End of November, a VNG International delegation travelled through the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to visit the ongoing programme in North Kivu and Ituri and to attend to the final conference of our programme in South Kivu.
To reach Bunia, the capital of the province of Ituri, travellers have to take a very small propeller-driven aircraft from Entebbe, Uganda. During the flight, passengers are treated with amazing views on Central and Western Uganda and finally Lake Albert before descending for Bunia. Upon arrival, we met our consortium partners from PAX, Cordaid and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to prepare for our field trip through Ituri. The following days we, in a convoy of four all-terrain vehicles and accompanied by representatives of the provincial government, visited the Territories of Djugu and Irumu. The objective of the field visit was to sign partnership agreements between VNG International and the Local Security Committees within the framework of the Programme for the Integrated Stabilization and Peace of Eastern DRC. The programme, also known as Pamoja Inawezekana (Swahili for ‘Together it is possible’), aspires to improve the security situation in selected local Territories through the strengthening of key local security institutions (administration, police, justice sector and civil society), as well as enhancing the cooperation between these institutions.
The administrative capitals of both Territories that hosted the signing ceremonies resembled rural and remote villages. Infrastructure in Ituri has suffered from persistent conflict and total absence of state investments. All transportation goes over dirt tracks that turn into the most slippery and sticky mud tracks when tropical rains pass by. This makes travelling in Ituri quite unpredictable as huge trucks coming from Uganda also drive these tracks and can block the road for days. Heavy rains also impacted our schedule and forced us to change our agenda several times in order to respect safety guidelines. As proven again, travellers in the DRC do not have a chance without a healthy dose of flexibility and patience.
Ituri, and in particular the capital of the Territory of Irumu, has been heavily afflicted by wars in the last decennia. We observed that all buildings of the administration, courts and police in the local capital are still in ruins, reason why we met the members of the Local Security Committees and Civil Society organisations in another village, at 45 minutes driving. The location was chosen because it was the only village with a hotel that has a meeting room with a 30 people capacity. Among those present at the ceremonies in both Djugu and Irumu for the signing of the partnership agreement were representatives of the provincial Ministers of Interior and Planning, representatives of STAREC (Stabilisation and Reconstruction Plan for Eastern DRC), members of the Local Security Committees including police, customary Chiefs and representatives of the Congolese army (FARDC), civil society organisations (mainly representing youth and women) and of course the consortium delegation and the head of the Territory, the Administrateur de Territoire.
Once the protocol ended, the people present had the occasion to express their wishes and expectations for Pamoja Inawezekana, and to depict the local security situation. It was remarkable to see how openly all participants, including security agents, talked about the security problems, involved actors and the dynamics between these actors. In Djugu for example, the president of the local civil society explained how the local justice system refers victims of sexual violence to the provincial capital Bunia which is at least three days walking distance from Djugu. Roadblocks built by the military, police and sometimes armed groups are scattered on this road. People, including women carrying firewood, have no option than paying money or give parts of their firewood to the agents or soldiers if they want to go by such checkpoints. This extortion practice, also known as tracasseries, has a great impact on the perception of the people on security agents and their personal feeling of safety. Let us imagine the victim of sexual violence who is supposed to walk to Bunia to press charges against her violator. If she would already have the means to travel and the courage to face the many dangers along the road, she would also have to give whatever she has to the people controlling the checkpoints. It goes without saying that as a result almost none of the violators are put before court and that because of this kind of impunity people revert to mob justice instead. The women who was obliged to give half of the firewood she collected to the security agents might explain her son that she lacks wood to properly cook for the family, generating a deeply rooted mistrust and hate by the sun towards the security agents. During the same meeting, the police officers present explained how groups of young men control vast areas in villages where the police will not even dare to enter. One police officer witnessed that recently, during a routine control, a discussion with a young adolescent got out of hand after which the police officer shot the youngster in the leg. Subsequently the local police office was looted and burned to the ground. A couple of days later the houses of the police officers present were also burned to the ground.
As a programme manager it is important to hear these stories and understand the dynamics between the different actors in order to be able to design interventions that address the deeper causes of conflicts and as such can contribute to a stabilisation and peace building process. A first step is starting and facilitating a dialogue between the actors and I was pleased to see that a signing ceremony alone could already facilitate an open, transparent and inclusive dialogue. Experiencing the on-the-ground reality also revealed the importance of governance in peace-building processes, in particular where the state barely exists and when trust between society stakeholders has disappeared.
After our field visits in Ituri we continued our travel to Goma. According to a Cordaid colleague the journey can be done by road but it would take at least three days (when it does not rain of course!) and the road crosses highly insecure areas around the city of Beni in the North of North Kivu. Far more convenient is the UN flight which takes you to Goma in about 2 hours. Nonetheless the extreme rains in Bunia, the airplane brought us safely in Goma where we spend the weekend with the VNG International team and Cordaid colleagues. Saturday morning we learned that on both sides of the Rwenzori, the ice capped mountain range that separates Uganda form the DRC, massacres took place killing dozens of civilians including women and children. Congolese colleagues react horrified but soon after the conservations on normal life continue. In Europe we sometimes refer to the multiple terrorist attacks as ‘the new normal’, I guess in the DRC the massacres are just ‘the normal’.
Afterwards our mission continued to Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu on the other side of Lake Kivu. In Bukavu VNG International and Cordaid jointly organised the closing conference of the security programme we have been implementing in South Kivu since 2012. Read more about this event in a soon to be published article on the VNG International website.
Programme manager VNG International