Checking in from beautiful eastern DRC where I’ve spent the last week learning from people – from UN agencies and local government to religious leaders and NGOs – about what’s going on and what needs to be done. The message is clear. The humanitarian situation is getting worse, with strengthening armed groups, longstanding inter-ethnic and inter-community tensions erupting into violent conflict and large-scale population movements. Affected communities urgently need assistance, but underlying all of this is the need to address the causes of violence – to transform the state security sector and to encourage people to leave armed groups and find longterm alternatives to fighting.
With this in mind I’ve spent the last two days at a peacebuilders’ conference in Goma organised by Peace Direct. Here, on the northern tip of Lake Kivu, I discussed with local peace building organisations how best to encourage people to demobilise and reintegrate themselves into civilian life. Some fascinating and productive discussions with representatives of small Congolese organisations on the ways in which those leaving militias can find longterm, productive employment and become accepted by their communities. Talks ranged from helping ex-fighters to access training, start small businesses, or take part in community rehabilitation projects, to the importance of breaking spiritual ties to Mayi-Mayi (community self-defence) groups through purifying magical rituals. I can honestly say that this is the first time in my career as a civil servant that my notes have read “take a white-coloured animal (e.g. cockerel or sheep), sacrifice at a crossroads and throw into the river to cleanse ex-combatant of evil spirits”! I had a little chuckle to myself imagining the conversations I’d need to have to get funding for chicken sacrifice approved - not that I'd ever recommend it!
Roughly half of the participants were themselves ex-combatants, several of whom are now engaged in helping others to leave armed groups for good. I met many fascinating individuals doing vital work, but wanted to share short profiles of three in particular. (Some names changed).
Père Albert’s story
Père Albert is a Catholic Priest working in South Kivu province. For nine years he’s worked in two of the region’s most remote areas – largely inaccessible to international NGOs because of insecurity, lack of roads and communications. He walks for weeks at a time out into the bush to negotiate with armed groups, helping people to leave and find productive work back in their villages, and mediating disputes to enable them to be reintegrated into their communities. It’s dangerous and exhausting work – his status offers him some protection from attack but is certainly no guarantee of safety. He has been able to negotiate some support on occasion from international partners, including attending a DFID funded training programme, but works largely from his own resources, with zero budget. He estimates he’s persuaded more than 800 young people to leave militia groups over the years he’s worked on this cause.
Josephine is an engaging and elegant young woman. In her floor-length yellow print dress it’s hard to imagine her leading troops in battle fatigues. Well-educated, she was recruited by a group known as CNDP with the promise that she would act as a powerful representative of her ethnic group and be given a ministerial position if the group succeeded in its aim of making North and South Kivu into an independent state. She spent three years in the group, rising rapidly through the ranks. She was an outstanding soldier, she said, and it made her proud when other commanders were surprised to discover that a woman held such a key position. When Nkunda – the group’s leader – was arrested in 2009, she said the movement became chaotic and she decided to leave.
Without undergoing the government’s official demobilisation process she returned to Goma and went to work with her mother, running a small grocery store. She said that returning to civilian life was hard – she had none of the status she had had as a soldier and was seen and treated very badly by the community. She was blocked from getting jobs, and whenever a crime was committed she was the first suspect. People boycotted the store, and the business suffered. Things are slowly getting easier, and she is adjusting to civilian life. This transition is easier for women than for men, she says, and she knows many people who were unable to leave the group for fear of rejection by their communities. She would never return to life as a fighter, she says, but is constantly harassed by representatives of the armed group M23, who try to recruit her. She has had to change her phone number, and her mother lives in fear of her daughter being taken again.
Christelle is quiet and considered. She was unable to find a job when she left school, and when her family owed a local Mayi-Mayi commander a favour she was keen to join up. They needed a woman to cook for the troops, and she ended up staying and fighting with the group for four years. The group put magic charms on her to make her invincible, but this involved several conditions. When she had her period, for example, she was banned from talking to or going near other soldiers lest she interfere with their magical protection.
The day she decided that she’d taken the wrong path in life and wanted to leave the group came when she was manning a roadblock. In order to pass the roadblock, pedestrians had to pay a bribe to the Mayi-Mayi. A very poor man tried to pass to go to market, she says, and he had nothing to give. A child soldier who was also manning the barricade became irritated and started to beat the man, eventually killing him. The injustice of this caused her to turn herself over to the joint Rwandan-Congolese military operations taking place, and she was put through the official government demobilisation process. They offered her a place in the national army but she decided against this, and started a small enterprise selling food in the local market. She handed her magical amulets over to a priest, who forgave her for what she had done. She is enjoying civilian life and her business is doing well – despite missing the status of being a soldier, she says she’d never go back to fighting in the bush.
Making a peaceful living
It’s clear that without a capable and accountable state security sector and a functioning justice system there are few disincentives to accepting armed groups’ offers of money and status. But the other half of the picture is that the credible incentive of finding a peaceful livelihood must also exist to persuade people to put down their arms and rejoin civilian life (and, indeed, to reduce the incentive to join up in the first place).
DFID’s already working hard on the first part – training police and helping to build a more responsive and accountable security sector in the east of the country. Over the next few months my colleagues on the conflict side of things will be developing a plan to work on the second - peaceful livelihoods. This involves how to improve the inter-community dynamics that often lead to the creation of armed groups which is often a struggle over ownership and access to land. How to complement this with support for a credible, sustainable and productive alternative to life in a militia. How to support ex-combatants to be accepted back into life in their home communities. How to boost the vital work of people like Père Albert, and ensure people like Josephine and Christelle know that they can leave the groups, make a living and be accepted back into civilian life.
The people I met this week were exceptional, but it’s a transition that takes bravery and resilience, and involves facing mistrust, poverty and possible arrest or persecution. We will continue to work to ensure that fighting in an armed group is no longer the easy and most attractive option.