(Reuters) - Swept up in the mid-1990s in a conflict that has killed an estimated 5 million people, former child soldier Gabriel struggles to reconcile his feelings towards the man who led him into battle, James Kabarebe.
“He was very disciplined. He looked after us child soldiers. He took time to speak to us,” Gabriel, who was 12 when he became a fighter, said of Kabarebe, Rwanda’s defense minister, who was accused by the United Nations this week of fomenting war in neighboring Congo.
“But when someone comes and makes war, and uses child soldiers, he can’t leave anything but bad memories behind him,” said the former fighter, who asked that his name be changed to protect his identity.
Right-hand man to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Kabarebe, 53, for two decades has been a central figure shaping the often violent history of the Central African region.
He is celebrated as a hero at home for helping lead the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) advance that stopped the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by the army and Hutu extremist militias. The war lifted Kagame to power in Kigali, and Kabarebe along with him.
Across the border in the vastly larger Democratic Republic of Congo, however, Kabarebe is almost universally reviled for his role in destabilizing the mineral-rich but almost ungovernable country at a cost of several million lives.
Rwanda vigorously denies the latest allegations contained in the report of a panel charged with monitoring Congo’s arms embargo, which said Kabarebe has armed and given military backing to the M23 rebel movement.
Fighting between M23 and Congo’s army has displaced nearly a half million people. The Tutsi-dominated insurgency, which took up arms in April, is expanding its control over parts of North Kivu province with additional financing from Rwandan businessmen trading in smuggled Congolese minerals, the report stated.
Earlier findings in an interim report by the experts led to a freezing of some foreign aid by the United States, Britain, the European Union, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Repeated attempts by Reuters to obtain comment from, or interviews with, Rwandan officials about the report’s allegations failed to elicit a response. Phone calls and text messages to the defense minister, his spokesman, and his chief of staff all went unanswered. A Rwandan government spokesperson twice declined Reuters’ requests for comment.
But those who know Kabarebe and how operates say the U.N.’s findings do not come as a shock.
“I’m not the least surprised...He’s smart. He’s able. And heaven knows he knows the territory,” said Daniel Simpson, who was the U.S. ambassador to Kinshasa in 1996.
That was the year Kabarebe led a mixed force of gumboot-wearing Rwandans and ragged Congolese recruits 1,500 km (900 miles) across Congo, then known as Zaire, to topple longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Kigali accused Mobutu of harboring the instigators of the Rwandan genocide, who had continued to launch raids into Rwanda from Congolese territory.
The rebel army met little resistance as Mobutu’s forces crumbled, but it left a trail of massacred Rwandan Hutu refugees in its wake, according to a comprehensive U.N. report on the violence published in 2010.
Initially welcomed by the cheering residents of the crumbling riverside capital Kinshasa, Kabarebe was even named head of the army by Mobutu’s successor, Laurent Desire Kabila, the father of current president Joseph Kabila.
The alliance didn’t last as Kabila - known popularly as Mzee, the Swahili word for “elder” - balked at Rwanda’s pervasive influence in his new government.
“They behaved like conquerors. Mzee Kabila didn’t like their behavior here,” Congolese general Jean-Claude Kifwa, who knew Kabarebe at the time, said in an interview. “Rwanda is poor compared to Congo. They took the chance to pillage, to enrich themselves.”
The inevitable falling out came in 1998 with Kabila’s order expelling Rwandan troops from Congolese territory.
A few weeks later, Kabarebe secretly flew back across the country in a daring operation to seize Kinshasa with a few hundred men.
Though the plan was foiled when Angolan troops intervened in support of Kabila, it marked the start of a war whose aftershocks are still felt a decade on and which researchers estimate has cost the lives of more than 5 million people.
A 2003 peace deal that officially ended the conflict left Congo with an army cobbled together from dozens of armed groups, among them several with ties to Rwanda.
“He has contact with Congolese officers everywhere,” Kifwa said of Kabarebe.
In media interviews since the U.N. experts interim report revealed Rwandan links to the rebels, Kabarebe has said he used these contacts in an attempt to stop the M23 mutiny in its infancy.
However, the experts say he has instead provided the group with direct military support, facilitated recruitment, transferred weapons and ammunition, and encouraged Congolese soldiers to join the insurgency.
“M23’s de facto chain of command...culminates with the Rwandan Minister of Defense General James Kabarebe,” said the experts, who monitor compliance with U.N. sanctions and an arms embargo on the Congo.
If the U.N. report is correct and Kabarebe is indeed orchestrating the M23 rebellion, it is unlikely he is acting alone, said Gerard Prunier, an academic who has written histories of both Rwanda’s genocide and the war in Congo.
“Kabarebe is a fairly simple person. He’s always fighting for the boss...It’s totally unthinkable, given the tight control Kagame has, that he would go into this on his own.”
Reporting by Jonny Hogg in Kinshasa, Jenny Clover in Kigali, Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Bate Felix and Michael Roddy