Interfaith bridge-building and violence aversion in Chad

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In the late 1970s, Chad entered a civil war for political power between geographically- and culturally-based groups. Even though the civil war pitted Christians against Muslims, religion was not a major motivating factor for militants. Over the past decade MCC has partnered with the department of Ethics, Peace and Justice (EPJ), an operative branch of
the Protestant churches in Chad, to promote conflict transformation in interfaith settings. This article examines the religious context and history of Chad and discusses how EPJ draws upon religion as a resource for proactive peacebuilding and violence aversion.

In terms of religious affiliation, Chad’s population is divided among Muslims (55%), Catholics (20%) and Protestants (15%), with the remainder practicing forms of African traditional religion. Religious identity is tightly intertwined with tribal and ethnic affiliation for geographic reasons. Islam entered northern Chad with Arab traders in the
twelfth century, while western missionaries arrived from the south during the twentieth century. Both religions are blended with rituals and beliefs that predate the arrival of Abrahamic faiths in Chad.

Like other colonial administrations, France’s colonial regime exploited and exacerbated ethnic and religious divides. Chadians in the overwhelmingly Muslim north routinely resisted the imposition by the colonial authorities of a French education system. The colonial regime, in turn, disproportionately appointed people from the predominantly Christian south to lead various government departments. Following independence in 1960, it was therefore southerners who occupied the majority of civil service positions. The
country’s first president, N’Garta Tombalbaye (a Christian southerner), appointed a majority of Muslims (65%) to his first cabinet. Originally named François, Tombalbaye established a tyrannical one-party system that brutally promoted a top-down cultural revolution that pushed for movement away from Christian and Muslim influences towards a recovery of Chadian traditions. Following a decade of armed rebellions, Tombalbaye
was assassinated in 1975, plunging the country into an armed power struggle between the predominantly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south that continued into the 1990s. The religious differences between these two regional populations led adherents to vilify the religion of the other. Religion remains a dividing factor in population, with the
government perceived as being dominated by Muslim ethnic groups.

Within this post-civil war context, EPJ has worked to strengthen relationships across religious divides as part of peacebuilding and violence prevention efforts across the country. Over the past decade EPJ has earned a reputation as a leading organization of interfaith dialogue. Initially EPJ addressed conflicts within the church, but in 2008 expanded its violence aversion efforts by hosting an interfaith conflict transformation workshop for 30 Muslim and Christian leaders. This workshop became an annual event in N’Djamena, running through 2011. In 2012 EPJ stretched these interfaith peacebuilding efforts beyond the capital to host a workshop in Mongo. Momentum grew, with EPJ initiating workshops specifically targeting women and youth. Since 2013, EPJ has organized 29 week-long workshops for over 1100 participants in 15 different locations.

While current violent conflicts in Chad today flow from multiple sources (such as competition over resources and political power), participants in these conflicts routinely frame the conflicts in religious terms, making interfaith peacebuilding efforts that draw on religion as a source of conflict transformation a vital necessity. EPJ’s workshops highlight common ground between faiths and offer alternatives to violence. Each workshop is attended by local representatives who are selected by the national religious
bodies of each faith. EPJ strives to have 40% of workshop participants be Muslim, along with 30% each for Protestants and Catholics, although these percentages vary.

At the beginning of each workshop, participants are usually quiet, tense and polite, sitting with their co-religionists. Over the course of the workshop participants hear and discuss stories from sacred texts that describe how both Jesus and Muhammad taught their followers to do good to their enemies.

EPJ workshops center on a relatively set course of seminars led by EPJ staff that promote strong interfaith relations, present nonviolent conflict management strategies and teach mediation techniques. EPJ consistently invites MCC staff to contribute to the overview of the biblical basis for peace. EPJ also invites leaders from Muslim and Catholic institutions to give seminars on how their respective faiths understand peace. Catholic participants draw on Catholicism’s rich tradition of social justice teaching, while Muslim scholars highlight passages from the Qur’an and stories from the hadith (traditions about the prophet Muhammad) that exemplify peacebuilding in action. The workshop leaves considerable time for group discussion, encouraging thoughtful engagement with presenters and among participants. By the end of the workshop, participants typically report transformed perspectives. For example, after a workshop in the eastern city of Am Timan, one of the Muslim participants, Imam Ibrahim Abdoulaye, stated: “We have never heard teaching like this before; it needs to continue. We want to help.”

