By Emma Pomfret and Amanda Farrant, Christian Aid
In the months following the surprise defeat of the feared M23 militia in November 2013, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo launched their third, $100m five-year rebel disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) plan designed to eradicate the 54 armed groups which have displaced more than two million people in the east of the country since 1998.
During the initial stages of the DDR process however, the sleepy lakeside town of Bweremana, North Kivu, where Christian Aid has run a livelihoods and disaster resilience programme for the past three years, was inadvertently turned into a melting pot for the many facets of the region’s conflicts when it became the unofficial transit site for approximately 2,400 ex-combatants from various armed groups.
The Mai Mai, FDDH Kasongo, Nyatura, and APCLS rebels, many still armed and most hungry and destitute, were literally dumped in the tiny town by provincial officials with the vague promise of basic pay, national army reintegration, clothing, and food - most of which never materialised.
Kabila’s government provided very little practical support to the new arrivals in terms of food and accommodation and the DRC’s long-standing United Nations force, MONUSCO, was subsequently compelled to step in to help provide emergency food aid and temporary shelters.
In addition to the thousands of ex-combatants descending on Bweremana with no warning or financial backing, there has also been a significant national army (FARDC) presence in the town since November 2012 when the M23 briefly conquered the eastern regional capital of Goma on the Rwandan border, forcing the army to retreat.
Reports claim that more than 135 rape cases were recorded in the first week of national army occupation in November - including one seven-year-old child - which severely heightened tensions between the town’s local residents and the army, who were ostensibly there to protect them. Few cases have been brought to justice so far, although a controversial mass trial of 39 soldiers in the adjacent town of Minova in May 2014 ended with two men formally convicted of rape.
Today, most of the ex-combatants who descended upon Bweremana at the beginning of the year have been transferred to official military base of Kamina Kitona in the south-eastern Bas-Congo province, but their wives and children, numbering at least 3,000, remain behind in shabby makeshift camps, and the growing tension over food supplies between them, the town’s local residents, and the few remaining heavily-armed FARDC soldiers, is palpable.
Christian Aid implemented a disaster resilience project in Bweremana in early 2011, with funding support from the UK Government, which was designed to help several hundred residents to diversify their crops in response to a crisis that hit their staple banana crops which was caused by an incurable plant disease called banana wilt – locally named ‘the HIV of bananas.’
Predictably, when harvest time came around last year the community reported that it was mainly FARDC soldiers and ex-militia which were benefiting from the fruits of their labour, using violence and loaded guns to loot most of the fields and smallholdings.
Lacking any support from the national or provincial governments, the chief and residents of Bweremana decided to takes matters into their own hands and, with the support of Christian Aid and local partner, Central African Baptist Community (CBCA), they sent an open letter to the UN, the FARDC, the governor of North Kivu, the King of the regional chiefdom, the National Minister of the Interior, and other government authorities, detailing 145 cases of crop looting and attacks in their fields.
Their grass-roots lobbying efforts proved a success and the ex-rebels were transferred from Bweremana to official military bases along the Atlantic Ocean, about 190 miles southwest of the capital city of Kinshasa in March this year. The FARDC presence has also been reduced, although the families of the ex-rebels remain on the town’s outskirts indefinitely - for now.
On a recent visit to the community to discuss the next steps for the Christian Aid project, Donat Malemo from CBCA said that the community is now looking for ways that the government can help them to restore their livelihoods and infrastructure to what it was before ex-militia occupation, as well as providing further training on successful activism and civilian rights.
‘Advocacy at community, national and international levels is one of the most important forms of support that we can receive from foreign governments and humanitarian and development organisations - that, along with education and income-generating skills which can’t easily be looted by militias and rebels.’