For more than 20 years, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has been wracked by war, ethnic violence and sexual assaults. More than two and a half million people are internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands of others have fled to neighboring countries. Despite that, efforts continue on the grassroots level to bring peace between local communities by ending disputes over land and livestock
Various rebel groups, including M23, have been responsible for much of the violence in the eastern Congo. In fighting against the army and U.N. troops, civilians have been uprooted time and time again. And depending where they end up are often terrorized, abused, killed or raped. Women, children and men have all been raped as a means of disempowering the population and controlling territory.
But Pastor Marcel Serubungo said, for the moment, things are better.
“We have faced a lot of problems and a lot of fighting. We had a rebel group, which was fighting against the government. But for now the situation is calm because they stopped the fighting and went for the talks in Kampala. So for now they are in Kampala and we are waiting and praying to see what God will do just to bring understanding among them and have peace in our area.”
Serubungo is a Pentecostal minister and also church mobilization director for the faith-based humanitarian organization World Relief. He said life was very different in the eastern Congo before refugees from Rwanda’s civil war fled into the region in the early 1990s.
“Before this problem of conflict, life was good because everyone was in his village and he could farm. Most people in the eastern part of Congo are farmers. So people were good and they could manage their lives,” he said.
Many refugees who fled to Congo were remnants of those responsible for the Rwandan genocide. And since that time, Serubungo said, conflict at the community level has been on the rise.
“At the grassroots level we have a problem of tribes. Tribes have been fighting among themselves. So, as you know, in the Congo we have more than 450 tribes. So some tribes were fighting because of land disputes and identity things and so on. At the grassroot level really people suffered because villages are attacking villages and that conflict has stayed until now in the hearts of people,” he said.
Besides land disputes, villages may fight, for example, when livestock wander into a farmer’s field and destroy crops.
“They fight. They fight. When one is wealthy and another one is not, it’s a source of conflict. When someone is married to a lady from another tribe and then they have conflict it involves immediately the whole two tribes. It’s everywhere you can find it, everywhere in different localities and different territories,” he said.
For the past 10 years, Serubungo has been working with church and tribal leaders to form Village Peace Committees.
“The VPC, or the Village Peace Committee, members are people from the village, who have been trained by World Relief, who have been elected by the village community members. And those people who are elected, who are trusted, faithful, they stay in the village and each one who has a conflict he goes to them and they resolve the conflict without any problem,” he said.
World Relief trains community, youth and tribal leaders in conflict resolution.
Serubungo said, “This peace building project was successful because now people no longer go to the police or to the tribunal. Instead they go to the Village Peace Committees in their own village and conflicts are resolved.”
He added that by having peace at the village level, young people are less likely to be lured away by rebel groups or to use violence to resolve disputes.
“It’s them that people use to fight, to kill people, to burn, destroy the community. It’s the young people who are used to do that. And now [in] our Village Peace Committees – young people stood up –and it’s them who are holding festivals. They’re holding big events in Goma and around Goma just to preach peace, to speak peace to people. So we believe that if the VPCs are active in different places in DRC, we think and we hope that the fighting can stop.”
World Relief plans to expand the Village Peace Committees to all five provinces in the Eastern DRC. Serubungo visited the U.S. to help raise awareness and funding for the project. World Relief says its goal is to help empower local churches to serve those who are most vulnerable economically, socially and spiritually.