EPJ routinely faces two significant hurdles as it works to break down barriers between participants. First, Muslim and Christian participants need to hear that their own faith holds deep and rich peace teachings. Both Christian and Muslim sacred texts contain plenty of examples of violence seemingly portrayed in positive terms, from the conquest narratives of the Old Testament and literalist interpretations of Revelation, to violence
carried out by the nascent Muslim umma (community) in Medina, the conquest of Mecca and certain hadith about Muhammad. Participants often arrive at the workshop convinced that their sacred texts justify violence. EPJ staff and the invited speakers complicate this understanding by lifting up examples from Muslim and Christian scriptures that reflect a
commitment to peacebuilding, with a specific emphasis on Jesus’ life and teachings (especially the Sermon on the Mount) and Muhammad’s respect for both Jewish and Christian communities as well as his teachings on conflict resolution.

The second obstacle is to dispel notions of persecution that Christians and Muslims hold concerning one another. Both Muslim and Christian participants will point to the other with accusatory claims, citing current or historical outrages, such as Boko Haram’s massacres or the history of Africa’s colonization by western powers such as France. Citing such histories and present realities, Christian and Muslim participants can retreat into defensive postures that justify violence. EPJ works with participants to overcome such defensiveness and to focus on past histories of cooperation and coexistence and on possibilities for the future.

EPJ’s interfaith peacebuilding efforts have gathered momentum since 2013, with its conflict transformation workshops increasingly in demand and gaining support from Chadian leaders. Challenges certainly remain, including establishing better mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the longer-term impact of the workshops on communities where the workshops are held. Yet EPJ’s experience has already clearly demonstrated
that participants emerge from the interfaith peacebuilding workshops with an increased desire and willingness to collaborate across religious lines, which is no small feat in a context in which appeals to religion too often stoke rather than transform conflict.

Mark Tymm works with MCC partner, Ethics, Peace and Justice, in N’Djamena, Chad.

Learn more:

Abu-Nimer, Mohammed and David Augsburger. Peace-Building by, between and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009.

Azevedo, Mario J. Roots of Violence: A History of War in Chad. London: Routledge, 1998.

Flood, Derek. Disarming Scripture. Metanoia Books, 2014.

Religion and reconciliation in post-conflict northern Uganda

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

It is a day I will never forget. Six members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had surrendered and returned home after years of fighting a bloody war against the government of Uganda. The crowd gathered to witness the homecoming consisted of those who themselves had endured horrific massacres, mutilations, mass displacement and the abduction of their loved ones, including upwards of 30,000 children forced into the rebel ranks. I didn’t know what to expect as survivors and perpetrators came face to face for the first time. Would the crowd demand their arrest? Would some seek revenge?

What happened next is not what I had expected. As the former rebels moved into the clearing of the compound where the crowd of survivors had gathered, they one by one stepped on a raw egg that had been meticulously laid on the path along with two types of branches by the traditional leaders. Known as nynyo tong gweno, this act signified a desire to begin the process of reconciliation, symbolizing the perpetrators’ acknowledgement of wrongdoing and their desire to be a part of the community again. Noise erupted from the crowd, but instead of the sound of insults and jeering, it was the sound of cheers and jubilation. Shortly afterwards, the Catholic Archbishop of northern Uganda, John Baptist
Odama, knelt down in front of the returnees, stating, “If in any way my contribution [to ending the war] was not sufficient or enough to make you better, please forgive me.” The moment was powerful and communicated collective responsibility, acceptance, hope and a desire to move forward together to achieve sustainable reconciliation and peace.

Religious leaders in Northern Uganda have been active in promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the region. Beginning with an idea to come together and pray, the religious leaders recognized they would have a greater impact working together rather than separately. Out of these prayer meetings the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), consisting of top clerics from the Anglican, Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox and Pentecostal faiths, was born. Guided by values and teachings that its participants share in common, ARLPI seeks to foster sustainable peace and reconciliation by transforming conflict using the path of nonviolence. As the Catholic Archbishop Odama states, “The world has torn us apart; it is our job to bring it together.”

With many based at the grassroots level, Ugandan religious leaders have been well placed to provide constant spiritual support and encouragement to those enduring through hardship. Religious leaders have organized activities such as building monuments to remember those killed in the conflict and annual peace prayers at massacre sites throughout the region. Many survivors of the conflict have told me that religiously-based
messages have provided a significant source of comfort to communities that have lived through ongoing conflict. One individual shared how the biblical story of Job narrated by a religious leader during a peace prayer event resonated with her personal experience and helped to provide a sense of hope that her plight was temporary. She insisted that “It’s only the word from the Bible that can console people. . . . . You will find that this type of suffering did not only start with me. Like for Ayubu [Job], all his family died so Ayubu was left with nothing and again God brought to him a lot of pain . . . but still Ayubu survived.” Reflecting on the unprecedented brutality and large scale of the violence that had torn through northern Uganda, one person with whom I spoke observed that “such kind of death would not be managed emotionally by anyone if there were no prayers.”

