The mass slaughter ended when Tutsi rebels took control of the Rwandan government and drove the Hutu killers into eastern Congo, where they settled in the large, fertile provinces of North and South Kivu.

But the violence wasn't over. The Hutu army grew—adding refugees and former Rwandan soldiers to their ranks—and Rwanda, feeling threatened, invaded Congo in 1996 and 1998. Both times, the fighting plunged eastern Congo into total war.

In 2002, the Congolese government cut off a major supply line to the Hutus, weakening the army slightly. Commanders have resorted to extortion and looting, but soldiers have become entrenched in the local population, much of which is also Hutu. They've married Congolese women and fathered children.

"We lived peacefully with the Congolese people," said injured ex-soldier Jacques Hitimana, a 17-year-old with thin limbs and a shaggy haircut, who was pushed into the army by his adoptive father at age 13. "They never complained about our presence."

These relationships have made it difficult for the U.N. mission in Congo to disarm the rebels, despite the promise of $100 cash and as much as $200 more in loans to those who surrender their arms.

"They live in symbiosis with the community," said Danilo Paiva, head of the U.N. disarmament program in North Kivu. "If you go there it's impossible to tell who is a Rwandan Hutu and who is a Congolese Hutu."

About 12,500 soldiers turned in their weapons, but the flow has slowed to a trickle. Only 50 to 70 soldiers leave the army each month. Daring escapes are rare. The army backed off a March pledge to abandon its weapons and return home, and Rwanda and Congo let a September deadline for total disarmament pass without incident.

U.N. officials say only 50 to 60 Hutu officers are believed to be guilty of war crimes and that Rwanda's Tutsi-led government should specify which men are wanted, so the rest can go home.

"They need to get the message from their own country that it's all right to return," said the top U.N. official in Congo, William Lacy Swing.

But analysts say Rwanda is in no hurry to have the Hutu rebels—if only to keep a pretext for its continued threats against Congo.

In the meantime, analysts say any military effort by Congolese troops or the United Nations to expel them will be resisted and could destabilize the region before Congo's all-important national elections next year.

"The policy now is not to stir the bee's nest," said Jason Stearns, regional analyst for the International Crisis Group. "The going wisdom is, let's confine them and restrict their field of operations during the election period."

The ex-soldiers agree.

"The army is still strong and well-equipped," Hitimana said. "They will fight back."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CONGO-MILITIA

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