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19 September 2008

Talking it through

Henri Bura Ladyi discusses the efforts involved in bringing militias to the table in Eastern DRC.

By Henri Bura Ladyi

When conflict first erupted in Eastern DRC in 1997, I was faced with a choice – whether to join the militia and fight to protect my community, or try to find a way to work for peace. My brother joined the militia, but after a lot of thinking I decided not to.

At that time I was running a telecoms bureau in Bunia – people would come and use our satellite phone, or other equipment. This meant I was able to communicate with the BBC in Kinshasa and let them know what was happening in the East. However, this made me a target, and one morning I literally had to tuck my baby under my coat and run through the bush with my wife to escape from soldiers who were after me.

I ended up in Beni, a couple of hundred kilometres south of Bunia. There I got to know the work of the Centre Résolution Conflits, a church based organisation which had also had to relocate, twice. In 2004 I became their Director. Our initial work was with internally displaced people, training them in conflict resolution. We worked with churches who would first hold a peace rally, inviting the congregation to come and find out what they could do to promote peace. From each rally we would select a smaller group to be trained, for example to understand the roots of the conflict and whose interest was served by prolonging it, as well as techniques for resolving conflict. The idea was that when the people return to their homes, they will need to find ways to live side by side with people of different tribes, without resorting to violence if there are conflicts.

Our work has developed a lot in the last 4 years. We’ve now got a reputation as mediators, and we are called out to deal with all sorts of disputes – some quite mundane, to do with land rights for example, others much more challenging. We were asked to negotiate with a militia group who were holding a village hostage as a human shield. They believed they were possessed by spirits who were making them invincible. The UN were threatening to use force, which was in our view clearly not going to work. Eventually we negotiated for them to have a safe passage out of the area, and the situation was resolved.

We are dealing more and more with militias – sometimes walking deep into the bush for several days to make contact with a group that wants to return to civilian life but is afraid of how the community will receive them. My most recent visit was to a town of 100,000 people, Cantine, in the middle of an area full of natural resources, and therefore unfortunately full of conflict as well. The notorious Mai Mai are terrorising the town, which has only two policemen with one AK47 to keep order. Gradually, by showing the Mai Mai that they can return to civilian life, we are reducing the level of violence.

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My hope is to create a Task Force, involving all the parties – Government, army, militias, church leaders, business people and NGOs – that would hold meetings in different parts of our district, identifying sources of conflict and dealing with them before they get out of hand. All my experience shows that the best results come when work in the communities links to those with the levers of power. Four years ago we couldn’t have done this, but now we have gained the credibility to be able to convene such an event – if we can secure the funding.