Promoting theology that insists that “we are all children of God,” religious leaders have also used peace prayers to provide a non-adversarial and supportive forum where both survivors and former rebels have an opportunity to give their testimonies and feel safeguarded by the presence of religious and other leaders well-known for promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. Former rebels heard stories of how the war had affected the survivors and survivors were able to hear directly from individuals once deemed as enemies to learn about how many of them were abducted and forced to fight and about the hardships they endured just to try and stay alive with the hope they would one day return home to their families. This sharing of stories has not only helped to provide a better understanding of the complex nature of the conflict, but also helped to highlight the blurred lines between victim and perpetrator, fostering the re-humanization of those who were once solely viewed as the enemy.

However, not all have been supportive of the role and influence that religious leaders have had in promoting peace and reconciliation.Critics argue that survivors are pressured by religious leaders to forgive, which promotes impunity and does not adequately address the unique needs of survivors. Some critics express the concern that the Christian understanding of reconciliation carries strong moral obligations, implying that in order to have a relationship with God, one must forgive one’s enemies. This concern is compounded by the fact that the Acholi word for amnesty, a process vigorously promoted by the religious leaders in order to encourage the surrender of the rebels, is kica, which also means forgiveness. Others argue that the widespread use of religious rhetoric in promoting reconciliation may only help to achieve non-violent coexistence, but not reconciliation. For example, in post-conflict Sierra Leone, Lisa Skoval perceived the rhetoric surrounding Christian reconciliation to be “formulaic.” She found that while people verbally stated they had forgiven and reconciled with their perpetrators, community members remained “fearful, careful, and diffident in their dealings with former combatants” (quoted in Govier, 2006). Such critiques certainly name valid concerns. For their part, ARLPI recognizes that ceremonies of reconciliation like the one descried at the beginning of this article are only the starting point. Sustainable reconciliation is a long-term process, providing opportunities for both victims and perpetrators in northern Ugandan communities to work side-by-side, rebuilding trust, restoring interdependence and moving towards a shared future together.

Wade Snowdon coordinates MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program.

Learn more:

Finnström, Sverker. Living With Bad Surroundings. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008.

Govier, Trudy. Taking Wrongs Seriously: Acknowledgement, Reconciliation, and the Politics of Sustainable Peace. New York: Humanity Books, 2006.

Oloya, Opiyo. Child To Soldier: Stories from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Peachey, Dean. “The Elusive Quest for Reconciliation in Northern Uganda.” In Critical
Perspectives in Transitional Justice. Ed. Nicola Palmer, Danielle Granville and Phil Clark, 287-308. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.

Tutu, Desmond. No Future without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Related articles:

The church and peacebuilding in the African Great Lakes

Vulnerability and protection in settings of violent conflict

[Individual articles from the Summer 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Children in Palestine (here referring to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) are more vulnerable than children who do not live under occupation or in conflict situations. Child protection efforts in Palestine and in other conflict settings should focus not only on safety within the walls of schools and other organizations working with children, but must also provide children support to survive the hostile world beyond and help children heal from the trauma they have already experienced.

Factors that increase Palestinian children’s vulnerability include: military detention and arraignment before military courts; violence at the hands of Israeli soldiers; home demolitions and forced displacement; restricted movement; and compromised access to education, healthcare, housing and play. Whereas Israelis and Israeli settlers fall under civil courts, Palestinian children as young as twelve years old can be prosecuted in Israeli military courts, often for crimes such as stone throwing. According to Military Court Watch, as of the end of February 2016 there were 438 Palestinian children in Israeli military detention as “security” prisoners, the youngest twelve years old. [“Child” here refers to all under the age of 18, following the United Nations definition of child.] The process of arrest, detention, questioning, trial and imprisonment violates Palestinian children’s rights and can leave them traumatized. Palestinian children are often arrested
in violent, purposefully intimidating, nighttime raids. They may be physically harmed while being transported and during detention. They are interrogated without an adult present and often see a lawyer for the first time when they appear in the courtroom.

Many Palestinian children, especially in areas with heavy Israeli military or settler presence such as East Jerusalem or Hebron, must daily pass through militarized checkpoint crossings on their way to and from school. Other children in refugee camps around the West Bank experience heavy tear gas exposure from frequent, often unprovoked, incursions of Israeli soldiers into the camps. Clashes between Palestinian youth, who throw stones, and the soldiers who shoot bullets and throw tear gas, sound
bombs and stink water often end in injury, death or detainment for Palestinian children and youth.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has reported that the demolition of Palestinian homes has dramatically increased in the West Bank in 2016. In February alone 330 people were displaced due to house demolitions, half of whom were children. Home demolition and forced transfer leave families extremely
vulnerable, homeless and robbed of savings, possessions and security. The Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem provides a variety of educational and support programs for children, including: psychosocial support and trauma healing; opportunities to play soccer, learn music and dance dubka, the traditional Palestinian line dance; growing food on rooftop gardens; workshops on children’s and refugee rights; and more. It is a place where children are allowed to play and to dream alongside a community of supportive staff.

