KINSHASA — The Democratic Republic of Congo’s army has a new slogan - Lobi Mokolo Ya Sika - Tomorrow Is a New Day. It's also the name for a new education program to educate soldiers on the basics of human rights, the rules of war, and how to improve civilian relations.
While donors have been funding human rights training for the Congolese army over the past five years, Lobi Mokolo Ya Sika is being conducted by the military with help from Search for Common Ground (SFCG), a U.S.-based non-governmental organization.
"The government has come a long way and we assisted them with the training," says Dirk Van Koch, the NGO's Congo director. "Are we done yet? No. That’s why we’re continuing with the training, and especially what we see is that there are continuous new groups being absorbed into the army, new recruits often straight from the bush without any education. That’s what we will be focusing on.”
Some of the former militiamen - often boys who were recruited at a young age by armed groups of eastern Congo - have provided Van Koch's organization with recorded accounts of their personal experiences. In one testimony filmed by SFCG, for example, the subject describes how his group collected human organs and even cut off women’s breasts to use as fetishes to ward off enemies.
Teaching codes of conduct
Seven-hundred miles away in the eastern town of Bunia, a Congolese army colonel lectures officers who will be sent back to their units with instructions about how to raise awareness of human rights.
"Remember, you’re going to be talking to soldiers, even officers, who’ve never heard about human rights or the rules of war," he says.
Even addressing such an experienced group of officers, the colonel finds it necessary to mention that mutilation of corpses violates rules of warfare.
But looting of civilian communities, a common military offense, requires its own dramatization.
“Hey, get down, all the men on the floor!" the colonel shouts, demonstrating how such threats can terrorize civilians. “You people are criminals, you’re going to give us a goat or we’ll cut off your heads.”
In another session, the group watches a video about a girl who was so badly injured in a violent gang rape that she's incontinent and unable to have children. After the video, officers are asked to imagine how they would feel if they were the girl’s husband or father.
Although the two days of training are designed cover a broad spectrum of conduct-related issues, stopping sexual violence by armed groups in the Congo is one of the program's primary objectives. The army has been implicated in the country’s alarmingly high rape statistics, prompting President Joseph Kabila to announce a zero-tolerance policy for military sex offenders.
But according to Van Koch, it's critical that army officers are trained to monitor and report offenses by fellow soldiers, so SFCG has helped set up and train committees dedicated to addressing internal offenses.
“We train them in detecting when their own troops commit abuses, and that they don’t actually try to hide those, which used to be the practice in the past, but that they denounce them in front of the military tribunals," he says, adding that the NGO plans to add civilians to the committees in order to make them more responsive.
According to statistics by MONUSCO, the United Nations Mission in the Congo, 224 members of the DRC military or police were convicted for serious human rights abuses from July of 2010 to 2011, and about half of the cases involved sexual violence.
Although it’s not clear that military convicts actually serve the entire duration of their sentences, the increased convictions indicate that the new approach to human rights awareness is beginning to pay off.