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The Rwanda Classified Project

Soldiers fallen in silence: Kagame’s unacknowledged war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

By Cécile Andrzejewski

May 28, 2024
With Samuel Baker Byansi (M28 Investigates)

  • We continued the investigation of exiled journalist Samuel Baker Byansi—whose colleague has since died in a suspicious car accident—and identified several Rwandan soldiers killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 
  • Despite the evidence, Rwanda denies any troop presence or support of the M23 rebel group in the eastern Congolese region of North Kivu, where Rwanda has financial and strategic interests.
  • We spoke with the best friend of one of the missing soldiers, who said he did “not even have the right to ask” about the causes of his friend’s death. Paul Kagame’s regime continues to suppress the media and pressure families.

It takes only a few hours by bus from Kigali to Goma, but traveling from Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) cost one journalist exile—and it may have cost his colleague his life.

In November 2022, two Rwandan journalists, Samuel Baker Byansiand John Williams Ntwali, planned to spend a day in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, where they were meeting a fixer. Baker had been investigating the mysterious circumstances around the deaths of young Rwandan soldiers in the DRC for several weeks. Ntwali, who spoke French and Swahili, came to assist him. For security reasons, the two men stayed in Goma for only one day. 

“John knew the language and knew the places,” Baker, now in exile, told Forbidden Stories. “We were working on something: the role of the government in eastern DRC conflict with open source info…so we went through to Goma, met some contacts and did some research.”

Forbidden investigation

Shortly after their return to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, Baker was arrested by the police and questioned about his and Ntwali’s investigation. 

“When I was arrested, I was asked about the story: ‘Why were you in Goma? At this date?’ How did they know? I didn’t even take my phone,” Baker said.

Although it was not the first time Baker had been arrested, this particular interrogation was intense enough to prompt him to flee the country, leaving his life behind.

“In Rwanda, if a journalist wants to stand for the truth, then expect backlash.”

After leaving Rwanda, Baker told his colleague, “The situation is not good. I’m out. Try to look at your security and security around you.” Ntwali responded that he was used to it. But, on a January night two months later, Ntwali died in a suspicious car accident in Kigali. 

“I heard about him in the news online,” said Baker, who has since sought asylum in Europe. “In Rwanda, if a journalist wants to stand for the truth, then expect backlash.”

The stakes are especially high for investigating Rwanda’s involvement in the conflict destroying eastern Congo. “The cost might be very huge,” Baker said. Officially, Rwanda has not intervened in its neighboring country.

“Rwanda does not support M23 and does not have troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” the country’s foreign minister, Vincent Biruta, said during a diplomatic briefing quoted in a UN report in 2023.

This is the same stance taken by Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who has led the country for 24 years. “This problem was not created by Rwanda, and it is not Rwanda’s problem. It is Congo’s problem,” Kagame said in a December 2022 interview. The president reiterated his position in March 2024, asking, “Why would Rwanda want to be involved in the DRC?”

A hidden invasion

Rwanda could have many reasons for intervening in the DRC, according to Thierry Vircoulon, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) who specializes in the African Great Lakes region. Vircoulon had “several hypotheses,” beginning with the presence of former perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide who have been living in eastern DRC for 30 years and have never been held responsible for their crimes before Rwandan or international courts.

“The official Rwandan rhetoric states that the goal is to combat the presence of the FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda], who are ex-génocidaires,” Vircoulon said.

The researcher also suggested that Rwanda has wanted “economic control over the natural resources of the Kivus,” in the eastern DRC, “for a very long time.”

“Rwandan authorities, particularly Paul Kagame, have spread this idea that the border is illegitimate and that part of North Kivu should be part of Rwanda,” Vircoulon said.

Former Rwandan army major Robert Higiro, now in exile, told RTBF, for Rwanda Classified, that Kagame is “obsessed with controlling the Kivu, the eastern DRC, for reasons we all know: the minerals, the money.” Despite the Rwandan government’s claims, “he’s not fighting for the Tutsis,” Higiro added.

Rwanda continues to deny any involvement in the DRC—either directly with the country’s army, the Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF), or by supporting the M23 rebel group—despite evidence collected in recent years by the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In April 2024, French President Emmanuel Macron called on the country to “withdraw its troops” from the DRC. 

“In international law, when your army is on the other side of a border, that’s considered an aggression, and you risk being condemned by the international community. Rwanda doesn’t want to be publicly condemned as an aggressor country by the UN, like how Russia is an aggressor country in Ukraine,” Vircoulon said.

A name, a photo and “RIP”

Before his exile, Baker decided to trace the steps of Rwandan soldiers involved in the conflict, attempting to find out what they knew about where they were being sent to fight and, in some cases, die.