Last year Lajee, with support from MCC, trained its staff to work with children to learn about and heal from trauma, including daily traumacaused by the occupation. Lajee staff then asked the children about trauma in their own lives and even possible traumas or problems they were experiencing at Lajee. Based on this experience Lajee realized that
children must be able to heal from trauma and get help in any situation and decided to join a pilot project with the organization Defense for Children International, Palestine (DCI). This project, implemented with 70 organizations in 12 cities across Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, was designed to help organizations provide increased protection for their participants, both within their programs and within the children’s
families, schools and communities.

Each organization chose six to eight children to be trained as liaisons, mediators, advocates and mentors for their peers. These children and a few staff learned how to respond to concerns. For example, if one of their fellow participants at the Lajee Center comes to them with an issue that involves the staff or members of the Center, they should report the issue to another local area organization that participates in the project, or, in
serious cases, alert DCI itself to be able to step in with more professional capacity and provide support for the child.

The trained children also help the other children learn about their rights and ways they can protect themselves from the occupation, including how to get themselves a lawyer if they are detained or arrested by Israeli forces.

The DCI project is very important because it is not common for Palestinians to accept and discuss their trauma. Often children do not want to talk with adults about trauma or problems, but they are more able to share their experiences with other children. In Aida camp one of the Lajee Center’s trained children recently helped a fellow student who was being hit by a teacher at school. The child alerted DCI and was able to make sure that the teacher, who had been physically punishing children for years, was fired and not allowed back into any other schools to teach.

One challenge encountered by the Lajee-DCI initiative is that, even though children are often more willing to talk to one another about problems, many are still inclined to hide their troubles. Children also fear repercussions for speaking or standing up for themselves. This is especially true for those who have been arrested by the Israeli army because they are afraid of being detained again or that the threats made against them
while they were detained will come true. The Lajee Center wants to give the children the space to speak about their traumas, but the children fear it will cause them more harm from Israeli soldiers.

The Lajee Center believes that participating in the DCI project offers children an outlet to express concerns, fears or problems within Lajee. Participation in the DCI initiative has resulted in children who attend Lajee being more open about their feelings and their opinions about the center, which in turn helps Lajee learn ways to better serve and protect
these children.

Efforts to protect children in school and informal educational programs in Palestine must be supplemented by legal and political advocacy against military detention, violence and torture faced by Palestinian children. Military Court Watch, for example, acts as a witnessing presence for children in Israeli military detention and, when necessary, litigates to uphold children’s rights under international law. The No Way to Treat a Child campaign calls on the United States to put all available pressure on Israel to stop its abuses against children in Israeli military courts and prisons. MCC’s advocacy office in Washington, D.C. has supported this campaign, calling on MCC’s constituency to urge members of Congress to curb Israeli violations of Palestinian children’s human rights.

Child protection efforts in Palestine must thus respond to the increased vulnerability of living under Israeli occupation. In this context, MCC partners are attempting to provide more hope, healing and protection for Palestinian children through social and educational programs, psychosocial support, legal protection and international advocacy campaigns.

Amani Ashad works for Lajee Center, an MCC partner. She wrote this article with Catherine Keating, a former MCC worker.

Learn more:

Military Court Watch website: http://www.militarycourtwatch.org/

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Occupied Palestinian Territories website: http://www.ochaopt.org/

East Jerusalem YMCA website: http://www.ej-ymca.org/rehab/en/who-we-are/our-visionmission

No Way to Treat a Child Campaign website: http://nwttac.dci-palestine.org/

Lajee Center website: http://www.lajee.org/

Defense for Children International-Palestine website: http://www.dci-palestine.org/palestinian_children_in_the_israeli_military_detention_system

UNICEF booklet on children in Gaza: http://www.unicef.org/oPt/booklet.pdf

Gideon Levy, “Israel Sentenced a 13-Year-Old Girl to Prison,” Haaretz (April 14, 2016).
Available at: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.714478

Peace through education in Kigali

Like other countries in the African Great Lakes region, Rwanda has a dual identity when it comes to conflict. On the one hand, the country has known many forms of conflict and violence. On the other hand, however, Rwandans are deeply invested in the search for solutions to the violent conflicts that have torn apart their country.

Violent post-colonial ethnic conflicts in Rwanda began in 1959, followed by other outbursts in 1965 and 1973. This violence culminated in the 1994 genocide, in which the vast majority of victims were Tutsi. After the 1994 genocide, the new Rwandan government began efforts to rebuild a peaceful society. Government leaders started practical initiatives to strengthen national unity, such as: initiatives for restorative justice (whose practitioners were called Abunzi, or “the restorers”); the repatriation of Rwandan refugees from different countries; the institution of national commissions for peace, unity, reconciliation and the fight against genocide; and peacebuilding lessons in public schools.

