Story 13: Different Times, Different Means, Different Arms

DUNIA KATEMBO COLOMBA

My country – the Democratic Republic of Congo –  has experienced multiple forms of violence since 1996, that still last today. Now it will make nearly two decades. Armed violence has killed more than 6 million people in my country and has brought along several other socioeconomic consequences, such as the destruction of the social fabric and the disturbing cases of recruitment of young people and even children for multiple armed groups that have fought on the Congolese soil for the last 20 years.

Since 1996 DRC has faced many violent wars that have resulted in the separation of its North-Eastern part (mostly regions of North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri District and the southern province of Katanga); all these wars have been recognized by the international community and the Congolese people as wars of aggression led by both Rwanda and Uganda. Following these attacks, indigenous peoples decided to initiate popular self-defense movements among the foreign troops. This is where my story begins – as being a force for the protection and defense of our territory and our community.

My involvement in the People’s Self-Defense Forces

Towards the end of year 2001, because of the suffering afflicted to members of my community, I decided to drop my studies to enlist in a popular at that time paramilitary group. Before that I had no knowledge on how to resolve conflicts peacefully and I didn’t see any options for reconciliation. The members of our society were in constant conflict with the foreign military aggressors present, which is why I thought it was more important to work with local resistance in order to stop the progression of the foreign aggression troops. I joined the partisans that were camping in the village of Vurondo-Vihya (36 km from Butembo) and became a part of the resistance forces called RNL (Lumumbiste National Resistance). I was trained for a month and after that time I was finally appointed as the person responsible for intelligence, with my mission being the infiltration of the areas occupied by the aggressors – doing a reconnaissance for our fighters.  I spent a lot of time in the city, in the areas occupied by the aggressors, and many did not  know that I was a part of the resistance. During that time we conducted several military operations, especially against the Ugandan military and we were able to take back much of the territory of Lubero. In that period I was arrested several times for working with the rebellion intelligence service that facilitated the attacks on foreign troops.

Towards the end of 2002, we managed to win a major battle against the Ugandan military in a village located 65 km from Byambwe – to the west of the city of Butembo.  The Ugandans lost more than 500 soldiers in this savage fight that lasted for 7 days, and we were able to acquire a truck. I recall that the brand of the truck was FUSO. It is interesting how one can still remember details like this. This truck carried the ore that the Ugandans had recovered from the city of Manguredjipa.

That battle marked the end of the Ugandan military presence in the territory of Lubero and the city Butembo. After this military failure against the strength of our resistance, they packed their bags in only one day. They knew that they would be persecuted even in Butembo city. They let go of the large cities that were occupied by the Congolese rebels who allowed them to fall back. Our military group could ensure the reconciliation process with the Congolese combatants, as they were locals who understood that our resistance was to the foreign aggressors, and on this basis we were able to connect with them.

Laying down the arms.

At the end of 2002, after the famous – even revered – military defeat struck by our resistance, we conducted a plea to our military chief to convince him that – reached our goal of driving away the Ugandan military from our soil – our military struggle had ended. There was no reason to operate as a self-defense force and that we had to answer to the call coming from the international community aiming to unite all the people fighting in the Congolese conflict through the Sun City agreement.. Back then I was the person who often reminded the leader of our defense force that the objective had already been achieved and that we should let the youth return to civilian life; to give them a way of nonviolence, to give them peace. The time of conflict had ended and we had to allow the farmers who supported our resistance to freely go back to their farm activities, to cultivate their crops once again.

At the same time, the international community acting through MONUC began to educate fighters, convincing them to carry out voluntary and spontaneous demilitarization. Ceasefire had already been ruled over the whole area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had allowed to assure the good relations between our combatants and MONUC. In the wake of this agreement, more than 50 missions on promoting awareness and reconciliation were carried out by MONUC in our partisan groups. With MONUC, my participation on this initiative was to convince the leaders of the resistance to allow the young fighters to lay down their arms, leave the bushes and hideouts and return to the civilian life.

Under my facilitation, along with both MONUC and officials in the city of Butembo we were able to capture a Chief of Militia and intercept 2,000 young fighters who subsequently decided to return to civilian life. More than 1,500 young fighters decided to integrate into the national army just after the Sun City Agreement. This agreement also gave birth to a government, including one president along with 4 Chairs. And thanks to the mediation of MONUC, all the fighters left the rebel camps of the northwestern part of the city of Butembo, till late 2003.

Taking up different arms

After convincing my former leader that it was time to abandon the armed conflict so that our fighters could join the peace process in the country, my position in the community was strong. I realized that the time of the war was over and instead the time for peace had come. I used my leadership position to continue the path of the peacebuilding. My main reason to become a peacebuilder was to make sure that I would not have to see the youth enlisting in a violent militia group, but rather to see them as a part of society. I decided to work with them and address the reasons that mainly lead young people to join violent groups in the first place. I initiated a new peace organization called PEREX-CV that we are running up to the present day. Through this organization we conducted several actions for peace and reconciliation in my country.

From the moment that I returned to civilian life, I have been constantly working for the sustainable socio-economic reintegration of young ex-combatants. I strive for these young ex-combatant to be recognised and accepted back in society, because I am convinced that political and community leaders who use these youth and involve them in violence, will have difficulty convincing them, once reestablished, to return to organized armed groups in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo. Furthermore, I think that young people who have never been fighters or have never been enrolled in various groups of partisans, could also benefit from the socio-economic activities that we perform for the demobilized fighters. With our actions we are also facilitating a reconciliation process between the two different groups of the youth.

To achieve all this I initiated in 2010 three working strategies that allow me to secure the dialogue between former young fighters and the young non ex-combatants. These three strategies promote work in solidarity between the two types of youth, and allows them to exchange experiences through these frameworks. The former fighters get to share their harsh experiences about violence and reflect upon all the suffering and harm they have inflicted on the population, while the community’s youth provide their knowledge of social and economic life for these young ex-combatants to help them understand the realities of the life they come back into after such a long absence

These three strategies are:
– The Barza Youth Peacemakers
– School clubs for peace
– The solidarity groups

With my organization, we have already established six youth barza in the city of Butembo, 15 solidarity groups and 6 school clubs for peace. Their objective is to  empower the youth to become agents of change in our society. Thanks to the various sessions both ex-combatants and other young people never previously involved, have pledged never to join such groups in the future, but instead to cooperate between themselves to achieve success.

I believe that my story shows that it is important to be aware of the past and to use it as a mean to shape the future. To know when to let go of something, and use your personal experience for something even greater.

On this occasion I shall reaffirm my commitment to all other peacebuilders around the world until the end of my life.

This is my story of peace.


Story: Dunia Katembo Colomba is a 37 year old peacebuilder from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He works as a volunteer for his local organization, PEREX-cv. Their main goal is to reintegrate ex-soldiers into civilian live, to build peace in their country.

Artist: Marta Coll – “Monasterio Solar”

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