“How do you report on this story without it being denied?” asked Baker. He combed through social media looking for messages about the deaths of young soldiers. In recent months, these messages have multiplied on Facebook and Twitter, posts with photos and names of soldiers often captioned with “RIP” – sometimes shared by accounts with violently anti-Rwandan rhetoric.

Example of a tweet announcing the death of Rwandan soldiers in the DRC (Credit: Twitter screenshot)

Example of a tweet announcing the death of Rwandan soldiers in the DRC (Credit: Twitter screenshot)

When he traveled to Goma with Ntwali, Baker was looking to tell these soldiers’ stories and shed light on their disappearances. It ended up being the story that forced him to flee the country. 

This investigation, which Baker continued with Forbidden Stories after Ntwali’s death, formed project Rwanda Classified, bringing together 17 media partners. We cross-referenced identities and dates of death, then shared our findings with a source close to the case, who will remain anonymous due to safety concerns. We were able to determine that the majority of the 13 soldiers Baker identified lost their lives in the DRC. They had different ranks: corporals, second lieutenants, lieutenants and lieutenants colonels. They died between May 2022 and early 2023.

Killed “on duty”

Paul,  whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was one of these fallen soldiers. In a photo accompanying messages memorializing the young man, he wore a green cadet uniform with a tight-fitting beret. His hands were clasped, holding the slightly stilted pose soldiers often strike for official portraits, and he had a proud, somewhat shy smile.

“He was my best friend since we were very young,” said Simon*, whose name has also been changed to protect his identity. Paul was going to be a groomsman at Simon’s wedding, but he never had the chance. Shortly before the ceremony, the young soldier died on the Congolese front in the fall of 2022. His brothers-in-arms attended his funeral in uniform, but the cause of his death was never shared. 

“The only words used to answer people who were asking such questions were, ‘He was on duty,’” Simon said. 

Paul liked to meet his friends in their favorite Kigali bar, where he would order water or a soda. The last time he and Simon were there together was about a month before Paul’s death.

“He asked me not to rely on him as part of my wedding, which I understood because I knew his job,” Simon said, adding that Paul had contributed financially to the ceremony. “Whether he liked his job, I don’t know, but the military is a last option for Rwandan youth to not remain unemployed forever.”

It was one of Paul’s fellow soldiers who revealed to Simon the true circumstances of his death. 

“He told us openly one evening that he’d been in Congo and that was the reason his body had taken so long to reach Kigali,” Simon said. According to Simon, the army told Paul’s family not to ask about how he died.

Wills on bodies

Our investigation added growing evidence and more than 20 names to the list that Baker had collected: Jean-Pierre, Edourard, Eric… We got access to wills found on soldiers’ bodies with their names, ranks, telephone numbers and often instructions: “I am writing to inform you that I give the mandate to my sister S…to be able to withdraw money from my account at the Zigama bank.” “I, the undersigned C. am writing this letter to inform you that I give authorization to my father J-B…to withdraw 170,000 Rwandan francs from my bank account at Zigama CSS so that he can solve certain problems at home since I am not available to give him this money myself.” Similar documents were also published in 2023 in a report by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC.

Local researchers also obtained filmed testimonies, including one of a 34-year-old fighter from the Kigali-backed rebel group M23 that revealed he was originally from Rwanda and had joined the army at the age of 13. An M23 commander acknowledged serving at the border post between Rwanda and the DRC, therefore likely being a current or past member of the RDF. 

“Even in Rwanda, you were always part of the army?” the researcher asked. “It was always the army,” the officer replied. 

Currently, M23 controls the Rutshuru and Maisis territories in North Kivu.

“Humanitarians estimate that there may be around one million displaced people in these two territories, out of a population of six million in North Kivu,” said IFRI researcher Vircoulon.

“Kagame is sending thousands of soldiers to the DRC, but nobody’s going back home.”

There are 3,000 to 5,000 Rwandan soldiers and 1,000 to 3,000 M23 fighters in Congolese territory, according to several sources.

“It’s a business for Kagame now. He is sending all the soldiers to the DRC: thousands of thousands of soldiers he is sending there, but nobody’s going back home. They are all killed,” Eugene Gasana, the former permanent representative of Rwanda to the UN—now in exile—told Forbidden Stories.

These are soldiers like Paul, who lost their lives in a conflict in which his country denies any involvement. 

“It is too sad, so sad! It pains and pains more if you don’t know what happened to your friend and don’t even have the right to ask,” Simon said.

Baker and Ntwali dared to ask anyway. Now, one is in exile, and the other is dead.

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