Amidst these initiatives promoting peace in Rwanda, the Evangelical Friends Church of Rwanda, with the help of MCC and Change Agents for Peace International (CAPI), established the Friends Peace House (FPH) in 2000. With a strong history of leading peace trainings and uniting people across dividing lines, Friends Peace House, like the country of Rwanda as a whole, now finds itself shifting more towards development projects. Peace and development are not unrelated. The French proverb “pas de pain, pas de paix” (“without bread there is no peace”) illustrates the link between poverty and peace; likewise, without peace there can be no sustainable development.

As part of our peace and development programming, Friends Peace House runs a vocational training center called Mwana Nshuti (“child, my friend”). Commenting on the context of the village where he teaches, one of the Mwana Nshuti instructors remarks that “In my service I have seen that youth lack peace because of joblessness, not war only.” In the past in Rwanda a large amount of violence was committed by unemployed and
uneducated youth in gangs and militias who were easily manipulated to see other ethnic groups as targets for expressing their economic frustration and anger at the discrimination they had endured. Through Mwana Nshuti, Friends Peace House seeks to give value and practical skills to disadvantaged youth, encouraging them to think for themselves so that they are not vulnerable to this kind of manipulation.

The Mwana Nshuti program first began as a response by the Evangelical Friends Church to the large number of orphans (many of whose parents had been killed in the 1994 Rwanda genocide) living around a garbage dump in the Kicukiro neighborhood of Kigali. These children were often called mayibobo (a derogatory term for street children) and were marginalized from society. The name Mwana Nshuti is a deliberate act of honoring the youth, telling street children that “you are not mayibobo, you are mwana nshuti—a child who is my friend”.

Today’s Rwanda is being shaped by a new generation: none of today’s youth saw the genocide firsthand, yet they and other Rwandans live with the genocide’s aftereffects. In 2014 the Rwandan government ran another campaign called Ndi Umunyarwanda (“I am Rwandan”) to reinforce the message that we are all citizens and we choose not to discriminate along ethnic lines. In a recent Mwana Nshuti social studies class, teachers asked students to discuss in groups whether they would marry someone from a different ethnic group. Most students answered yes, because love is more important and we don’t value those distinctions, but some acknowledged it could be difficult for their parents’ generation to accept.

Throughout our lives we are educated by many different people, such as our parents, teachers, pastors and friends. In Mwana Nshuti the teachers seek to be good role models who create an atmosphere of inclusion and trust. As part of these efforts, Mwana Nshuti offered the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) trauma healing training, a program developed by a Rwandan and a Burundian, for its students. This three day training explored the causes and consequences of trauma, loss, grief and mourning, examining what kind of society Rwandans want to see and how they can help create it.

Feedback from an anonymous evaluation survey of students suggests the impact of the initiative. One student shared that “this training helped me discover the grief which was in me.” Another reported that “I appreciated the lessons because they helped me to move from where I was (in grief) and now I am feeling OK.” Still another participant shared that the training “helped rebuild me and also to live peacefully with others wherever I am.” After students complete their practical training at Mwana Nshuti in hairdressing, mechanics or tailoring, FPH tries to place them in co-operatives and train them to work together and do their own projects for development and peace. Mwana Nshuti includes training in entrepreneurship, peaceful conflict resolution and trauma healing and encourages the transfer of this knowledge to the households of origin. The teachers also visit the students at home to get to know them, their situation and their extended families better. On one visit we were looking at an English reader with one student’s five-year-old neighbor who was also visiting. The book contained a picture of one person chasing someone else with a stick. The girl looked up and said, “I saw a movie where people were beating each other with machetes.” We asked her, “Is that good or bad? What do you do when you have a problem?” Her attention had already wriggled away to another picture on the page, but there will be one day when she will learn more of her country’s history and have to grapple with these kinds of questions. The country is moving on and deliberately teaching its youth to be peacemakers on a national and local level. If peace is built by youth, the country can hope for a sustainable peace.

Mwana Nshuti is an MCC Global Family education project. 

Antoine Samvura is the Program Coordinator at Friends Peace House, an organization of the Evangelical Friends Church in Kigali, Rwanda, that works with at-risk youth. Teresa Edge was a participant in MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program. For the last two years, she has served as Program Assistant at Friends Peace House.

For more, check out the Summer issue of Intersections on Conflict, Reconciliation and Partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. 

Reconciliation in post-war Burundi

[Compiler’s note: At the time of this writing, Burundi had just re-erupted into political unrest after a ten year period of peace. Up to twenty people have been killed in clashes between protesters, police and military forces. Additionally, over one hundred thousand have fled the country in anticipation of further violence. But, in a large part due to efforts such as those described below, the vast majority of the Burundian population has remained nonviolent and peaceful.]

The small country of Burundi, situated in the Great Lakes region of Africa, has experienced decades of complex violent conflict highly influenced by ethnic and regional elements. The widespread massacres and the civil war that took place in Burundi between 1993 and 2005 have left victims and offenders on all sides of the conflict. Within this context, many Burundians have dared to work toward reconciliation among people from different ethnic groups, regions and political parties.

Peace studies scholar John Paul Lederach describes reconciliation as the confluence of truth, mercy, justice and peace: peacebuilding processes must provide time and space for all four elements. Reconciliation is the process of rebuilding broken relationships by addressing harms and choosing to move forward peacefully together. In the Burundian context reconciliation processes play out at political, social, media and community/grassroots levels: each level is distinct and all levels are interconnected. MCC’s Burundian partners work primarily in grassroots reconciliation through a peace committee approach that empowers and trains local leaders to mediate conflicts in their communities. Understanding the different forms of reconciliation and recognizing their interconnectedness help to clarify the vital role that grassroots reconciliation plays in Burundian communities.

At the state level, political reconciliation serves as a national strategy for responding to atrocities and human rights abuses. Efforts at political reconciliation in Burundi have involved attempts to achieve transitional justice through the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). The 2000 Arusha Peace Accords laid the groundwork for setting up a Burundian TRC to investigate cyclic violence since Burundian independence, to punish or forgive offenders, to offer reparations to victims and to establish the truth while clarifying a shared history. In 2015 the members of the TRC were elected, but the commission has not yet commenced its investigations.

Work towards social reconciliation in Burundi occurs at the level of civil society involvement. Civil society refers to non-governmental organizations and institutions linked by the common interests of citizens. Ideally, civil society actors, such as the leaders of religious, traditional, academic and humanitarian communities and organizations, remain apolitical as they advocate for the broader population, but such neutrality continues to be a challenge in Burundi, where most civil society actors tend to become politically polarized. The Great Lakes Initiative, with which MCC partners, is an example of social reconciliation as a movement of religious leaders to end the cycles of violence that tear apart the region by promoting reconciliation through their institutions.

The media plays a major role in situations of violent conflict, but at the same time has great potential to be utilized as a tool for reconciliation in what we call media reconciliation. Media is often manipulated to spread rumors and messages of hate that increase tensions and cause panic. Reconciliation through media promotes professional, responsible and neutral media that provides a platform to share diverse opinions, inform the population and hold political and social leaders accountable.

During the 2015 political unrest, the Burundian government cut certain private radio emissions broadcasting what it viewed as anti-government messages. Protesters destroyed the private pro-government radio station and in retaliation all of the anti-government radio stations were destroyed. Due to the radio stations’ lack of neutrality in their broadcasting, they became targets of political violence. Remaining media outlets provide space for occasional programs that speak on themes of reconciliation, but unfortunately peacebuilders in Burundi do not yet have a formal platform for sharing the message of reconciliation through media.

Finally, community or grassroots reconciliation works toward social cohesion at the very base. At this level, communities organize structures to address conflicts, seeking creative solutions that apply to their contexts. Peace committees in Burundi are grounded in traditional restorative justice practices in which the bashingantahe, or community elders, guide mediation processes between parties in conflict. Based upon this traditional institution, peace committees offer a more inclusive form of restorative justice that works alongside the state judicial system, receiving cases and reducing the number that arrive in court. By providing a space for dialogue among members in a divided community, peace committees unite people around common values that encourage peaceful coexistence.

An MCC partner, the Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (MIPAREC), works in grassroots reconciliation by training and accompanying almost 400 peace committees throughout Burundi. The peace committee approach brings together volunteers from all social categories (representatives of the hutu, tutsi and twa peoples; displaced and repatriated persons; bashingantahe; demobilized combatants; religious leaders; etc.) to work together for social cohesion in their communities.

Peace committees in Burundi engage in many different types of peacebuilding activities, from people learning to forgive those who killed their family members during the civil war to using mediation to resolve land conflicts for the thousands of internally displaced and repatriated families throughout the country. Peace committee members also train their communities in conflict transformation, advocate to the appropriate authorities on behalf of vulnerable persons and mobilize communities to work together on development projects such as rehabilitating the homes of repatriated persons and building health clinics.

MIPAREC promotes social reconciliation by serving as a civil society link between grassroots reconciliation and political reconciliation processes. Using experiences with peace committees, MIPAREC collaborated with other peacebuilding organizations through the Quaker Peace Network (QPN) to develop a transitional justice model applicable to the Burundian context. QPN was able to propose this model to the country’s National Assembly as it drafted legislation to establish the truth and reconciliation commission. Understanding what grassroots reconciliation looks like in practice allowed MIPAREC to integrate realistic approaches to national reconciliation into the proposed bill.

