Skip to main content

Simple soldiers? Blurring the distinction between compulsion and commitment among Rwandan rebels in Eastern Congo

  • Anna Hedlund

Media descriptions of the conflicts in the Eastern Congo usually depict violent events as being systematic attacks by rebels and militias (perpetrators) on the civilian population (victims). While much attention has been given to the victims of such violence, less effort has been made to understand the perspectives and underlying motives for violence of those who are actively engaged in fighting the war. Using anthropological arguments, this article argues that the use of the terms ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’ are scientifically problematic when attempting to explain contemporary conflict(s) in the Eastern Congo and other similar war situations in Africa. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), whose leadership was an orchestrating agent in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, I demonstrate that not only is the victim/perpetrator dichotomy unclear, but also that combatants may frequently regard themselves as being both victims and perpetrators at one and the same time. I argue that the main factor behind this dual identity is that, while combatants in the Congo may be under a compulsion to commit violence, they may simultaneously be fully committed to their armed group and to its collective political ideology. While our conventional understanding of the membership of armed groups tends to make a sharp distinction between compulsory participation and commitment to a cause, I show how, in the context of the Eastern Congo, these categories are not, in fact, mutually exclusive.


Les descriptions médiatiques des conflits dans l'Est du Congo dépeignent généralement les événements violents comme des attaques systématiques par des rebelles et des milices (auteurs des actes) sur la population civile (victimes). Alors que l'attention s'est fortement portée sur les victimes de cette violence, l'effort de recherche cherche moins à comprendre les perspectives et les motifs qui sous-tendent la violence de ceux qui participent activement aux combats. Usant d'arguments anthropologiques, cet article soutient que l'utilisation des termes « auteur » et « victime » est problématique sur le plan scientifique pour tenter d'expliquer les conflits contemporains dans l'Est du Congo et d'autres situations de guerre similaires en Afrique. S'appuyant sur des travaux ethnographiques menés sur le terrain auprès des Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), dont les dirigeants ont aidé à orchestrer le génocide au Rwanda en 1994, l'auteur démontre que la dichotomie victime/auteur n'est pas claire, mais aussi que les combattants se considèrent souvent eux-mêmes à la fois comme victimes et auteurs d'actes de violence. L'auteur soutient que le principal facteur à la base de cette double identité est le fait qu'au Congo les combattants peuvent être amenés à commettre des actes de violence sous la contrainte, mais peuvent aussi simultanément être entièrement dévoués à leur groupe armé et à son idéologie politique collective. Alors que notre compréhension conventionnelle des membres de groupes armés tend à faire une nette distinction entre participation obligatoire et dévouement à une cause, l'auteur montre comment, dans le contexte de l'Est du Congo, ces catégories ne s'excluent pas mutuellement dans la réalité.

