KIGALI, Rwanda — On a busy Thursday afternoon, a group of motorcycle drivers here risked the loss of a few francs, idling their engines and talking foreign policy instead of whisking passengers across town.
In late January Rwanda sent troops to rout a troublesome rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country long perceived here as unfriendly. But as the crowd of 15 men mulled the recent developments on a busy street corner in Nyamirambo — one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rwanda's capital city — it seemed the only threat they felt came from the blackening sky.
Though news of the troop movements has sparked international concern about the fate of ordinary civilians in Congo, the "moto" drivers (as they are known in local shorthand) say they couldn't feel safer — on the Rwandan side of the conflict.
"The city is secured," said Donatien Duwimana, who keeps on his lime green motorcycle helmet, even at rest. "I think my security is perfectly assured. There is peace, not even any fights in the streets." When asked what causes the trouble in Congo, a chorus of responses drowned out the soft-spoken Duwimana.
"Interhamwe," the men murmured.
The Interhamwe are the government-sponsored Hutu militias who were the foot soldiers of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. After the genocide they fled to Congo's hills and reconstituted their militia, today known as the FDLR. For 15 years the rebels have lurked in the jungles of eastern Congo, destabilizing that area. About 6,000 are there now.
Rwanda sent its troops into Congo two weeks ago to rout those rebels. After years of trying to do the same — with the help of the United Nations — Congolese President Joseph Kabila invited Rwanda to send its soldiers to locate, disarm and repatriate the rebels back to Rwanda, where the Kigali government promises them a new start. Several other batches of the rebels have come back and re-integrated into Rwandan society.
So far, joint Congolese-Rwandan military operations against the rebels have reportedly killed upwards of 100 fighters. But a much larger battle looms.
Anticipating the fighting, thousands of civilians are on the move; the UN high commissioner for refugees in Rwanda has reported receiving more than 2,000 Rwandan repatriates in February alone.
That kind of instability, however, could hardly feel further away to people in Kigali — a city of about 900,000 — where signs of security are everywhere. From ubiquitous traffic police to heavily armed private security guards, the capital city of Rwanda feels well-watched.
Still, Duwimana acknowledges that anything can happen. "I can't say it won't come here, because they are always at war in the Congo," he said. "When countries are neighbors, you have to be ready for it to come to you."
His colleague, John Bonyinstuti, agreed. Taller, older and with the coveted rounding belly of those who are better off here, Bonyinstuti is the impromptu group's elder. He insists Kigali is secure, but shares Duwimana's concern.
"Everything is possible, so yeah, Rwandan security could become endangered," he said.
In late January, Congolese refugees living in camps in western Rwanda attracted international attention when they protested Rwanda's arrest of Congolese warlord Laurent Nkunda. The refugees wanted Nkunda released; the Rwandan government broke up the protests by firing into the air, injuring one woman, according to reports of the incident.
Still, many Rwandans living about three hours away, in the capital, feel the military has made the right move.
"I feel like it will help keep peace in our country," Josiane Mukabahinyuza said of the Rwandan troop activities in Congo.
A mother of three who earns her living by selling ikinyomoro, a sour-sweet red fruit translated as a "tree tomato," Mukabahinyuza said Rwanda's primary security concern has nothing to do with what happens in the hills of eastern Congo.
"Poverty is the reason that our security is not at 100 percent," she said. As an example, she explained why she thinks Rwanda is more at peace now than five years ago. "People don't sleep outside any more," she said, adding that instead of begging on the street, "kids are studying in primary school."
More GlobalPost dispatches from Congo and Rwanda: