A Christian-based aid organization says if peacebuilding is to succeed in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it must begin at the grassroots level.
Millions of people have died in the Eastern DRC from near constant war since the mid-90s. More than one and a half million people are internally displaced. Nearly a half million Congolese are refugees in neighboring countries. And many thousands of people have been brutally raped – women, men and children.
Much of the conflict and violence has occurred in North and South Kivu Provinces. The aid group World Relief says local disputes over land and power are at the heart of the turmoil.
Don Golden, World Relief’s senior vice president of Church Engagement, recently returned from the region.
“Any discussion about peacebuilding in Eastern Congo is mostly about peace between the rebel groups or peace between the regional governments. So it’s all this macro peace. But communities fall apart and war is most keenly felt at the local level – at the very much grassroots level,” he said.
He said that when local groups and communities live together peacefully they are less vulnerable.
“Helping local communities overcome their disputes will keep them from being the toys of the many powers in the region.”
Those powers include the DRC government, as well as many militias and armed groups, some reportedly backed by neighboring countries. Congo’s rich mineral wealth is the trigger for much of the conflict.
World Relief, he said, works with local houses of worship in providing assistance, adding they have an “ethic of service.”
“If they tap into that Christ-likeness, they serve the poor and serve the vulnerable in their communities. And interestingly in eastern Congo all of the churches are typically tribally-based. So it’s not just a Baptist church it’s a Baptist church from one particular tribe. So when you get churches to come together, to do work together, to do anything together, you’re also getting different tribes together,” said Golden.
Relying on people of all faiths, not just Christianity, World Relief initiated – what are called – Village Peace Committees. There are currently 57 such committees operating in the Kivus. They include some of the most respected members of Congolese towns and villages.
He said, “They are taught the process of conflict resolution – the ability to come together and to find the wisdom of the community. If that region were doing this en masse, instead of having 57 Village Peace Committees, if we had a thousand of them in the region, the hold of those militias to be able to just manipulate one against the other would begin to diminish; and I think the top-down peacebuilding of the U.N. would be more effective.”
During his visit, Golden witnessed how the committees resolved more than 20 disputes. He gave some examples.
“This is the story about two sisters. And one sister moves off to Goma and she leaves $200 behind for her other sister. She returns six months later and she finds that her sister doesn’t recall having received the $200. That’s a dispute. Typically, there would be no recourse for the rule of law and that just becomes part of the animosity of that community. One and on these stories go. A man caught with a neighbor’s wife. The ruin of reputation, etcetera,” he said.
World Relief is calling on both the U.N. and the many NGOs operating in the eastern DRC to also engage in grassroots peacebuilding efforts.