Each level of reconciliation plays an important role in creating positive peaceful change in divided societies. At MIPAREC, we believe that grassroots reconciliation serves as the necessary foundation for encouraging sustainable reconciliation at each level. Communities need to accept the values of tolerance and empathy in order to live peacefully together with a certain degree of trust. Social cohesion must first be established in communities in order for efforts at higher levels of reconciliation, such as a national truth and reconciliation commission, to be effective.

Reconciliation in post-war contexts is a complicated and long process. Particularly following a civil war in which neighbors killed neighbors, trust is profoundly lost. Rebuilding trust is essential in allowing communities to coexist peacefully and in preventing violence in the future. Reconciliation in post-war contexts focuses on providing a space for dialogue that can help heal the wounds of war. Burundi still has a long way to go in addressing wounds of the past, building trust and finding healthy ways to move forward. We hope that our efforts in grassroots reconciliation are playing a role in uniting communities even while deep-rooted divisions remain a major source of conflict in Burundi. This year has been a great test for peacebuilders in Burundi. Even as violence erupts due to political unrest, many communities are holding on to higher values of tolerance and peace, resisting violence for the benefit of their communities. Grasping on to these scraps of hope, we continue on this journey toward sustainable reconciliation in Burundi.

Oscar Nduwarugira is the Director of the Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (MIPAREC), an MCC partner organization in Burundi. Melody Musser is the Communications Specialist for Peacebuilding for MCC Burundi/Rwanda.

For more, check out the Summer issue of Intersections on Conflict, Reconciliation and Partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. 

The economy of armed groups in the eastern DRC

The phenomenon of “armed groups” (illegal militias, rebel groups and mafias) in eastern Congo contains two strands, dating to roughly 1996: the first, a string of foreign militias, who for various reasons have set up bases of operation in eastern Congo; the second, various youth movements who took up arms to protect themselves from these foreign forces.

Historically, the weakness of the DRC’s government has been the fundamental reason for the persistence and multiplicity of these groups. Although the presence of these armed groups has been a constant, the militias themselves have evolved with time, with new generations of leaders emerging. As a consequence, the actors of 1996 are no longer the actors of today. And these groups have proliferated: in 2008, the territory of Fizi in South Kivu province alone was home to seventeen different militias.

In addition to the visible effects of war, these militias have created a deeply-established war economy in eastern Congo in which civilian populations and local resources are diverted towards the funding of armed groups. However, this complex economy is little-understood outside of Congo. Aside from the funds that armed groups derive from the DRC’s vast mineral resources (“conflict minerals,” as they are often called internationally), minimal discussion of the economic forces behind the war occurs. Failure to address these economic forces means that outside nations often make policy decisions based on an unclear understanding of the conflict dynamics in Congo. We must understand the origins of the various weapons and resources that strengthen the armed groups in the eastern DRC in order to create smart responses both within the country and internationally.

Free and easy access to a military arsenal
Several studies conducted between 2012 and 2014 have shown that the supply chains of weapons and goods to armed groups are simultaneously extremely complex and loosely structured. Armed groups’ resources flow from many sources, among them pillage, contraband sales and informal taxes. Patrols by the Congolese national army often run across ambushes set by militia members seeking to pillage the army’s weapons or encounter militia-run roadblocks and barriers at which militias pillage or tax travelers. In the resulting skirmishes, militia members pillage weapons abandoned by fleeing or dead soldiers. Often, however, militia members simply buy arms from members of the army engaged in illicit arms sales.

Collaboration between local and foreign armed groups represents another source of arms. In the province of South Kivu, two foreign groups— the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and the Burundian Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL)—often exchange goods, supplies and munitions with local groups. The FNL, for example, often traverses the Burundi-Congo border with arms, munitions, cows and other goods. The border area between the two countries has become one of the key sites in eastern Congo for illegal arms trafficking. The trade in contraband arms constitutes a huge source of resources for armed groups in the area (Life and Peace 119).

A diversity of funding sources
For their survival, many armed groups pillage goods from civilian populations. So, for example, rarely do two weeks pass in South Kivu province without at least one case of a civilian community being pillaged by an armed group. In the course of these pillages, armed groups take nearly everything: money, livestock, clothing, cell phones and so on. Sometimes, armed groups go so far as to burn down entire villages as a means of intimidating their victims and to cover their own tracks.

Illegal taxation constitutes another funding source for militias, who habitually set up illegal barriers on roads between agricultural areas and markets or on commercial waterways. On one such road in the Fizi territory of South Kivu, militias erected four barriers on a 27-km stretch of road between two villages. Those passing through these barriers were obliged to pay according to the wishes of the groups controlling the territory. Militias often block waterways, with boats taxed at 1000 Congolese francs (roughly one US$) per person.

