Kivu Province, DR of Congo

In the deadliest war since World War II, we need to help the perpetrators if we want to save the victims. The Kivu conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo embodies all the worst aspects of human conflict, ultimately affecting the people caught up on all sides, not just those in the firing line.

Most of the free world is vaguely aware of the atrocities that have been ongoing in the Congo region for most of the last century, and many have seen at least a few shocking statistics from a long list. About 200,000 women raped to date, with the prevalence and intensity of rape committed in the Eastern region of the Congo described as the worst in the world. Hundreds of thousands fleeing to

boy in refugee camp, © Susan Schulman

The creation of M23, the latest in a long line of rebel movements in the eastern part of the Congo, in April 2012, has led to a sharp increase in violence, and once again made any attempts at achieving peace in the region appear futile. A shocking rate of human rights atrocities has been recognised internationally, but while the UN has denounced the main culprits for backing these rebel movements- Rwanda and Uganda- no sanctions have been carried out to target the responsible authorities behind this violence. The fragility of the state, left weakened after decades of civil war, mutiny, and corruption, has allowed the conflict and human rights abuses to continue largely unstopped, with particularly devastating effects in the Kivu region on the border with Rwanda. Various rebel groups, many backed by Rwanda amidst a power vacuum, have now stepped outside of Congolese government control; expanding into remote rural areas and committing atrocities which further exacerbate the inter-ethnic tensions, and in so doing, prolonging the ever-present state of civil war between movements.

A survey in 2009 suggested that almost 80% of the population had been affected by the atrocities and human rights abuses carried out in the Congo, making this one of the most brutal civil wars in history. It also takes us a way towards understanding just why this war seems to be unstoppable. The levels of violence make it essentially impossible for many affected communities to be attended to helped, and so communities have taken to defending themselves. Violence has created yet more violence. For rebel soldiers to seek out a peaceful livelihood, this alternative way of life first has to be made possible for them. While rebel soldiers currently find protection, money and a certain degree of security in fighting, a return to civilian life would, for most, signal a return to poverty, mistrust, and persecution. While they are fighting, they are at least actively seeking the life they want, rather than passively waiting for attack. Meanwhile Mai-Mai groups (community self-defence groups numbering up to 30,000 in the Kivu province, with strong spiritualistic ties) dominate the way of life in the eastern part of the country, making it hard for fighters to walk away. Even to re-enter Christian society would involve spiritual purification rituals, re-training or enough education to start a business from scratch to earn a living. For most, this is an impossible alternative.

© Susan Schulman

One woman who managed to make the change however was Christelle, who recounted her story to a representative of the UK Department for International Development. She was unable to find a job when she left school, and so when her family owed a local Mai-Mai commander a favour she ended up joining up to fight and cook for the troops 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. She only decided to turn her back on her soldier life when seeing a peasant beaten to death by a child soldier for not paying the bribe to cross the Mai-Mai’s roadblock. She turned herself in and was put through the official government demobilisation process. She refused a place in the national army forces, instead deciding to hand over her magical amulets to a priest, seeking forgiveness, and starting a small enterprise selling food in the local market.

Père Albert Kalafula © Sophie Tholstrup

One man trying to help others make the same decision as Christelle is Catholic priest Père Albert, who has spent 9 years going out to the most remote areas of the province to help those that even the NGO aid workers can’t reach. He walks for weeks at a time out into the bush to reach groups of armed forces (risking his own life in the process) to mediate between rival groups, and try to negotiate support for soldiers to return to civilian life. So far he has managed to help up to 800 young people leave the militia groups and their lives of violence to find a new way to live. This is in fact a huge task- many of these soldiers have been conscripted since childhood, and know no other way to live. Re-education with no funds or resources and few incentives is hard to sell to men, women and children who have had their lives ravaged by war, and who seek only to lash back and those that hurt them.

In a country which knows little other than violence, the rebel mentality is instilled in the cradle, and is hard to reverse. The Congo was in Belgian rule until 1960, during which time it is estimated that as many as 10 million were murdered in a wide-scale genocide lasting for decades. Independence in 1960 brought civil war, dictatorship and corruption, leading to a power vacuum seized upon by neighbouring countries hungry for the region’s resources. This has in turned funded further civil war between rival ethnic groups struggling for independence ever since, with the worst frontier in the Kivu province on the border with Rwanda. While aid workers clearly need to reach communities to help the victims, this does not stem the violence, and does little to prevent more people being victimised the following week. It would seem that the soldiers need just as much help as the civilians, if a genuine truce is ever to be found.

For more information of the work the Department for International Development carries out in the region, see

Ex-child soldiers follow an English class in Goma, North Kivu. © Ndiaga Seck,UNICEF


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