Hide All
Beneduce, R., Jourdan, L., Raeymaekers, T. and Vlassenroot, K. (2006) ‘Violence with a purpose: exploring the functions and meaning of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Intervention 4 (1): 3246.
Bøas, M. and Dunn, K. C. (2013) Politics of Origin in Africa: autochthony, citizenship and conflict. London and New York NY: Zed Books.
Duffield, M. (2001) Global Governance and the New Wars. London and New York NY: Zed Books.
Finnström, S. (2008) Living with Bad Surroundings: war, history, and everyday moments in Uganda. Durham NC and London: Duke University Press.
Frésard, J. (2004) The Roots of Behaviour in War: a survey of the literature. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross.
Frésard, J. and Munoz-Rojas, D. (2004) The Roots of Behaviour in War: understanding and preventing IHL violation. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross.
Green, L. (1994) ‘Fear as a way of life’, Cultural Anthropology 9 (2): 227–56.
Hatzfeld, J. (2000) Life Laid Bare: the survivors in Rwanda speak. New York NY: Other Press.
Hatzfeld, J. (2003) Machete Season: the killers in Rwanda speak. New York NY: Picador.
Hedlund, A. (2014) Exile Warriors: violence and community among Hutu rebels in the Eastern Congo. Monographs in Social Anthropology. Lund: Lund University Publications.
Hedlund, A. (2015) ‘“There was no genocide in Rwanda”: history, politics, and exile identity among Rwandan rebels in the Eastern Congo conflict’, Conflict and Society: Advances in Research 1 (1): 2340.
Hoffman, D. (2011) The War Machines: young men and violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Durham NC and London: Duke University Press.
Hoffman, D. and Lubkemann, S. C. (2005) ‘Warscape ethnography in West Africa and the anthropology of “events”’, Anthropological Quarterly 78 (2): 315–27.
Honwana, A. (2005) ‘Innocent and guilty: child-soldiers as interstitial and tactical agents’ in Honwana, A. and De Boeck, F. (eds), Makers and Breakers: children and youth in postcolonial Africa. Oxford: James Currey.
Human Rights Watch (2009) ‘“You will be punished”: attacks on civilians in the Eastern Congo’. Human Rights Watch, 13 December <>.
International Crisis Group (2003) Rwandan Hutu Rebels in the Congo: a new approach to disarmament and reintegration. Africa Report 63. Nairobi and Brussels: International Crisis Group.
International Crisis Group (2009) Congo: a comprehensive strategy to disarm the FDLR. Africa Report 151. Nairobi and Brussels: International Crisis Group.
Jackson, M. (2013) Lifeworlds: essays in existential anthropology. Chicago IL and London: University of Chicago Press.
Kaldor, M. (1999) New and Old Wars: organized violence in a global era. Oxford: Polity Press.
Korf, B., Engeler, M. and Hagmann, T. (2010) ‘The geography of warscape’, Third World Quarterly 31 (3): 385–99.
Laborde-Barbanègre, M., Mushiata, G. and Regue, M. (2014) ‘Case against Callixte Mbarushimana and Sylvestre Mudacumura’. ICTJ briefing. Kinshasa: International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) <>, accessed 18 March 2015.
Lemarchand, R. (2009) The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Linke, U. and Smith, T. (2009) Cultures of Fear: a critical reader. New York NY: Pluto Press.
Malkki, L. (1995) Purity and Exile: violence, memory, and national cosmology among Hutu refugees in Tanzania. Chicago IL: Chicago University Press.
Mamdani, M. (2002) When Victims Become Killers: colonialism, nativism, and the genocide in Rwanda. Princeton NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Mueller, T. and Bafilemba, F. (2013) Taking Back Eastern Congo: comprehensively addressing the FDLR and M23 groups. Washington DC: Enough Project.
Nordstrom, C. (1998) ‘Warfare and the medicine of peace’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 12 (1): 103–21.
Nordstrom, C. (2007) A Different Kind of War Story. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Perera, S. (2013) ‘Alternative agency: Rwandan refugee warriors in exclusionary states’, Conflict, Security and Development 13 (5): 569–88.
Pole Institute (2010) Guerrillas in the Mist: the Congolese experience of the FDLR war in Eastern Congo and the role of the international community. Goma: Pole Institute.
Rafti, M. (2006) ‘South Kivu: a sanctuary for the rebellion of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda’. Discussion paper 2006.05. Antwerp: University of Antwerp.
Reyntjens, F. (2009) The Great African War: Congo and regional geopolitics, 1996–2006. New York NY: Cambridge University Press.
Richards, P. (2005) No Peace, No War: an anthropology of contemporary armed conflicts. Athens OH and Oxford: Ohio University Press.
Romkema, H. (2007) Opportunities and Constraints for the Disarmament and Repatriation of Foreign Armed Groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the cases of the FDLR, FNL and ADF/NALU. Washington DC: World Bank.
Romkema, H. (2009) ‘The end in sight? Opportunities for the disarmament and repatriation of the FDLR in the Democratic Republic of Congo’. Dissemination note 6 (August). Washington DC: World Bank <>, accessed 18 January 2016.
SSRC (2014) ‘FDLR: past, present and policies’. Brooklyn NY: Social Science Research Council (SSRC) <>, accessed 12 March 2015.
Straus, S. (2006) The Order of Genocide: race, power and war in Rwanda. Ithaca NY and London: Cornell University Press.
Taussig, M. (2002) ‘Culture of terror – space of death’ in Vincet, J. (ed.), The Anthropology of Politics: a reader in ethnography, theory and critique. Malden MA and Oxford: Blackwell.
Utas, M. (2003) Sweet Battlefields: youth and the Liberian civil war. Dissertations in Cultural Anthropology. Uppsala: Uppsala University.
Utas, M. (2005) ‘Victimcy, girlfriending, soldiering: tactic agency in a young woman's social navigation of the Liberian war zone’, Anthropological Quarterly 78 (2): 403–30.
Vigh, H. (2007) Navigating Terrains of War: youth and soldiering in Guinea-Bissau. New York NY and Oxford: Berghahn.
Vlassenroot, K. and Raeymaekers, T. (2004) Conflict and Social Transformation in Eastern DR Congo. Gent: Academia Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
  • URL: /core/journals/africa
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 3
Total number of PDF views: 39 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 191 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 26th October 2017 - 22nd March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.