Another revenue-generating strategy deployed by militia groups is to collect goods and money household-by-household from different villages, calling this illicit tax a “war effort.” In these cases, militias levy taxes between 500 and 1000 francs (between US$0.50 and US$1) per week, although sometimes they take an equivalent amount of food or goods instead. Ordinarily, this “tax” is compulsory: refusing to pay the levy results in imprisonment or worse. In some cases, however, community leaders fund those armed groups with whom they perceive themselves to be strategically aligned or from whose existence they benefit. Many Congolese leaders are currently in power because of support from armed groups: these leaders range from those at the local level to members of the provincial and national parliaments.

Another extremely lucrative aspect of this war economy is the control of mining sites (a familiar part of the “conflict minerals” narrative popular outside of the DRC). A great number of armed groups can be found near mining sites. Up to fifteen such groups are active in the South Kivu territory of Shabunda. These groups typically do not exploit minerals themselves, but rather impose taxes on artisanal miners. Those miners who attempt to oppose this taxation system are often the subject of harsh retaliation in the form of torture, imprisonment or death.

This concentration of armed groups around mining sites contributes to the wealth of illegal warlords. Their presence is a cause of daily conflict, as these warlords do not hesitate to confront other groups seeking to impose taxes of their own. In all circumstances, the civilian population pays the greatest price, be it through the taxes armed groups extort from them or from the violent conflict that surrounds them.

Smarter responses needed
This informal economy, instituted by armed groups in eastern Congo, paralyses the economic life of the region. The reduced state of agricultural production (attributable in large measure to the local population’s fear of going to their relatively insecure fields) is one of the visible consequences. This armed group economy destabilizes the life of civilian populations by fostering a perpetual sense of insecurity.

What is needed, then, is a dose of determination from the political leaders of the country and the region to restore peace and the authority of the state in the DRC. Honest and open regional cooperation is needed as the foundation of that peace. The respect of the cardinal principles of democracy, coupled with strong community outreach and good governance, could establish peace and end the problem of armed groups.

Internationally, those nations and blocs who hope to establish incentives for “conflict-free” minerals must understand that armed groups are not the only beneficiaries of artisanal minerals. In fact, armed groups’ involvement in “conflict minerals” mining usually comes down to taxing the work of others. Thus, interventions that hinder the sale of hand-mined minerals harm civilian population, not only armed groups. For smarter action on the international level, a fuller understanding of the complexities of the eastern Congo war economy is necessary.

Laurent Mikalano Mulotwa is the director of the Council for Peace and Reconciliation, a network of civil society and church organizations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For more, check out the Summer issue of Intersections on Conflict, Reconciliation and Partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. 

Conflict, reconciliation and partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes region

The Great Lakes region of central Africa—the countries grouped around Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika—showcases both the very best and the very worst of humanity. The region has seen its fair share of war and conflict: the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a twenty-year ongoing legacy of conflict and war in eastern Congo and a prolonged civil war in Burundi (a country where, just weeks ago, political tensions broke out again after ten years of peace) have all left their marks on the bodies and psyches of the peoples in the region. At the same time, the Great Lakes region is home to a vast and ever-growing community of peacebuilders, researchers, teachers, civil society actors and citizen activists who strive to re-establish and maintain peace.

The past and current conflicts of the region are nothing if not interconnected, both to each other and to the wider world. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda emerged from the same ethnic tensions (created and fostered by the colonial powers) that fueled the Burundian civil war. The conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi caused the displacement of refugees (and rebel groups) into Congo. International organizations and actors are omnipresent (although not with uniformly positive results). Through all of these events, the ugly specter of colonialism makes its enduring presence felt across the entire Great Lakes region.

Local dynamics often have regional and international causes: in eastern Congo, for example, a mine worker’s livelihood can be affected by the local military commander, by merchants in neighboring countries or by legislation enacted in the United States. In the Great Lakes, as elsewhere, following one single thread often leads to the discovery of a rich and varied tapestry of causes, effects, solutions and consequences, all tied into
one another, each one impossible to consider on its own.

True understanding is an act of compassion and the root of real peace. In this issue of Intersections, a team of authors from the Great Lakes region, along with MCC workers, present several windows into the dynamics that shape the region as a whole. While their articles do not present definitive solutions to the challenges facing the Great Lakes countries, the authors do highlight several key dimensions of the quest for durable peacebuilding and sustainable development in the region, including: the vital role played by
the church in durable peacebuilding efforts; the importance of supporting the efforts of local organizations; the pressing need to address the economic and human security devastation created by militias in the DRC; and the promise of grassroots peace initiatives in Burundi and Rwanda.

Patrick Maxwell is MCC’s Eastern Congo Peacebuilding Coordinator

Learn more by reading the summer edition of Intersections here.